Red Deer

The Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) is Ireland's native deer, and has been here continually since the end of the last cold period approximately 10,500 years ago. Throughout much of the country however, a combination of deforestation and hunting in the past meant that the range of the species declined and many populations became extinct. The Killarney herd, currently numbering approximately 700, is the only wild herd of native Red Deer remaining in Ireland, although there are several populations which have been re-introduced into other parts of the country. Most of these other populations are formed, at least partially, from non-native stock.

A fully-grown Red Stag can stand 120cm (48") high at the shoulder and can weigh anyA fine stag during the rut (photo Seán Ryan)thing up to 190kg (420lbs). Mature stags carry a large rack of antlers, which are in peak condition in the early autumn for the rut, when they are used for bouts of sparring between rivals. A dominant animal may have 18-20 points (tines) on the antlers, although 14-16 is more common. The females (hinds) are smaller, with a shoulder height up to 110cm (44"), and a weight of up to 110kg (240lbs).

During the rut, in late September and early October, the roars of competing stags may be heard throughout the Killarney valley as they attempt to attract and defend a harem of 10-15 hinds. Injuries between fighting stags such as eye loss, puncture wounds etc. are not uncommon at this time. Unsuccessful males gather together in 'bachelor groups', while the successful stags mate with each of the mature hinds in their harem.

Calves are born in early June, and pregnant hinds from lowland areas will often move up to the mountains to give birth. The calves are well developed at birth and are usually able to walk around within half an hour of being born. The mother often consumes any afterbirth in order to avoid predators being attracted by the scent (wolves were common in the past), and after tending to the calf for a short time will usually move away completely, leaving the calf hidden in cover, before returning some hours later to suckle it. This pattern of leaving the calf in cover and returning to feed and tend to it some time later is repeated for a number of days.

It is at this time that it is sometimes possible for National Park staff to movePreparing to tag a red deer calf (photo Mike Sandover) in to the concealed calf and tag it, as part of an ongoing research programme to establish the movement, distribution and population size of the herd. Precautions are taken to ensure that the mother will not reject the calf, for example hands are always rubbed in mud before handling the calf (which is kept to a minimum) in order to mask the human scent. A great deal of patient observation on the part of the researchers is necessary to pinpoint the place where the calf went to ground before moving in to complete the tagging.

Stags, meanwhile, will be re-growing their antlers after they were cast in the early spring. The high quality grazing over the summer will ensure that the antlers are once again in peak condition at the time of the rut, and the animal itself is at maximum fitness to compete and spar with others.

Sika Deer (Cervus nippon), a species introduced from Japan in the mid-late nineteenth century, is also present in considerable numbers in Killarney, and is a potential threat to the genetic integrity of the Red Deer herd, as they are known to be capable of interbreeding. So far no cases of crossbreeding between Red and Sika Deer have been recorded in Killarney, but the situation is being carefully monitored, and a high priority is attached to maintaining the genetic purity of the native herd.

Since the extermination of the Wolf approximately 200 years ago, Red Deer have had no natural predators in Ireland, and are now also fully protected by law, therefore apart from the risk of hybridisation there are few immediate dangers to the Killarney Red Deer.



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