Another Life: Study to reveal Ireland’s deer population

Protection for the genetic heritage of the red deer a priority

A rifle-mounted video camera is showing us what the hunter is seeing through his telescopic sight: a confused intersection of mossy trunks and branches. He is in the depths of an Irish conifer forest in September, at the start of this winter’s deer-hunting season. Very warm, still conditions are making stalking difficult, as he tells his YouTube viewers.

Now, shadowy portions of a browsing deer are shifting beyond the spruce: a shoulder, a rump. Seconds pass, the gun steady, before the head of the young fallow deer – a “prickett”, with little spikes of antlers – comes clearly into view. What startles is the simultaneity of shot and death, the instant collapse that TV actors never quite manage. “A clinical shot,” says the first YouTube comment approvingly.

" Prevention of cruelty talk cuts ice in town," wrote Seamus Heaney, "Where they consider death unnatural / But on well-run farms pests have to be put down". In forests, too, it seems, and preferably by good marksmen.

The increase of deer in Ireland, their damage to trees and arable crops, the lack of national management policy: all this has been a long-running and often contentious saga. It enters a new phase next month, with the end of an intensive two-year “landscape-level study” of just how many deer there are and how they use forests and farmland.

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Genetic fingerprinting of deer droppings has pinned down the animals’ densities, the damage to trees has been quantified and matched to the different kinds of deer, their age and sex and their choice of forest types. Along with assessing damage, its cost and how to avoid it comes knowledge of how to keep deer within our wildlife and in the habitats that suit them.

Fordeer, as the project is called, is the work of researchers at University College Cork and Waterford Institute of Technology. Among them is Dr Ruth Carden of the National Museum of Ireland, whose 12 years of research on Irish deer has underpinned the new study. She has backed calls for an independent, all-Ireland deer management body able to square the interests of commercial foresters, hunters and conservation biologists. The Fordeer project seems to exhaust the need – and, indeed, the political excuse – for yet more preliminary research.

Without wolves as their natural predators, deer have been expanding their ranges throughout Europe. In Ireland, over the past 30 years or so, red deer have spread their range by some five or six times; the range of sika has more than trebled, and fallow deer almost doubled. Two scientists, Declan Quigley and Seán Moffatt, have reported the sighting of a sika swimming out to sea near Greystones in 2011 – a venture, they hazarded, prompted by the phenomenal increase in deer. And to add to their numbers, the small and secretive muntjac deer, first discovered in 2007, is now a "high risk" invasive species, spreading through six counties.

Quite apart from tree damage – browsing shoots, stripping bark – the unmanaged spread of sika is threatening the genetic heritage of the red deer of Kerry. How "native" these are remained obscure for years. But research led by Carden and published in Quaternary Science Reviews in 2012 showed red deer were introduced to Ireland from Britain by Neolithic people more than 5,000 years ago. After comparison of the DNA of ancient deer bone specimens held by the National Museum with those of modern deer, the Kerry herd were declared "a unique population deserving special conservation and management".

Since the translocation of some Kerry deer to the national parks in Connemara and Donegal in the 1980s, the spread of red deer in Connacht, the northwest and Leinster has been boosted by the escape of deer imported for farming, for private estate decoration and deliberate release for hunting. Despite high perimeter fences, the Kerry reds installed in Connemara National Park have already been “infiltrated by deer of unknown provenance”.

Sika deer, which have interbred with reds introduced in Co Wicklow and else- where, have also been widely imported, so that both populations have become mixed with strains from Britain, Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. Lone and wandering young sika males can seek out the nearest population of reds, and the culling of such incomers has been recommended for Kerry.

Among the translocations of Killarney's reds to protect their genetic heritage, a stag and two hinds were taken to Inishvickillane, the small Blasket island, soon after Charles Haughey purchased it in 1974. They multiplied into dozens and have needed culling from time to time. Haughey was very proud of them. Long after his retirement I wrote a column about deer without mentioning Inishvickillane. He telephoned out of the blue to remind me of his island herd. A park ranger had told him they were even finer specimens than the deer left free to roam the mountains.