Sunday 18 August 2019

Hunted stag that swam out to sea

MAJESTIC: Red deer stag
MAJESTIC: Red deer stag

Joe Kennedy

Media stories involving deer are rare. There have been a couple recently. They don't usually have happy endings like Rudolph, who went down in history because of his nose!

I have a boyhood memory of a stag exhausted by the chase, escaping and standing hidden and trembling amid the dense brush and rubble of an ancient burial ground. Earlier, as men, dogs and horses trotted along, I had opened a field gate for them to pass. The clink of metal meant a 'tanner' or two for my services.

On my way home past the graveyard, I disturbed the deer which crashed through into an open field, antlered head held high towards the only visible exit, a tunnel beneath a railway bank. This open mouth led to a lane which beckoned onwards towards the tang of the sea. By now the huntsmen had long galloped in another direction.

The stag reached the foreshore and entered the water and began swimming towards a cluster of rocks occupied by a gathering of great black-backed gulls (old men of the sea), but could not find a foothold. It swam on, not back towards the shore, but towards other rocky outcrops on which there would be no footing. I felt that, exhausted, this would inevitably end in its watery demise.

My mother thought otherwise.

She felt the stag might have gone out of sight round a headland and have come ashore. I wanted to believe her.

The hunters' objective was to have cornered and captured the stag and returned it to the hunt deer-park. For some years now, this practice has been illegal. Deer have been hunted in Ireland since earliest times - antler bone pins have been found at Neolithic sites - but the Normans put their military stamp on it in the 12th Century when they brought their own spotted breed to join the native reds on the hills.

The Celts held the stag in high esteem as lord of the forest for its nobility, swiftness and strength. Its branching horns or points being regarded as symbols of the fertility of the forest itself. The shedding and regrowth of the antlers was equated to the natural cycle of death and regeneration.

There are three species of deer in Ireland - the native red (rua fia), fallow (fia bui) of the Normans (best known as the herd in the Phoenix Park) and the smaller sika, introduced to the Powerscourt Demesne from Japan in the mid-19th Century. There is some hybridisation, oddly enough, of the sika and native red (which is as big as a pony).

Stag antlers are variable ,and the number of points, from around eight to 40 depending on the size of the animal, are not age calculators, but the antlers get smaller as the animals age. Weekend countryside ramblers sometimes pick them up as souvenirs - as do red squirrels.

A Scots photographer of Highlands wildlife stumbled on this fact, and found the squirrels liked to chew on the bone. He tied an antler near a nut feeder for some covert camera shots and caught them gnawing away. It's the calcium content, apparently. Field mice also fancy a nibble - as do the deer themselves.

Sunday Independent

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