MAMMAL NAMES | Wild Things? Part II:

How the Irish Word for Deer Masks the True Nature of These Mammals in Ireland

Even most of the red deer in Ireland are not as ancient, wild, or Irish as you might think

Our exploration last month of the three species of non-native deer inhabiting Ireland today (the Chinese muntjac, roe deer, and sika deer) clearly revealed just how far short they fall of being defined as truly wild. However, the post also concluded on a somewhat disquieting note with the revelation that Ireland's two native deer, the red deer and fallow deer, are not truly wild either. The degree to which this statement is true is actually quite shocking, with human interference written in the lives of these cervids possibly from their very first arrival on the island.


Certainly, this is true of the fallow deer, as it is known to have been introduced to the island by humans, namely, the Normans in the thirteenth century, as we saw previously. This may very well lead you to ask the question: if the fallow deer arrived in Ireland as the result of human activity, why then is it classified as native rather than non-native?

Although brought to Ireland by the Normans, the fallow deer is still classified as a native mammal

Well, this highlights the arbitrary nature of the classification of native and non-native animals. Whereas, theoretically, a species is classified as native if it has arrived in a land naturally and non-native if it has arrived due to human activity, in reality many animals in Ireland known to have been introduced by humans are classified as native if they have been on the island for a certain length of time. This is true of many mammals besides the fallow deer, including, for example, the hedgehog, rabbit, house mouse, and brown rat, which were introduced to Ireland through deliberate or accidental human action from the twelfth to the eighteenth century.


And, like the three non-native deer species, human interference lurks in the background in almost every scene of the fallow deer’s story on the Irish stage. Not only have humans had a hand in the arrival of this deer in Ireland but in their very form, Hayden and Harrington stating that ‘the current appearance of the European fallow deer is a result of intense selective breeding’.


And though fallow deer began to escape from deer parks to establish wild populations on the island as early as the fifteenth century, many remained in parks until the beginning of the twentieth century when either escape or deliberate release allowed them to join their fellow fallow in the wild.


Not all got a taste of true freedom, though, and some left in parks remained deeply vulnerable to the whims of their human overlords, as amply illustrated by the fate of the fallow deer in Dublin’s Phoenix Park during the Second World War.


At this time, there was a veritable army of fallow deer encamped in the park, with around 1,200 deer present in the herd. However, in 1942, because of their wanderings and general occupation of too much space, it was decided a cull was needed. And what a cull. Over 1,150 of the deer were killed, leaving just a paltry 38 alive. But from this nadir they rose again, like, well, a phoenix from the flames, to the point that the herd in the park now numbers in the hundreds once more.

The level of human influence on the fate of Ireland’s fallow deer, then, has been profound, and, once more, far beyond what we might expect for a truly wild animal. What is really surprising, though, and somewhat disturbing, is the level of human interference that has occurred in the life of Ireland’s most ancient cervid – the red deer.


To begin with, it is quite possible that the red deer did not arrive in Ireland naturally but was, like the other four deer species, brought to the island by humans. Although there is evidence of the red deer’s presence in Ireland late in the Ice Age, with the latest fossil being from Kesh Corran in Co. Sligo and dating to almost 13,700 years ago, there is then a huge gap of around 9,000 years before there is again evidence for its presence in post-Ice Age Ireland, the oldest remains from the Holocene (11,700 years ago–Present) coming from Stonestown in Co. Westmeath and dating to about 4,700 years ago.

The beautiful limestone caves of Kesh Corran in Co. Sligo, where the most recent Ice Age fossils of red deer have been found

So, although it is conceivable that the red deer survived on the island through the end of the Ice Age and into the Holocene, it is perhaps more likely, given the gap in the evidence, that it died out before the Ice Age ended and was reintroduced to the island by Stone Age farmers towards the end of the Neolithic, just under 5,000 years ago. This possibility is bolstered by the fact that red deer are known to have been introduced by ancient people to many islands of the Mediterranean.


Red deer may have been brought to Ireland by humans, then, but this is far from where human interference in their subsequent lives on the island ends. Although they had become plentiful and widespread across the island by the Middle Ages, in more recent centuries their numbers began to plummet. This was due in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the growth of towns, the spread of agriculture, as well as the rise in human population on the island. Such trends were seen right across western and central Europe, resulting in the near extinction of the red deer, and the same happened in Ireland, especially around the time of the Great Famine in the mid-nineteenth century.


Local extinctions took place right across the island at this time, to the point that only one wild population survived, in Killarney in Co. Kerry, ironically due to the lands of the Herbert and Kenmare estates being designated as a hunting reserve. In any case, in subsequent decades red deer were reintroduced to many areas of the country, but these were not Irish deer but ones from Britain and Europe. For example, the red deer in Donegal today can trace their ancestors to Scotland, while those in the other counties of Ulster as well as Co. Wicklow in Ireland’s east are also descendants of red deer from Britain.


Even the red deer of Kerry – who are the only members of this species on the island who can claim to be descendants of the original red deer in Ireland – had their ranks bolstered with stags brought in from abroad or from other locations within Ireland during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although it is unclear whether interbreeding ever actually took place.


The wild red deer of Kerry may not be as pure and wild as we might expect, then, although they are certainly closer to the true wild forms that inhabited the island in ancient times, the wild populations elsewhere being the descendants of escapees from populations reintroduced to deer parks in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


So, in most places in Ireland, the red deer do not have deep Irish roots at all, and do not descend from truly wild forms that inhabited the island in ancient times. But even this is not where the sullying of our notion of this cervid as a pure and wild inhabitant of Ireland ends, as we should also be aware that there are many red deer on the island that are not true red deer at all, but the hybrid offspring of the couplings of red deer with other species.


For instance, within just 15 years of the introduction of sika deer to the Powerscourt estate in Co. Wicklow in 1870, red deer had begun to interbreed with them. This continued to the point that today most of what appear to be red deer in Wicklow and neighbouring counties are actually red deer/sika deer hybrids, and a similar thing can be said of many ‘red deer’ in the north of the island.

Great shot of a group of red deer/sika deer hybrids on Camaderry Mountain in Co. Wicklow

On top of this, there are also red deer on the island that have interbred with another exotic deer brought to the island by humans, some of those in the Boyne valley in Co. Meath in central Ireland and in Co. Tyrone in the north displaying evidence of being partly decended from a deer of Canadian origin, the wapiti. The exact classification of the wapiti is debated, with some regarding it as a subspecies of the red deer, Cervus elaphus canadensis, and others viewing it as a species in its own right, Cervus canadensis. In either case, it is just one more example of Ireland’s red deer in most instances not being as pure, wild, and Irish as we might like to think.


So, our exploration of the Irish word for deer has brought us on a wild journey across space and time, from Ireland to Japan and North America, and from Stone Age farmers to Normans to nineteenth century aristocrats. As disparate as these points are, though, they all lead us ultimately to the same point – to a new understanding of the truth about Ireland’s deer. Though wild in name, they are not truly wild in nature, everything from their foundation on the island to their forms and features shaped and sculpted by a human hand.

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