Spectator: Isabella Tree

Ilost count of how many times the media described Barack Obama and Mitt Romney ‘locking horns’ during the presidential elections. They ‘locked horns’ over the economy, the environment and energy; abortion, immigration and climate change; they even ‘locked horns’ over Apple products made in China.

In early October, as the presidential debates finally kicked off-at 2am in the UK-I could hear them, clashing antlers, going head to head, fighting to the death, as the wind whistled and the branches of the old cedar outside my window creaked in applause. Except, of course, it wasn’t the President and his opponent bursting into my dreams in gladiatorial combat, but the real McCoy-fallow-deer bucks pitched in their own frenzied battle for territorial supremacy.

In September, just as the presidential candidates had begun pacing their battlegrounds in earnest on the other side of the Atlantic, the bucks in the park here at Knepp had been gearing up for the rut. The big boys-large as ponies, their palmate antlers spanning nigh on 3ft-had begun their own campaign of posturing, strutting shoulder to shoulder, sizing each other up.

By the time the battle for the swing states had begun, things were hotting up here, too. The bucks had been staking out their lekking sites, churning up the earth with their hooves and drenching their chosen stamping grounds with urine. The damp, autumnal air was thick with pheromones and deep, groaning belches. Clumps of hair were scattered over the ground, branches shredded by thrashing antlers. Every now and again, a pungent, primeval whiff kicked into the nasal passages-like the locker room after a 1st XV rugby match, my son reliably informs me-from territorial markers where the bucks had been rubbing their facial scent-glands.

As I negotiated my afternoon walks through this testosterone-fuelled landscape, I couldn’t help wondering about the whole macho excess of it all. The does, grazing in the open in quiet herds, wisely concentrating on the business of loading up calories in preparation for winter, seemed sick and tired of the whole performance. Across the pond, the American voters sounded exhausted, too-
brow-beaten from dawn to dusk by the relentless slugging match and a slew of negative television ads that had helped raise the cost of the election campaign to a record-breaking $6 billion.

No wonder there are so few women in the fray, I thought, if success means having to grow a full set of horns and fight until you’re ready to drop. And yet, recent biological studies show that the presence of females in traditional male preserves-the lekking fields of politics and the financial markets, for example can be a counterbalance to do-or-die competitiveness and kami-kazi risk-taking, something the world seems to have been suffering from a lot in the past couple of decades. It’s all to do with hormones.

A fascinating book published this year called The Hour Between Dog and Wolf by Dr John Coates-a Cambridge neuro-scientist who once ran a derivatives trading desk on Wall Street describes how success sends testosterone levels rocketing in virile young males, clouding their judgement and increasing their appetite for risk in a vicious cycle called the ‘testosterone feedback loop’. Put a female-with different chemical responses-into the mix, and the ‘fight or flight’ mentality is tempered by a propensity for calmer, longer-term strategic thinking. The future may depend on more women braving the stench of the arena.

The presidential election is now behind us, and so, thankfully, is the rut. As testosterone levels subside, peace reigns once more on both sides of the Atlantic. Having barely eaten or slept for weeks, the big bucks are hobbling about in a state of total exhaustion, their roars reduced to a hoarse croak. And our fallows are looking deadbeat, too.

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