Wildlife Act 1976 / 2000
Key Identification Features
Red deer are Ireland’s largest land mammal and the second largest deer species in Europe after the elk. Adults produce two coats in a year, the summer coat is reddish brown in colour with a grey to yellow underbelly, some individuals may have faint white spots on the back and flanks. The thicker winter coat is more brown to greyish in colour. In autumn the males known as stags develop a thick shaggy mane for the rutting season. Red deer have distinctive creamy coloured rump patches which are not ringed by black markings as in the sika deer species. The red deer’s head and snout are long with pointed ears. Individuals located in different quality habitats will vary in size but stags when fully grown generally stand at 1.5m at the shoulder, are up to 2m in length and can weigh 250kg. Females known as hinds are much smaller standing at 1m to the shoulder, measure 1.5m in length and weigh 130kg on average. The tail is short and thick and extends halfway down the rump patch. The antlers which are only grown by the males are the most characteristic feature of the species. They are shed and re-grown each year and have a distinctive branching design which form a curved heart shaped appearance when viewed from the front. Mature stags can develop up to twelve points known as tines on the antlers which are used as a reflection of their social standing. When the antlers are being grown they will be covered in a skin like velvet which is frayed off on tree trunks in time for the rutting season.
While they are developing, the antlers are soft and sensitive and care is taken to avoid damaging them so any disputes between stags while in velvet involve the use of the front legs while rearing in an upright position to avoid damage. Antler growth involves the consumption of a lot of energy reserves as they grow up to 6cm a day and can weigh up to 15kg in mature stags. No two sets of antlers are identical and can be used to identify individuals. Older stags begin to lose tines after they reach ten years of age. Red deer have good eyesight although they cannot differentiate between stationary objects like fallow deer can. The sense of hearing is also well developed but they rely on their sense of smell the most. Scent glands located under the eyes are used as a means of communication between mother and calf. They can be quite vocal with hinds emitting alarm barks to calves if they perceive any threats. The flaring of the rump patch is also used in times of danger as a warning signal to others. They are strong runners able to jump high over barriers if being pursed, they are also able swimmers. Tracks known as slots measure to 9cm in length but will appear larger if located in soft mud or when the deer has been running as the hooves tend to splay out to a wider shape.
The preferred habitat of the red deer in Ireland are the transition areas between woodlands and open grassland areas. They inhabit both deciduous and coniferous forests providing such areas have adequate undergrowth cover. The gradual reduction in Ireland of mature woodlands has forced the red deer to migrate to other habitat locations such as moorlands, wetlands and within some lowland riverside forests. They can also be found on upland mountainous regions in summer below the tree line moving down to more sheltered lowland woods in winter. Home ranges of individual deer vary according to the season and the sex of the animal with females occupying smaller territories up to 200ha providing such a range provides good quality habitats. Males are more mobile and can range up to 2000ha in a year. If they inhabit a wooded area the females tend to remain inside under cover while the males seem to prefer the periphery of such areas.
Food and Feeding Habits
Red deer can be described as opportunistic herbivores being active both day and night with a peak in feeding activity occurring at dawn and dusk but they will feed regularly over a 24-hour period while ruminating in cover. They will consume a wide variety of food types depending on the habitat and seasonal availability of vegetation. They are mainly grass grazers in open habitats who will also eat herbs, tree shoots, acorns and fruits. They will strip bark from the trunks of spruce and sallow tree types to gain access to the inner more nutritious material and will also browse the lower leaves of heather, oak and holly up to two meters from the ground. Red deer can build up fat reserves which can help them through a harsh winter where vegetation becomes scarce. Throughout the year the red deer will form various groups according to their age and sex. Female herds are dominated by one mature hind with the remainder of the group comprising of other mature females, their daughters and male calves in their first year. Such groups usually contain less than ten individuals but will sometimes join with other hind herds to graze in open areas especially if the local food supply is scarce. Males remain solitary throughout most of the year or form small temporary groups. Stags will join with the hind herds only for the breeding season.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
The rutting season starts in mid to late September and can run until early November. Males will become more vocal and aggressive at this time emitting a deep-throated guttural roar to warn other males in the area. Territorial behavior increases with males marking vegetation with their scent glands. They will also dig out shallow trenches in which they urinate before wallowing inside. Urine is also sprayed on the flanks as scent is an important means of conveying information in red deer society. Stags will also fray trees and bushes with their antlers. Ritualized threatening behavior including roaring contests can determine a stag’s dominance but fights often occur where antlers are locked and opponents wrestle and attempt to push each other backwards. Each clash ends with the withdrawal of the weaker stag. Male red deer will gather a harem of sexually receptive hinds and attempt to defend them from other stags before he can successfully mate. Hinds who do not become pregnant after mating will mate again in three-week intervals for the remainder of the season until successful. Once pregnant gestation will last for eight months with usually one calf born per pregnancy arriving in May or June.
