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NATURE Managing our wild red deer

Outdoor Living
a red deer

Let’s find a united voice on deer 

Country sights and sounds
John Shelley

I was happy to find a small group of red deer hinds in a small corner of one field, where they were catching the early morning sun. They looked a little on the thin side; it’s been a long winter for them.
It will be June before they are fit again. By then they will be giving birth, although their low body weight will almost certainly impact upon breeding success. The calves born will be smaller and lighter and more vulnerable to the cold and wet in their early days.
The deer are hungry. They are venturing out onto farmers’ lands where good grass is still thin on the ground. What little growth can be found is reserved for the sheep. With lambing in full swing every mouthful is precious. Obviously, the deer are not presently welcomed by many farmers. Some have even openly declared war on them.
That there is a ready market for venison makes shooting deer even more attractive. Back in December, The Irish Times carried an article entitled ‘Epidemic of deer poaching in the West’ (Tuesday, December 7, 2010) in which the claim was made that deer carcasses are being exported, often illegally, from Ireland to Scotland by game dealers, and from there to mainland Europe, where there is a large demand for wild game.
The fact that all kinds of laws are being broken by this type of trade might seem largely irrelevant. To some there might even be a hint of romantic adventure in a modern-day Robin Hood story, with poor country folk taking deer from the playground of the wealthy in order to feed their families and keep a roof over the heads.
Not so. Most illegal hunting takes place in the dead of night and is carried on by organised gangs equipped with four-wheel-drive vehicles and high-powered rifles. Heading to areas where deer are known to feed, they dazzle the best specimens with powerful spotlights, shoot them, take them, and are gone within minutes. The poacher makes money, the game dealer makes money; the tour operator must show his guests around an empty countryside where the wild animals have been educated to avoid humankind at all costs.
There are many stakeholders involved. The farming community generally has the greatest respect for the wild, seeing themselves more as custodians of the countryside than as exclusive owners of it. They enjoy seeing wild animals, including deer, and, as long as these don’t get out of hand, are happy to grant them a few feeds of grass.
Forest owners accept that their property will be an attractive refuge for the deer and are often willing to tolerate a small amount of daamage to young trees, if this does not become severe.
The tourist industry needs the deer. Much is being done to promote Ireland as a walking holiday destination. A close encounter with a group of red deer stags will make anybody’s day a memorable one.
Legitimate hunting is another valuable rural industry, one that is tied in with agriculture, forestry and tourism. Deer numbers do need to be controlled, of that there is no doubt. At present there are somewhere in the region of 4,000 licensed hunters in the Republic of Ireland. In the 2008/09 season these accounted for 34,683 deer, almost 14,000 of which were shot in Wicklow alone. While the number of illegally killed animals is impossible to determine, the feeling is that wild herds everywhere have been decimated by poaching.
And then there are people like myself, who like to sit under a tree at dawn or at dusk and have unsuspecting wild animals passing within a few feet.
There are many conflicts. While the National Parks and Wildlife Service remains the state body charged with looking after Irish wildlife, there is only so much they can do, especially given the financial constraints of our modern times. Besides, most deer living in this country today are not native animals. Fallow deer were introduced in the 13th century and sika in the 1830s. Even the majority of red deer are of foreign extraction. As such, it is unlikely that the authorities will spend much of their budget on looking after them.
Coillte, the state forestry organisation, together with others who have deer on their property, leases hunting rights to those who pay the most. That is business for you, and only adds to the Robin Hood type of reasoning already mentioned.
It will be a difficult thing to find the right balance.

On Saturday, April 2, the Wild Deer Association of Ireland is hosting the National Wild Deer Conference at the Hodson Bay Hotel in Athlone, with the objective of developing a unified approach to deer management in Ireland. There are a limited number of tickets available. To book a place, contact Rob Henaghan or log onto the Wild Deer Association of Ireland website, where further details are available.