We passed through Keenagh rather quicker than I would have liked, despite pausing briefly to glance into every green field in the hope of a mere glimpse of the resident red deer. They are still knocking about the place, that much is certain. Multiple trails lead to and from the road, and the barbed wire fences hold telltale tufts of reddish brown deer hair. Yet this morning the animals were nowhere to be seen.
We were particularly interested in finding the first of the new season’s stags. The hinds, together with their calves, can quite easily be located throughout the later months of summer, although they remain wary and hard to get close to. The stags, on the other hand, have been summering in quiet seclusion on the high hills, growing fat and strong on a diet of rich upland herbs and grasses. This week, next at the latest, the first of them will be descending to the lower land where the hinds are gathering into groups.
The first to arrive will be the two- and three-year-old animals, with three to five points on each antler. On poorer ground the old gamekeepers rule of telling the age of a stag by counting the antler points (one point for each year of life) might apply; here, where the feeding is good, it certainly does not. Even at such a tender age these local deer are imposing beasts with long legs and muscular flanks. Over the past month their necks have thickened and developed something of a mane as they prepare for the upcoming rut, making them even more impressive.
At present their antlers will still be dressed in the sensitive, blood-rich velvet coat that covers and nourishes them as they grow. Not for much longer though - this is dying back even now. As it does so it appears to become intensely irritating. Perhaps it itches abominably. Whatever, it puts the stags into bad form and sends them away into the bushes where they flay the branches of young trees, scratching and rubbing, then thrashing and smashing as they try to find relief. At the same time they grow increasingly intolerant of one another, and find themselves alone more and more.
It wont be long before they start to drive one another away from the hind groups. The stronger individuals might even start to think they are in with a chance of maintaining their dominance and becoming the new Master Stag. Yet all the running around after rivals and trying without real success to herd the hinds together will soon sap their strength. They might be young and healthy with previously untried voices that now penetrate far into these dark autumn nights but in the excitement of the season they eat little and sleep less. If they are to breed they must remain alert and be ready for the brief moments that the females are properly receptive.
We drove past Bellacorrick and on towards Bangor through country almost as wild as it was made, with the Owenmore River on our left and that vast acreage of empty, peaty heath stretching away to the horizon on our right. We travelled slowly, pausing here and there to wonder just where our deer might be, and had almost given up hope when we spotted the first group of mature stags against the skyline of a far off hill.
Although we could make out their basic antler shape it was not possible to discern their absolute quality from this range of a kilometre or so.
These colder nights will have them thinking of the sheltered valleys, the rich grassland of riparian zones, and the groups of hinds with their attendant pretenders. One dark evening these majestic and powerfully imposing stags will introduce themselves to their lesser brothers, the stronger and bolder of which might be inclined to defiance. There will be no real competition from them, for they have already worn themselves out fighting among themselves and will quickly be put in their places.
Come the end of September we shall see the deer at their best.
Large wild animals in their natural environment; dramatic, pulse-quickening, beautiful and inspiring – just what is needed for the creation of a progressive and sustainable industry of rural tourism.
One question remains. Who has the energy and foresight to take the bull by the horns (or the stag by the antlers) and begin to develop this? Such is successfully being done in other parts of the this country and to a greater degree in other lands. Scotland, for instance, has a thriving ecotourism industry which has breathed new life into stagnating rural economies. For now we have the deer to ourselves.