Antlers are one of the most magnificent wonders in the animal kingdom. One of the things that adds to their mystique is the velvet they’re usually covered in. Where does it come from and where does it go? The process of deer shedding velvet is widely misunderstood but very important if you want to understand the antler growth cycle and get the most out of your bucks.
What Is Deer Antler Velvet?
For most of the time male deer have antlers, it’s covered in a soft, fuzzy material called velvet, not to be confused with the velvet clothing fabric from which it gets its name. When antlers begin growing in the spring, they are covered in velvet until it’s shed before the rut. During this period, the antlers look thicker, more rounded and beautiful overall.
Since antlers are so highly prized as trophies, many people believe the velvet serves as protection from the elements for the bone underneath. While the velvet might perform that function to some extent, it’s really not its primary purpose.
Antlers are considered one of the most extreme examples of male secondary sexual characteristics in the animal kingdom. They really serve no practical purpose and are entirely for sexual competition and selection. Nevertheless, they grow faster than any normal mammalian bone, sometimes over an inch per day, and require a large amount of resources, nutrients and energy from the buck’s body. (This is why anyone who’s managing a herd wants to be providing their bucks with plenty of calcium and phosphorus to grow big racks.)
The velvet is far from just a protective sheath. Rather, it’s a complicated network of blood vessels and tissue that carries these nutrients up to the growing antlers.
Unlike body parts like hair and nails that grow from the root, antlers grow from the tip. This is why they look rounded while they’re still in velvet. Using the velvet, the buck’s body first constructs the antlers as soft cartilage and then calcifies them over time into the hard bone we’re familiar with.
Additionally, the soft texture of antler velvet is caused by thousands of tiny hairs that grow out of it. These serve an important purpose as well. They alert the buck if he’s about to bump his antlers into anything, which might damage them while they’re still in the growing phase.
Why Do Deer Shed Their Velvet?
Bucks need their antlers to fight other bucks and claim a territory for mating with does during the rut. For this they need the strong, sharp antlers we see in the fall. As a result, they shed the velvet.
Now, this isn’t exactly a clean, rapid process like a snake shedding its skin. In fact, it’s pretty bloody and messy and at first glance looks like the deer is seriously wounded.
However, deer shedding velvet don’t experience any pain at all. It’s probably even a relief to scratch the velvet off, which is why you’ll find antler rubs and scrapes where bucks have used a hanging branch or something similar to remove as much velvet as possible—and take the chance to mark their territory with their pee, probably. Often bucks will even eat the velvet they shed to recycle the protein.
The biological cause for the shedding of the velvet is the hardening and calcification of the bone. This itself is regulated within the buck’s body based on, believe or not, the length of the day. Darker days prompt the buck’s body to increase testosterone levels and prepare his antlers for the aggression and competition of the rut. In fact, the amount of daylight the buck experiences guides the entire cycle of buck testosterone and antler growth.
When it’s time for a buck to shed his velvet, his body cuts off blood flow to the velvet. It quickly dries out and begins to split, causing blood to ooze out. Soon after the buck will start trying to rub it off.
When Do Deer Shed Their Velvet?
Deer antler velvet shedding occurs in late August as the summer days start to shorten. By now the antlers have hardened and calcified in preparation for the rut that usually starts around the end of September. Some surveys seem to suggest that younger bucks and deer experiencing droughts may shed their velvet earlier than others.
Shedding velvet is a relatively fast process. Some bucks, especially those in heavily wooded areas, can shed it in just a few hours. However, most take about two days, sometimes up to a week. Once he’s shed the velvet, the buck will be in the mood to stake out his territory and start rattling his fresh, shiny antlers.