Kings of Bunratty castle
Forget Bambi, Ireland's ancient breed of deer may be graceful but they're definitely not doe-eyed. As a new herd finds its home in the grounds of the Co Clare folk park, our reporter meets Bunratty's deer keeper
Bunratty is all about history. Strolling around the famous Castle & Folk Park, located just a few miles outside the Clare county town of Ennis, the visitor passes easily between eras: from a sleek post-millennial reception/entry area to the recreation of a 19th-century Irish village and farming life, and further back to the 15th-century castle itself, with its medieval banquets and lavish adornments.
But let's go back further again than that - much further. In the castle's Great Hall, there are massive antlers on display from the great Irish elk: a 10,000-year-old reminder of the ancestral forebears of the red deer, one of Ireland's most iconic animals. (A fact proven by scooting forward in time once more: remember how our old £1 coin had a graven image of a deer on one side?)
So, deer are central to the Irish cultural experience; how we have engaged with the natural world for millennia. This magnificent beast is central to the Bunratty experience too and, this January, after a short gap, they came back to the Folk Park.
"This is a return to the norm for us, really," deer keeper Brian O'Leary says, "rather than introducing something brand new. We always felt the presence of deer tied in with the whole folk park experience. People see the elk antlers in the castle, then come out to the park and draw a correlation between the two. And the idea that the lord in this area would have gone out hunting deer with his wolfhounds - it all ties in thematically."
The park now has three adult deer, two females and one male. The females are both in calf at the moment, their offspring due at the end of the month. Bunratty last kept deer in 2015, when a long-standing tradition was temporarily ended for a few reasons, as Brian explains: "At that time we'd had the same stag for a number of years and were in the position of having to change the herd up, so as to avoid the threat of inbreeding. We probably needed to spend some money too on upgrading their enclosure.
"So we moved out the deer we had then and got reorganised. Now we've done all this fencing around the field. And the two females in calf aren't bred to the stag we have, so if they were to have female young, we could breed them with him, without any danger of inbreeding. It was just a case of putting a plan in place to get the deer back and making it work."
A friendly, dark-haired thirtysomething, hailing from Newmarket-on-Fergus just up the road, Brian's official title at Bunratty is facilities manager. But that covers a raft of responsibilities. "Under that, I'd be handling all the normal things that come under facilities," he says, "and as well as that, animals come under my remit."
A graduate in agriculture, with follow-on qualifications in animal husbandry, welfare and nutrition, Brian and his team tend to a large array of animals over Bunratty's 26 acres: sheep, Shetland ponies, goats (always a hit with children), hens, ducks, geese, shorthorn cattle, donkeys and - we'll come to these presently - two rather large dogs.
The deer enclosure is in a large field, situated along a winding path through the folk park, towards the manor house and walled garden. On a sunny, damp morning, the foliage a vivid green from sunlight on recent rain, we watch the animals grazing. They seem so placid and tame, with those huge eyes and graceful movements, but Brian stresses the importance of remembering: deer are wild animals, not domesticated.
"We have to respect their boundaries and their environment," he says. "So at the moment it's a case of 'leave them be' and just observe from a safe distance. When the stag is rutting, he'll have a lot of vigour up, and there could be a danger of him trying to assert his dominance. That's when you have to be really careful around him. If you come into his field, you're the target! It's millions of years of evolution at work, so you need to be cautious. At the moment I'd comfortably walk out to their trough there and put feed in it. Come September, the trough will be down here by the gate. I'll feed them and then disappear."
Even the females - less aggressive, for basic biochemical reasons - have to be handled with kid gloves once their young arrive. "It's like any large animal," Brian adds, "even a cow. She might be the quietest animal in the world this week, but if she's calving next week, it's a different story. She'll be more wary and maybe aggressive. That's just nature."
There are a lot of wild deer in Ireland, and their numbers are rising: in Wicklow, the National Park in Killarney, Phoenix Park in Dublin and, increasingly, across rural Ireland, with the amount of forestry being planted giving them safe cover. They primarily eat vegetation; when really hungry, they'll eat the bark off trees. Not an ideal diet for deer, but sometimes necessary in a very hard winter, such as the one just gone. The deer adapt and make do to survive.
The Bunratty trio, however, arrived from a breeder. "If we'd taken them from the wild," Brian says, "they wouldn't have settled here. They wouldn't be comfortable; their stress levels would be high. In fact, when you bring animals from the wild into a controlled environment, they might not survive at all. They're not used to captivity, regular feeding, all that.
"Then there's the safety of staff and visitors. That's paramount, with the amount of people coming here. We're always bearing that in mind when bringing animals in."
There's a real science to all of this, though a lot of it seems to be pure intuition as well. As Brian says, "You have a plan for what you'd like to happen" - but animals, like the gods of Ancient Greece, sometimes laugh when men make plans.
He tells us of their intention to bring in a cow this year, for hand-milking and butter-making demonstrations. "But," he goes on, "we had to go through 10 cows before we got the right one. The others weren't suitable at all; it just didn't work. Employees could be in danger if her temperament isn't right, and that's a risk we just wouldn't take. Same thing with a horse, you go through five or six. You just get a sense straight away, watching the animal, using your experience, of how it'll work."
His deer had been "farmed", so to speak, and therefore were used to boundaries, being around people and interacting with them, being housed over the winter, getting fodder instead of scavenging for food. The females are well set for delivery of their calves - the normal pregnancy results in one offspring, and generally there's no problem. The best thing Brian and his team can do, he says, is give them peace and quiet to get on with the job.
He laughs, recalling how some previous inhabitants of the park would have their young and it might be days before anyone noticed. "We had a big trunk of a tree at one side of the field, where one of our deer calved. And the calf was there tucked against the side of it, camouflaged, and nobody noticed for days. And that's with a lot of people passing by, staff and visitors. Then one morning someone was passing and saw this young deer jumping about!"
The stag, meanwhile, is two years old, with a lot of growing yet to do. His first rutting season happens this September and October, and because of his youth "he won't be as aggressive as a full-grown stag weighing 300kg, with huge big antlers. By the time he's full-grown, he'll have settled into his surroundings and we'll be a bit more comfortable in dealing with him."
This guy will also grow an extra point on his antlers, one each year, which by full maturity could number up to 12: referred to as a "royal" stag. In the wild, a deer's average lifespan is around 15 years, but here in Bunratty that can stretch to 20.
It's a kinder life; they're well looked after, and never in a position where they have to scavenge for food - for instance, during extreme weather conditions. If an animal has an accident, it will be treated by the park's 24/7 on-call veterinary service.
Should one of the females get into difficulty calving, they can assist. The stag won't be in fights with other stags, getting injured, contracting an infection, bleeding out. As Brian says with a wry smile, "There are no antibiotics in the wild."
Final question: apart from the imminent newborns, will the deer be joined by more? "Well, it's always going to be at a controlled level," Brian says, "and we're comfortable with what we have at the moment. We wanted to make sure we were really on top of caring for them. Starting off again, there was no point bringing in five or six deer and then running into difficulty, with disease control or anything else. We felt this was a comfortable number. Let the animals get used to their surroundings.
"And again, because the stag is unrelated to the two females, there is the possibility of breeding him with their young, if we do want to expand. That gives us a buffer of another year - see how we go with these, are we comfortable with our care of what we have, and then make a decision on expanding the numbers. We want to feel fully confident before doing that."