Young bucks will take up to three years to fully develop their antlers.
Antlers are made of bone and develop from a point on the top of the skull called the pedicle, rather than from the skull itself. The antler grows out of the pedicles and, during its formation, is covered with hairy skin called velvet that’s pinky-grey in colour and packed with blood vessels and nerves, making them highly sensitive to the touch – a stag in velvet is still sometimes referred to by the 16th Century term “pollard”. So critical is the blood flow supplied by the velvet that should it get damaged, the antlers can become deformed. The potential rejuvenating power of deer velvet has led to the marketing of tablets made from the velvet of farmed deer; the tablets are said to provide relief from various ailments spanning impotence to arthritis, whilst also having immune enhancing properties.
When the antler’s growth is complete, the velvet dries up and is shed. The shedding process appears to be under hormonal control and usually takes less than 24 hours. Deer antlers have androgen (male sex hormones) receptors and it appears that an increase in circulating testosterone (probably related to increasing day length) triggers the blood supply to be severed and the velvet to die and dry out.
Stags scratch and rutt their antlers on trees to remove the itchy velvet, and once the antlers have been completely cleaned, (i.e. the velvet has been completely removed), the animal is said to be in the misnomer of “hard horn”. There is some recent data to suggest that the antler retains a vascular connection that helps keep it moist, which is an important factor in their strength in combat, but cleaned antlers are generally considered “dead bone” as the nerve supply has been terminated and the blood supply is insufficient to repair the antler should damage occur.
For most species, casting of antlers is initiated by a drop in blood testosterone and they will be shed and re-grown annually to coincide with the deer’s breeding season. Most Australian deer will shed their antlers around October and fully regrow them by mid-February in time for the rutting season.
Some species, such as Chital deer, will shed their antlers every year when they are young, but as they age they will begin to retain their antlers for longer, sometimes up to four years. As antlers are made up of vitamins and minerals, once shed they often decompose quickly or are fed on by other wildlife. Deer have even been know to eat their own antlers if they are lacking in certain vitamins and minerals.