For those of us who have tried venison, is it one of life’s meaty pleasures. But you don’t have to go to the supermarket to get that taste. A number of licenses are granted every year for hunters who shoot deer in managed herds.
The organisation that connects all these dudes with a taste for venison is the Wild Deer Association of Ireland. They are the representative body for those involved in deer-stalking in Ireland. But people can also join who just have an interest in wild deer herds. The organisation runs free events for on deer-related matters. They are also concerned with wildlife crimes around deer poaching. They work with all the main government agencies and stakeholders in combating this crime.
We speak to Damien Hannigan, Hon Sec of the Wild Deer Association of Ireland, about what is involved in catching yourself a deer in Ireland.
How long have you been involved with the Wild Deer Association, and what got you interested in the first place?
I have been a WDAI member for 20 years and secretary for 14 years. When I started as secretary we had 96 members we are now fast approaching 1,000 on our data base. I joined the association because of the people involved as while we are a big organisation it feels more like been part of a large family. Generally we all get on and have the same interest, there is none of the politics you get in some organisations, we are just deer people.
Where do you go deer stalking?
I am lucky to have been deer-stalking in several areas including Waterford, Cork and Kerry where all our deer-species can be found. I also get invites to other areas of the country from members and friends. From time to time I also get to go deer-stalking abroad in Europe and America. Kerry by far is my favourite; there is no where I love to be than on the mountains in Kerry at sunrise. And when I am not there I am wishing I was!
What happens on a deer stalk?
Lots of walking and glassing with my binoculars trying to spot the right deer to cull amongst the cover as the sun rises or sets. As the word suggests, stalking is about slow movement, crawling and been aware of your surroundings and the conditions, such as wind direction and noise. You have to make sure your silhouette is not exposed on the horizon, as deer have excellent senses and I always try and ensure I see them before they see me!
What equipment do you need?
I use a .25.06 calibre Steyr hunting rifle fitted with a Schmidt and Bender telescopic sight, it works very well in low light which is essential for deer-stalking. I’ve had it for 15 years and it never fails me. I also use Zeiss binoculars and a range finder which tells me how far away the animal is so I can adjust my shot to ensure the animal is dispatched humanely. After that its clothing and footwear that is waterproof and silent when stalking. I also have various harnesses and slay for extracting the animals, which often can involve a drag of several miles.
Where is this equipment available?
Fortunately I buy most of my equipment at very low prices when I visit America every year but locally there are also some very good firearms dealers who also sell deer-stalking equipment. We also sell discounted deer-stalking equipment at our various events with all profits going back to the association.
Can novices come along to share the experience with you?
I often take non deer-stalkers or beginners with me to watch and experience deer-stalking. To legally hunt deer in Ireland you must have the correct firearms licence and a deer hunting licence from the National Parks & Wildlife Service. The current seasons are males September 1st to December 31st and females November 1st to February 28th, Red Deer cannot be hunted in Co Kerry due to their international importance and low numbers. And it is illegal to lamp deer at night or hunt them with dogs.
If you shoot a deer, can you take it yourself to eat?
Handling a deer carcass is no different to any other carcass. Firstly the animal must be bled and gralloched (a Gaelic term for gutting the animal). I generally chill mine for 10 days after, depending on the size of the animal. I then have it butchered by a friend into various cuts such as steaks and roasts also burgers, sausages and mince. Handled properly it is a fantastic meat high in iron and low in fat.
How hard is it to shoot a deer?
It is difficult to see a deer in the wild let alone shoot one, especially now days where our wild deer herds are been decimated by poaching and killing in large numbers for cash by some hunters. I find the shot is the easy part when you’re lucky enough to get the chance; the work really starts after that, in preparing and extracting the animal off the mountain.
Deer In Ireland
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 throughout 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 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 in Kerry. 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. Hunting of Red Stags is strictly prohibited in Kerry.
Fallow deer are our most popular park deer with over 60 herds in parks or enclosures. Many of our now wild Fallow escaped in the early 20th century, which supplemented old wild herds introduced by the Norman’s soon after their arrival in 1169. They are now our most widespread species of deer and are found in most woodlands countrywide, both hill and lowland. Fallow have a very keen sense of smell and are acutely aware of any foreign noise. In hunted areas or where deer are disturbed it is easier to find them grazing at dawn or before dusk and one should approach carefully from the downwind side.
Fallow bucks are easiest to see in October during the rut. They tend to use the same rutting ground each year and the rutting area would have a strong musky smell with some scraping of the ground and tree bark damage.Fallow deer are a protected game species and may only be hunted with a licence from the National Parks and Wild Life Service. Fallow bucks may be hunted from the 1st of September until December 31st and Does may be hunted from the 1st of November to the February 28th.
Sika deer most probably originated from the Japanese Islands in north eastern Asia. One stag and three hinds were the original breeding stock for all Sika in Ireland. These were introduced by Lord Powerscourt in 1860. A few years later some Sika from Powerscourt were moved to enclosed parks in Fermanagh, Kerry, Limerick, Down and Monaghan. However our present wild deer herds mostly originated as escapees from these parks in the early 20th century during the troubles.
The main herds of wild Sika deer are concentrated in Kerry, Wicklow, Tyrone and Fermanagh with some establishing herds in Dublin, Kildare, Carlow, Cork and Donegal.
It is easiest to see Sika deer when they are actively grazing, mainly at dawn or dusk. Sika are extremely shy and one should take great care to approach carefully from downwind. Sika deer and our native Red Deer are of the same genus and can interbreed. The resulting hybrids are also fertile, this is a major concern in preserving the genetic purity of both Red and Sika. There is a disagreement as to whether interbreeding only occurs in captive (penned or park) mixed herds. Interbreeding in the wild is certainly rare. Many believe that the Red and Sika herds of Killarney are still genetically pure, however most Sika-like deer in Leinster have some ‘Red’ blood.
This Giant Irish Deer is believed to have roamed the lowlands of central and eastern Ireland, weighing up to 800-1000 lbs and stood at 2 metres at the shoulder, with antler width of up to 4 metres, (weighing up to 35kg). These are the largest antlers know to have existed on any deer. They were palm-like antlers, similar to those of a Fallow deer. It is understood they were a victim of the Ice Age finally disappearing from Ireland around 10,500 years ago.
They had very few enemies due to their size, with the wolf posing very little threat. Even though they are known as the Irish Elk, fossils have been found in such countries as France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Britain, Italy and Central Asia. However the best collection of fossils can be found at the National Museum of Ireland where there are 10 complete deer skeletons and over 250 partial remains, which includes 6 females. There have been many fossil finds throughout Ireland, with the most famous been Ballybetagh Bog, Glencullen, Co. Dublin where over 100 deer skeletons were found. Other sites are Howth, Co. Dublin and Lough Gur, Co. Limerick. These fossils have been mainly found in peat bogs and in old lakes, with some older fossils even being found in caves. The giant elk would dwarf modern man. As they are now extinct, you won’t have to face one of these dudes while on your first stalking lesson.
For further reading, click on over to the Wild Deer Association of Ireland