Calves generally weigh 6kg at birth and have a reddish to brown coat which is spotted in patches. Females temporally leave the herd to give birth with the calf left hidden in vegetation for up to a week until they are strong enough to join the hind herd, this is a survival strategy developed to counter large predators at this vital time of the red deer lifecycle. Once mobile the calf is weaned for up to eight months and will congregate with other calves in crèche herds to graze. Female calves tend to remain in the area they were born becoming sexually mature after two seasons while the male calves will disperse to join bachelor herds or remain alone. Young males will begin to grow their first set of antlers by their sixth month. Parental care is given by the mothers only. Due to the dominance of the older stags during the rutting season most young males will not successfully breed until they are at least five years old. The average lifespan of a red deer in Ireland is between 13 and 16 years with females generally living longer than males.
The red deer species evolved as an herbaceous mammal on the steppes and woodland edges of the Eurasian continent and have been present there for at least 200,000 years. They are now found throughout the whole of Europe, Northern Asia and the Far East. They have also been introduced to North Africa, South America, Australia and New Zealand. They are absent from Iceland, northern Scandinavia, Sicily and Crete in Europe. They may have been present in Ireland before the last ice age 12,000 years ago before becoming extinct due to climatic change, being re-introduced by Neolithic settlers, they were widespread throughout the country by the middle ages. By the 18th century their numbers were in severe decline due to changes to their habitats with increased forest clearance and the spread of human settlements. By the 19th century their numbers increased due to a series of re-introductions to estate deer parks. Escapes from such parks have established the current populations found today in Ireland. Seven counties have red deer herds located in Donegal, Ulster, Wicklow and Kerry. The current Kerry population may be the only original population remaining as those found in other counties have been cross breeding with sika deer for some time giving rise to a sika – red deer hybrid species which retains traits of both species. The importation of the North American wapiti sub species to deer parks has further diversified the genetic make up of the red deer species in some areas.
Red deer can cause damage to commercial forestry if they are of high enough concentrations locally. They will strip bark from tree trunks, cause fraying damage with their antlers and eat young tree saplings preventing regeneration of woodlands. The introduction of the wapiti and sika deer species has caused the hybridization of the red deer with these sub species producing a cross breed which shows no competitive disadvantages to the native red deer and has continued to spread reducing the genetic distinctiveness of the Irish red deer. This ability of the red deer to successfully breed with related species is not typical for most mammal species and has led to the loss of the red deer’s genetic integrity in the Wicklow herd in particular. Measures need to be taken to prevent the last native herd in county Kerry form mating with sika and wapiti species. The recent growth of deer farms has led to increased risk of escapes of such species into the wild in Ireland. The main number of premature red deer deaths in Ireland results from predation of calves by feral dogs and foxes, also a number are killed from accidental traffic collisions. Red deer are protected under the Wildlife Act although they are listed as a quarry species and can be hunted under license at certain times of the year except for the Kerry herd which is completely protected. Five hundred red deer are culled each year which will continue to be the main method of population control in Ireland.