Just how good a marksman must a deer hunter be?

Sat, Jan 14, 2012, 00:00

ANOTHER LIFE:NATURE’S MORE durable bric-a-brac crowds too many of my window sills – seashells, little skulls, big claws, limestone fossils and the rest. Tiny spiders spin their webs across it all. As if I needed something new to add, I was bade farewell from a New Year’s Eve party with the gift of a three-point antler cast by a young red stag.

It was a present from a deer-hunter friend – is that all right? It had better be, or deer, it seems, will soon be spilling over the hill to skin my oaks and strip my Brussels sprouts. And the antler, as I say, was cast – shed naturally on a hillside in the annual renewal and upsizing that leads a stag on to maturity and battles for a mate.

My hunter friend had a picture on his iPhone: a magnificent 12-point red stag felled on a bog in Connemara. A trophy head, índeed, but all properly stalked, shot and recorded, the venison checked for health and due for the table. I remembered a red stag with attendant hind, not quite that grand, met where the mountain road swoops down to Maam Cross – my one, transfixing encounter, in a gilding winter sun.

Our rapidly rising legion of deer is now due for national management. Consultations were closed before Christmas, draft policies have been polished, new structures and regulations will be proposed this year by Minister for Heritage Jimmy Deenihan. His own county, Kerry, has been a cockpit of concern about the future of Ireland’s native red deer, together with traffic accidents and the increasingly bloody excesses of poachers. But the surge in populations of the island’s four species of wild and feral deer – all sorts of alien reds and sika and hybrids between the two, plus thousands of fallow and the new time bomb of the muntjac – brings problems over much of the island.

Nobody knows how many deer Ireland has: this year should see the first attempt at a national census. The best figures arise from the returns of recreational hunters licensed by National Parks and Wildlife to shoot on particular lands, most of them leased from Coillte. There are some 4,000 licensed hunters, who shoot about 25,000 deer a year in controlled hunting seasons. For a “sustainable” population, it seems an annual cull of 150,000 deer would be nearer the mark.

This figure comes from Woodlands of Ireland, whose expert study in 2009 computed the extensive damage not only to Ireland’s native broadleafed woods and their dependent species but also to conifer forests, where deer strip bark when other food gets short and browse young sitka spruce into valueless bushes. By its estimate, red deer increased more than fivefold in the 30 years to 2008, with a tripling of sika and near-doubling of fallow. The muntjac may be small (like a furtive, hard-to-spot Labrador dog), but, even though it was introduced only in 2006, its sightings are already widespread and raise great ecological concern. Rumours of even more introductions – of roe and Chinese water deer – are so far unconfirmed.

Most of the current “wild” reds – 1,000 or more abroad in north Co Mayo, and many more in Donegal – are escapees from deer farms or animals deliberately released (“assisted dispersal” in the official term) as quarry for commercial shoots. Many of the animals are from continental stock, with the extra stature that produces trophy heads. They can also attract summer tourists, well content with watching through binoculars, and the first “deer-trekking” packages are on offer for the western hills.

The draft Deer Management Policy Vision prepared for the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service sees deer as “a valued part of the wider diversity of the Irish countryside” but needing management “in a manner that contributes positively to the national economy”. The word “venison” appears nowhere in this document, despite its importance in the Woodlands of Ireland review. Deer-population control makes culling of females inevitable and would greatly increase the venison supply. Most of the meat is exported, and the woodland group urges a quality-assurance scheme to bring venison more widely to the Irish table.

How good a marksman must a deer-hunter be? By a widely accepted British standard, he (it’s a man’s passion) should be able, consistently, to place three shots within a 10cm target at 100m. Such accuracy is basic to the assessment and certification programme offered since 2005 by the Deer Alliance, the hunters’ umbrella group. The alliance and its scheme came into being at the prompting of Coillte, but only about a quarter of licensed deer hunters have volunteered for it, and the alliance wants the National Parks and Wildlife Service to make the training mandatory.

The alternative – too late now – is to bring back the wolves.

Eye on Nature

Just before Christmas, in the morning, not long after first light, a little egret flew past the kitchen window of my second- floor apartment. Can I expect to see a water buffalo wallowing along the River Dodder in the near future?

Christopher Daly, Rathfarnham, Dublin

Not yet. So far they are only in the Lee Valley in Co Cork.

I was walking beside the Grand Canal at Lowtown, Co Kildare, when a creature scurried across the road and disappeared into the canal. It was similar to an otter or a stoat, was about a foot long and was completely black.

Dermot Mac Dermott, Prosperous, Co Kildare

It was a mink.

I spotted two otters in our pond feeding on the last remaining goldfish, having lost several to a heron and an otter previously. I was surprised to see two together, as I thought they were territorial and solitary.

Esther Schickling, Redcross, Co Wicklow

It was probably a mother and her kit.

On December 30th I spotted frogspawn in my pond.

Jenny Seawright, Macroom, Co Cork

On New Year’s Eve we saw the dwarf azelea Rhododendron ‘Beethoven’ in full bloom at Muckross Gardens, in Killarney. Is this a record?

Carmel Hourican, Killarney, Co Kerry


Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or email viney@anu.ie. Please include a postal address