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 anything
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 move
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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