Red deer are our largest and the only native species to Ireland. They are believed to have had a continuous presence in Ireland since the end of the last Ice Age (c. 10,000 BC). At this time they roamed freely through out Ireland, however as a result of deforestation, over hunting and the Great Famine (1845 – 1847) many populations became extinct. By the middle of the 19th century the last home of the Red deer was in the woodlands and mountains around Killarney, where their preservation was due to the strict protection of the two large estates of Herberts of Muckross and the Brownes, Earl of Kenmare. It is known that at the turn of the century there were in excess of 1500 Red deer in Killarney. This declined between 1900 and 1960 to as few as 60. As a result of rigorous protection and management they have increased to 690 in the early 1990’s within the National Park.
The Red deer has a rich red coloured coat, darkening down to a greyish brown in winter. A mature stag carries a large rack of antlers, which are at 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. A stag with more than 12 tines is known as a ‘Royal’. A fully-grown Red stag can stand 120cm (48”) high at the shoulder and can weigh anything up to 190kg (420Ibs). A female (hind) is smaller with shoulder height up to 110cm (44”) and a weight of up to 110kg (240Ibs).
While some claims have been made, the number of wild Red Deer and their hybrids in Ireland are unknown as no national deer census have been carried out. The main deer range can be found on Torc, Cores and Mangerton Mountains with other herds in the lowland areas of the national park in Killarney, Co Kerry. These are the only native wild Red deer that exist in Ireland today. Sika deer are potentially a 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 have been recorded in Killarney (as has happened in Wicklow), but the situation is being carefully monitored, and a high priority is attached to maintaining the genetic purity of the native herd. Other herds can be found in the Glendalough Valley and Turlough Hill in Co. Wicklow, also wild herds exist in Glenveagh, Co. Donegal, Connemara, Co Galway and areas of Co Mayo. These are not native herds but were introduced from Scotland in the 19th Century. Red deer stags are easiest to see in late September and early October during the rut.
Red deer are a herd deer but group size is influenced by habitat, they form larger herds when living in open country with smaller groups in woodland areas. They are primarily grazers and will graze all year round, however they will eat heather shoots, mosses, lichens and even unpalatable mat-grass to see them through winter to the following spring. Stags grow antlers in late Spring and have a soft skin covering called velvet. Antlers will grow until late summer; the velvet dies and is – scrapped off. Neck muscles will swell, thick manes grow on the throats and aggression increases. The antlers are fully grown by late summer and will remain until they are shed in early spring. Antler size to some extent depends on age but more importantly on the deer’s health and nutrition. In the wild the best heads are found on 6-8 year old animals.
Does may breed at a year and a half, if pregnancy does not occur, ovulation (heat) will occur again in 21 days later. Pregnancy in a Doe lasts 33 weeks and fawns are born in June. It is important to note that fawns do not follow their mother for two weeks. While the mother is off grazing the fawns are left lying in cover. Such fawns are not abandoned and should not be touched or removed. Fawns may continue to suckle until the next sibling is born.
The breeding season (rut) is in October. The timing of the rut is controlled by the length of the day. By mid September, aggression is more marked. Mature stags are increasingly intolerant of each other, and there are short chases as they attain peak condition. These animals are first to rut. Traditionally, the first roars (loud deep low-pitched call) are heard in the last week of September, signalling the commencement of the rut. Each stag is seeking to gather hinds to herd together for his harem (on average 5 hinds), he will then endeavour to possess exclusively, by marking and defending the territory over which the hinds roam. He will mate with the fittest hinds, which normally come on heat by the second and third week in October. During the rut, while the stag waits for each hind in his harem to come in season, he will wallow in peat, thresh the vegetation with his antlers, as well as roar and clash in contest with competing males. As October draws to a close, the, majority of stags have finished the rut. The priority at this stage of the year is to build up fat reserves for the winter.
Hinds may breed at a year and a half, with calves born in June. The placenta (afterbirth) is eaten by the female, to hide any sent or evidence of the birth. The calf is hidden while the hind feeds alone.
Red deer are a protected game species and may only be hunted with a licence from the National Parks and Wild Life Service. Red stags may be hunted from the 1st of September until the 31st of December (no season in Kerry for stags) and Hinds may be hunted from the Ist of November to the 28th of February 28th. Hunting of Red deer is strictly prohibited in Co Kerry.
Wild Deer Association of Ireland is fully committed to the conservation of Irish Deer and the protection of habitat. The Association also offers to promote the interests of legitimate hunters and offers guidelines to same with meeting on Topical issues, Code of Conduct/ Safety, Target Shoots etc.