Another Life: Ireland’s growing deer population poses many challenges

Climate change has ‘greatly enabled’ a national surge in the range of deer

 Sika like to tear the bark from  young conifers. Illustration: Michael Viney

Sika like to tear the bark from young conifers. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

“Seizing the opportunity, the Stalker steadied his rifle . . . He set the double trigger, fixed the ’scope on the target area and gently squeezed. Faster than the speed of sound flew the bullet from the gun, tumbling the young deer before he heard the sound of the shot.”

In such spare prose does the Stalker, avatar of Liam Nolan, barrister-at-law and director of Deer Alliance, describe the culling of a wild Sika deer of Glenmacnass in the Wicklow hills. As the new shooting season opens, he offers a brief but eloquent case for his role as predator-in-chief of the herd.

The 60 pages of Nolan’s new book, Sika the Wild Deer (€30 online from deeralliance.ie) enfold many fine drawings by Lorraine Brett, once of Kilkenny, now of Shanghai. They study the animals in many situations but, rather like the story, overlook the Sika’s appetite for tearing bark off the State’s young conifers.

Like views through very different binoculars, images of Ireland’s over-abundant Sika swing about between their beauty and dignity as wild animals and their nuisance as pests of forestry and farmland, adulterers of Irish red deer genes – even, in places, as potential carriers of bovine TB.

Nolan’s handsome hardback reaches above all this to outline the life of one animal from calf to pricket (there’s a glossary) to old age. It attributes to “the Stalker” the knowledge and empathy built up over Nolan’s 40 years of close observation, his authority as an expert in wild deer management, and as author of the current stalker training manual.

Thus the Stalker is confident “that in order to ensure a healthy future for the herd at large he would need from time to time to shoot females and young deer, including calves, as well as the old, the injured and the infirm. Some times, too, the shooting of a trophy head by a visiting hunter could provide the means by which a greater number of deer could be maintained efficiently on the ground, strange as that idea sometimes seemed to outsiders.”

The walls of the Stalker’s study are adorned with the antlers of the many stags he had shot. “He regarded them not as trophies but as tributes to the deer they had once graced . . .” Among them are antlers of the “ full and heavy eight-point head” of the ultimate elegant stag.

In the choice of thinning the herd, the Stalker exercises management “within the marches of his ground” – this, it must be said, with the full encouragement of the licence-issuing National Parks & Wildlife Service.

Tree damage

A cull of 15,000 Sika is now taken every year, mainly by some 4,000 licensed hunters. The “ground” Nolan knows so intimately, even to crawling on hands and knees among the rocks, is a few heights across the Wicklows from Enniskerry. There, in 1860, the then Lord Powerscourt introduced one Japanese Sika stag and two hinds.

Today their descendants, and those of other Sika introductions, number an estimated 40,000. Their herds are concentrated in Wicklow and Kerry, Tyrone and Fermanagh but are found in nine other counties from Waterford to Donegal.

Their hybrids with red deer date back to the Powerscourt estate. Wicklow still has most of them, but they are to be found far more widely and continue to present a potential threat to the bloodstock of Ireland’s native red deer at Killarney.

A national surge in the numbers of deer (Sika, reds, fallow and the recently introduced muntjac) has been “greatly enabled by climate change”, says Nolan’s preface to his book, “an unchallengeable reality which will continue to affect animal and human behaviour”.

In 2009, a report for Woodlands of Ireland reviewed the damage to broadleaf and conifer trees and concluded that, for a sustainable population of deer, an annual cull of 150,000 would be needed.

Its lead researcher, Dr Ruth Carden of the Natural History Museum, also contributed to a 2011 paper in the UK’s prestigious Mammal Review. It found great increases in the ranges of Ireland’s deer: 565 per cent for red deer, 353 per cent for Sika and 174 per cent for fallow.

In 2010 the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine commissioned Fordeer, “a landscape level study of deer populations and behaviour,” to be carried out by UCC. After a decade, a final report has still to emerge.

The story of Nolan’s fictional Sika includes a near escape from a gang of poachers, given a dramatic and knowledgeable chapter as they “practise their piracy” at the Wicklow Gap with night-time cars and lamps . But does the Stalker himself end up shooting the stag, grown old and worn by time?

Sometimes, he decides with lowered rifle, “Orion can wait”. (Glossary: “Greek god of hunting”)

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