Donal Hickey: Deer birth patterns evolving

Donal Hickey: Deer birth patterns evolving

An ongoing cull is resulting in a major reduction in the deer population in one of the country’s most visited natural attractions.

For a third successive winter, a heavy cull is under way in Killarney National Park. Close to 400 native Red and Sika deer were taken out during 2018/19 and there could be a further 200 this year.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) uses skilled marksmen to carry out what it describes as a humane cull while farmers are also given permits to shoot deer trespassing on their lands.

In recent years, with the deer population at well over 1,000, there have been regular calls for a reduction in the herd.

The irony is that in the early 1960s, Red deer numbers fell to extremely low levels, largely because of shootings, and laws to protect them were enacted.

Since then, however, that protection has allowed numbers to grow massively, resulting in problems caused by deer straying outside the park, being involved in road accidents, cases of starvation due to a lack of food for expanding numbers, as well as damage to woodlands and farmland.

Deer crossing roads have been involved in numerous traffic accidents, some believed to be fatal.

However, reduced numbers are understood to be leading to a drop in road accidents and are also welcomed by farmers.

Meanwhile, deer in the Scottish Highlands are evolving because of climate change, with researchers reporting genetic changes in birth patterns of deer on the Isle of Rum.

Warmer temperatures encourage deer to give birth earlier in the year and the early breeding gene has become more common. Scientists say it is rare to see evolution over such a short period. T

he deer have been giving birth earlier since the 1980s, at a rate of about three days per decade. And deer which give birth earlier have more calves over their lifetime.

The gene which causes earlier birth is, therefore, much more common among the Rum deer population over time.

This is an example of natural selection, the theory of evolution developed by Charles Darwin under which animals adapt to a changing environment, helping them to survive and have more offspring.

A team, including scientists from the University of Edinburgh, made the discovery.

The NPWS says it’s not aware of any changes in birth patterns of Irish deer.

But, there’s a feeling in areas like Killarney that over-population is leading to late calving and smaller calves.

Separately, Dúlra Beo, in Ballyvourney, Co Cork, begins its 2020 lectures tomorrow (tues) night with a talk in the local Ionad Culturtha on permaculture by Paul Ó Loingsigh.

Permaculture is all about environmentally-friendly gardening and farming.

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