Red deer

Cervus elaphus Fia rua

It is probably only as a result of conservation efforts that this magnificent animal is still found wild in Ireland, for it has suffered the ravages of habitat destruction and persecution for centuries. Formerly a creature of the forests, it has adapted to life above the tree-line and the last herds are found in the mountain moorlands of Donegal and Kerry. It is thought that the only truly native Red deer remaining are found in Kerry; those found elsewhere have been affected by introduction and hybridisation with Sika deer.

Red deer are herbivores, relishing rough grasses, mosses and other mountain herbs. These are supplemented by woodland understorey plants in winter when the deer come down to the shelter of the trees.

Access to the best grazing is dependent on the hierarchical system of the herd. The dominant male and his harem gain this privilege, thus ensuring the continued strength of the strain. Intense sparring during the rutting season is characteristic of Red deer. Deep gutteral roaring heralds the start of the rut and acts as a warning to potential rivals.

The hind reaches calf-bearing age at four, and a single offspring is produced in spring. It is nurtured for almost a year and the young stay with the hinds for about two years. The males leave the groups of females and young for the winter after losing their antlers and do not rejoin them again until the following spring.

The male Red deer is as large as a pony (41/2ft/ 1.35m high at the shoulder) and may weigh over 440lb (200kg). The antlers, which are mere spikes in the young males, are majestic, multi-forked branches in the adult stags. The hinds are more slightly built than the stags and have a less threatening demeanour. Both males and females have warm red-brown coats, an oval-shaped, buff-coloured rump patch and dark tails in summer. In winter the coat colour becomes darker and greyer. Red deer fawns have real 'Bambi' looks, with their long gangly legs, rusty-coloured, white-spotted back and gentle expression.

Due to the extinction of their natural predators, the Wolf and the Golden Eagle (which preyed on fawns), Red deer numbers have to be controlled by man. In the past, his influence had been steadily depleting stocks. Nowadays, culling is officially restricted, though poaching remains a depleting factor.