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Achill’s red deer, revisited

Outdoor Living

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

Like many others, I was most interested to learn of the arrival of the red deer on Achill Island, as reported in The Mayo News of February 27 last. There is no doubt that large wild animals such as these have been and will continue to be of great interest to the general public and of immense value to the tourist industry. We wish them well and hope they prosper.
It was intriguing to read the assertions that this is the first time red deer have been seen on Achill, although there is no doubt that for centuries they inhabited the mainland from Bangor Erris as far inland as Crossmolina and south to Ballycroy, where they were hunted by the English gentry for sport and the native Irishman for the pot. But what of Achill itself? Were those remote hills ever graced by the presence of these animals?
A trip into the available literature was warranted.
In his ‘Chorographical Description of West or H-Iar Connaught’ (written in 1684 but not published until 1846), Roderic O’Flaherty wrote of the abundance of deer throughout western Connaught. Richard Pococke, who visited Achill in the course of his ‘Tour of Ireland’ in 1752, described the mountains on the approach to the island as being ‘full of Red Deer, which’ he says, ‘are very indifferent food, being never fat’.
If there were so many deer that close to Achill, would not some have ventured onto the island itself, especially given the disturbance the animals must have felt from hunting? For Pococke tells us ‘the hunting of them affords good diversion to those who traverse the mountains on foot, but they frequently escape the dogs’.
That wasn’t enough. I wanted proof, or as near thereof, that Achill is indeed the historical home of wild deer. After all, if that is so, then these animals are merely finding their way back to where they belong after a prolonged period of forced exile, and a strong case could be made for preserving them and even encouraging them as they continue to expand their range.
Enter Sir Henry Hamilton Johnston, a British explorer and geographer heavily involved in African political developments in the late 19th century. In 1882, Johnston went to Angola with the 7th Earl of Mayo, Dermot Robert Wyndham Bourke, the same year that agents of Bourke were carrying out evictions from his estate in Kildare. Bourke also held extensive lands in Mayo and must have entertained his travelling companion here, during which time he no doubt introduced Johnston to Achill.
The island impressed Johnston so greatly that he was moved to write to The London Times in December of 1903 recommending, in part, that ‘all that is wanted to effect the end of making Achill a paradise for the preservation of wild fauna is to constitute the island a national park … and to afford complete protection to all birds and beasts’. In his letter he noted, “The red deer has been exterminated in Achill for half a century or more; but this creature could be easily reintroduced from the wild stock in Kerry.”
He went further too, in stating ‘there might be added to the fauna of Achill the reindeer, which inhabited this and other parts of Ireland during the prehistoric period’, and also noted that ‘some of the domestic dogs on Achill are simply dwarf wolves in appearance, while the wild ponies, like some of those in Connemara and Norway, seem to be merely dwarfed descendants of an original wild horse’, all of which makes for an entertaining read. But the point is this, that this highly respected geographer could identify a near contemporaneous disappearance of Achill Island’s red deer.
And that is good enough for me. The deer belong there. Their return should be embraced. Could you imagine how the already breathtaking Atlantic Drive would be enhanced by the mere prospect of meeting wild deer?  
As if doubting his own ambition Johnston concluded his letter with these words: “Even if we could maintain things as they are at present, with no more shooting of seals, choughs, ravens, eagles and swans, Achill would still remain to the naturalist one of the most beautiful spots in the British Islands.”
The changing political scene ensured that Johnston’s visionary goal could not be achieved in his time, and in the interim we have lost our eagles and catch only an occasional glimpse of our choughs.
Yet now, with demand on the world’s natural resources more intense than ever, perhaps the case could be made once more, and with a helping hand those sweeping hills could become a place unique in 21st-century Europe. The Achill Island National Park and Wildlife Preserve has quite a ring to it, doesn’t it?
I put the idea to James. “It would be a fine thing,” he said. “A fine thing indeed.”

Thanks to Peter in The London Times for help in tracking down Sir Henry Johnston’s letter.

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