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Friday 18 October 2019

Irish Giant Deer was a truly magnificent beast

Extinct mature male Irish Deer were adorned with antlers with a span of up to 3.6m, the length of a car
Extinct mature male Irish Deer were adorned with antlers with a span of up to 3.6m, the length of a car

Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

Variously known as the Giant Irish Elk, the Irish Elk, the Irish Giant Deer, the Irish Deer and the Giant Deer, the species of our prehistoric wildlife that roamed our green and pleasant land at the end of the last Ice Age had the distinction of having the largest pair of antlers ever recorded on any deer-like animal.

Only mature males bore these huge antlers and they shed them each year. Why the antlers grew so big and so complex is a topic of much debate. It appears they were too big for fighting so it is likely they were mainly for show.

Many antlers have been found in peat bogs, lake sediments and other wet places. While antlers and skeletons are well known, nobody knows exactly what the animal looked like. There were, of course, no people in Ireland during the time when the deer were plentiful.

Standing as tall at the shoulder as a man and weighing an estimated 700kg, the animal's range extended from Ireland right across Europe and Asia to China. There were people in mainland Europe, and it is known that they hunted the bulky beasts south of the extreme southern limit of the ice sheets.

The image above is an artist's impression of what the animal probably looked like and how it stood relative to the size of an Ice Age hunter. It was a truly magnificent beast. One still alive and stuck in a bog would have been easy prey and a rich supply of meat for the hunters with their relatively simple stone tools.

The animal's special link with Ireland is that most of the best examples of antlers and skeletons were found here simply because so much of our land-cover is bog relative to other countries. And, technically, the animal is not an elk; it was a deer, so its preferred name is the Irish Deer or the Giant Deer.

Most Irish Giant Deer remains date from 11,000 or 12,000 years ago, the time when the ice had finally melted, and grass flourished. In good summers deer fed on lush vegetation, in severe winters the only pickings would probably have been bark and twigs.

Worldwide, the animal became extinct about 8,000 years ago. Why the Irish Deer failed to survive in places like Siberia is not understood. Possible causes of extinction include climate change or some other ecological change, inbreeding, disease, and/or hunting pressures by early peoples.

Gorey Guardian

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