Size isn’t everything in the antler contests

Size isn’t everything in the antler contests

It seemed like the usual country show – until men began to appear carrying red deer antlers. They had a proud, slightly secretive air as if they were about to engage in some special rite.

I noticed the first one at lunchtime, holding a full set, each branching horn nearly as long as his legs. Over the next half hour, others materialised, all heading in the same direction.

Mystified, I consulted the programme and saw that at 2pm (prompt) there was a stag horn competition. Classes included the most unusual/misformed horn, the best pair from 2023, and a champion and reserve champion award. Winners would receive a blue rosette and £3.

This was not a display of hunting trophies, as the programme made clear: “All horns must be those which have been shed normally from wild red deer.”

Stags drop their horns every spring, growing a complete new set over summer in time for the autumn rut. Each year, the antlers grow larger until the stag begins to decline in old age. A young stag, or pricket, in his first year has only one prong, while a mature stag of four or more should have “all his rights”. This means both his antlers have three tines growing off the main horn, called the brow, bey and trez points. An outstanding male in his prime will have further forks at the ends of his main antler.

The show entries filled a row of trestle tables and spilled over on to the grass, where they lay like gigantic clumps of fossilised lichen in colours of bone-cream, fawn and peat. Some were loose, others had been added to artificial skulls moulded from plaster.

Viewed up close, staghorn is pitted and gnarled with ridges that flow around its contours. The judges were looking for pattern and symmetry more than size, and a strikingly smooth and pale pair won against the larger sets in its class. It was entered by Lisa Acreman, one of the few female competitors.

Lisa Acreman with her red deer antlers

Lisa began antler gathering as a child alongside her late father, a photographer. When asked what it takes to be a successful collector, she replied “quietness, patience and determination”.

First published in The Guardian’s Country Diary on 7 September 2023.

Sara Hudston