The story of the deer that swam to Achill


PROTECTED A wild red stag in early morning light at Bleanaskill, Achill. (Picture courtesy of Matthew Lynch).

Edwin McGreal

Locals on Achill Island thought they were seeing things.
While driving at night, many thought a deer had crossed in front of them, but figured it couldn’t be so.
And so they said nothing about it for fear people would think they had lost their marbles.
Deer had never been on Achill, and what with it being an island and all, how could that ever change?
But it turns out the startled locals’ eyes were not deceiving them. An elusive herd of wild red deer has been growing on Achill Island for the past five or six years.
Locals have had several near misses in their cars, with the stag in the picture above believed to be particularly unaware of the Safe Cross Code.

Timid swimmers
But the most perplexing question is, how did they cross to the island in the first place?
While there is a bridge onto Achill Island, local wildlife enthusiast John Sweeney and Susan Callaghan, District Conservation Officer for the National Parks and Wildlife, both say it is most likely that they swam across.
“The most probable way they came across was by swimming. Deer are very good swimmers. They would not have crossed the bridge – they avoid human contact at all cost. They are very timid,” John Sweeney told The Mayo News.
Susan Callaghan said the deer are likely to have originated from a group of red deer illegally released in Bellacorrick in 2000.
“Their numbers expanded from there, and they have spread across a considerable area. They have been recorded at Bellaveeny, south of Ballycroy; more on the Currane peninsula and some more in Shramore and Letterkeen, outside Newport,” Callaghan told The Mayo News.

‘Lovers’ lane’
It is most likely that the Achill Island herd came from the Currane peninsula but, as John Sweeney explains, there is talk locally that the deer could have come a more direct route from Ballycroy.
“The talk was they had caused a bit of damage to gardens in Claggan, outside Ballycroy, and they were chased away. It is only a short distance across the sea there to Tonragee. It wouldn’t be necessarily they were chased into the sea, more so deer would think little of going into the sea if they were being chased along a road,” he said.
Tonragee is in the parish of Achill, on the Currane peninsula. It is close to Owenduff, where deer have also taken up residence. It is impossible to say whether the Achill deer came from Claggan or had come across land from Ballycroy to Owenduff, and onto Achill.
Whatever their route, their final destination is clear, and John Sweeney says there have been sightings as far south on the island as Dooega and as far west as Ballinasally, 10 kilometres further on from Achill Sound.
They have most frequently been spotted near Glendarary lake, outside Achill Sound, at an area called Log a tSionnaigh, which means Fox’s Lair. It was famous for another reason in years gone by.
“It would have been known as a bit of a lovers’ lane in the past,” says John Sweeney.
A gardener by trade, John Sweeney said he could see himself ‘developing a love/hate relationship’ with the local deer, as ‘they can do a lot of damage if they get into a garden’.
Susan Callaghan says deer ‘can be a nuisance’, particularly with broadleaf trees, but adds that they tend to avoid open areas during daylight, preferring sheltered, woodland.

Close shaves
There have been ‘a few close shaves’ with accidents on Achill Island.
“One couple I know well were driving along when the stag came out and they were close enough that they could look into his eye. They were very shaken after it,” John Sweeney said.
Matthew Lynch was visiting in Bleanaskill on February 17 last when he woke up to the sight of a stag by the shore, near Bleanaskill Lodge. Intrigued, he got his camera out, and while the stag was aware of him, he got close enough to get a good shot before the stag fled.
The stag would, John Sweeney says, have been drawn to the shore for seaweed, which ‘has so many minerals that are good for a deer’s coat’.
But he adds such a location would not have been a safe haven for the stag in previous years.
“It’s right beside Bleanaskill Lodge and its Secret Garden. A previous owner there was the famous artist and taxidermist Alexander Williams. He would have had him mounted on his wall for a trophy,” said John.
While wild deer like those on Achill are protected, they can be shot in the open season. However, hunters need a licence granted by the Minister for Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht.
For now, it appears that Achill’s locals and deer can co-exist.
“It’s the first time there has ever been deer on the island. People just need to be careful on the roads,” said John Sweeney.
The local fishermen might have to be wary too, if the deer take to the water again.