DUFF HART-DAVIS and JEROME REILLY IT IS 10,000 years since the last giant Irish Elk with its 10-foot wide antlers grazed in Ireland's deep forests. And though the noble beast is long extinct, naturalists have long been puzzled as to how, and why, it grew such magnificent headgear.
Now a strange tale from the heart of Connemara has provided experts with an intriguing clue. Red stags introduced to the west of Ireland some years ago by the owner of a large estate with an interest in wildlife have astonished experts by growing to an immense size and producing magnificent antlers.
The red deer named the Warlock, Noddy, the Pirate and the Mugger are (or were) freakishly large. The latter two were culled because of age but their heads have been preserved, and when the antlers were measured earlier this month, they both came within a whisker of the all-time best recorded in Britain.
Ian Watson, the official recorder for the CIC (Conseil International de la Chasse - the world body for the regulation of big-game hunting), came here to assess them, and admitted he was "quite taken aback" by their dimensions.
In the complex CIC system, points are awarded for the length and span of antlers, as well as for weight. The Pirate scored 221 (against the 55-year-old record of 224), and the Mugger 213.
Ten years ago, Nikolai Burkart, a German industrialist, released 16 young red deer at Screebe, his Connemara estate. His aim was to reintroduce a species that had been present for centuries in this country, until the last few were shot during the famine 150 years ago.
But Mr Burkart was surprised the deer have grown to such splendid proportions - towering over the red deer of the Scottish Highlands.
Male deer cast their antlers every spring and then grow a new set, gradually improving for 10 years or so. For practical purposes, they are rated by the number of tines, or points, the antlers carry. A mature, top-class Highland stag, known as a Royal, has 12 points, and a 14-pointer - an Imperial - is rare.
Connemara's stags are in a different league. Heads of 24 points or more have become common, and several have exceeded 30 points. The most striking animal of all, thePirate, had 44.
Weights tell the same story. A good Highland stag carcass weighs about 16 stone. The red deer of Connemara weigh twice that, at least.
But what has produced such phenomenal growth?
Experts suggest a number of factors.
Firstly the animals are descended from top-class stock via Co Wicklow with their ancestors, in turn, derived from the herd in Warnham Park, in Surrey in England.
The second reason which may offer an intriguing insight into ancient times is the environment. What appears to be hostile terrain in Connemara has underlying limestone which is taken up in the vegetation. That helps build bone and antler.
A third factor is the good feeding in the unfenced conifer woodlands owned by Coillte, the state forestry organisation. Analysis of droppings, carried out by biologists from NUI Galway has shown that the deer have become predominantly browsers rather than grazers. Some 80 per cent of their food consists of bramble leaves, heather, willow shoots, and just 20 per cent is grass. Luckily, they do practically no damage to the conifers.
The giant Irish Elk maintained its enormous antlers despite the privations of the last Ice Age, when it might have been expected that they would have reduced due to food scarcity. Research carried out some years ago by Adrian Lister of University College London found that these so-called "luxury" organs - the antlers - remained impressively large.
The Natural History Museum (runs by the National Museum of Ireland), on Merrion Street, Dublin, behind Dail Eireann boasts skeletons of giant Irish deer at the entrance to the display of native fauna on the ground floor.
Their present-day descendants in Connemara spent the first four months in an enclosure, but since then they have never been confined and are truly wild.
Paul Wood, deer manager on the estate, has come to know its animals well. The Pirate was so called because he lost an eye when spiked by a sharp branch, the Mugger because he was so aggressive during the autumn rut.
"The Pirate was an absolute gentleman," says Paul. "He was chivalrous to a degree, even during the rut, when other stags challenged him for the possession of hinds, and he stuck around the same area all year round."
The Mugger, by contrast, was a thug, and after the rut each year would push off on his own, swimming a mile across Lough Corrib, to live alone in Co Mayo until breeding time came around again.
Now Warlock, one of his sons, has inherited his mantle and character. Last year his sixth head carried 34 points, and his body is massive. "He's already a tremendous beast," says Paul, "and he's going to get bigger still. In the autumn, I saw him kill another young stag by hooking it in the groin with one antler, throwing it over and smashing its rib cage with four heavy charges - bang, bang, bang, bang."
Herr Burkart attributes much of the success of his experiment to the devoted, low-key management carried out by Paul Wood, and the rest to "a good dose of luck".
He confesses that he is "thrilled to bits" with the way things have gone, but insists that his aim is not to break records. Rather, he is delighted "to have put a wonderful species back in the place where it belongs".