Eamon Ryan’s new front: War on Ireland’s deer

In fairness, I suppose this is the logical alternative to bringing back wolves, a proposal which, when the same Minister made it, didn’t exactly go down well with a lot of people:

Environment Minister Eamon Ryan has called for a cull of deer across the country.

Mr Ryan has said both deer and goats are doing significant damage across the country and restoring biodiversity must be a priority.

“There’s a major problem we have with both deer, particularly deer and goats grazing so that no young trees can grow.

We do need to manage that deer population. It’s a serious issue.”

First, some context: Nobody knows how many wild deer there are in Ireland, because no census of the deer population has been carried out in years. But, it’s fair to say, the numbers are large: In the 2018 deer hunting season, more than 40,000 animals were shot dead in Ireland legally, by hunters. That’s the number we’re killing every year without any official cull.

That slaughter on this scale is happening, and that despite that, the deer population is anecdotally growing in size, suggests that the baseline population of wild deer in Ireland must be in the hundreds of thousands of breeding animals.

Regular readers will know that yours truly, when it comes to animal welfare and animal rights, is much closer to Greta Thunberg than I am to the median, stereotypical right winger. The notion of the Irish Government conducting a wholesale slaughter of deer, just because we find their presence inconvenient, is something that instinctively repels me, as, I’m sure, it will instinctively repel many others.

But then, their growth to unsustainable levels – if indeed their growth has reached unsustainable levels – is ultimately our fault. We did, after all, slaughter all the bears and wolves, and a great many of the eagles. The job of those departed predators in our ecosystem has always been to keep it in balance, by eating a fair number of painfully cute baby deer, as well as the old and the sick. Without those predators here to do that job, well, it falls to us.

Which makes me wonder, and “bear” with me here (sorry), whether it might not be time to take a second look at wolves and other predators?

The principle objection to wolves is, of course, farming: Wolves will hunt deer, if they’re available. But wolves, upon reaching these shores, might find rather quickly that sheep are easier to catch, and rather plumper and juicier, than the average deer. Much of what one might term the Irish “wilderness” is already given over to mountain-grazed sheep – just drive through Killarney, home to many of our deer, if you do not believe me. Sticking signs on those sheep that read “don’t eat me, Mr. Wolf” is unlikely to discourage a reintroduced lupine population from choosing the easier, fluffier meal over the deer.

It follows that any attempt at re-wilding, then, would involve large and significant compensation payments to farmers. The principle problem being – as readers familiar with the “worrying” problem presented by domestic dogs will know – that wolves might only kill the odd sheep, but in the process, they might cause tens of other sheep to drop dead of panic and stress. Functionally, huge areas of land presently used for grazing would become unusable for that purpose overnight. The compensation costs would run into tens of millions.

The other problem is one of planning: Other countries in which wolves are present have huge, unbuilt on tracts of land where wolves can exist and live a whole lifetime without encountering a human. That simply isn’t true of anywhere in Ireland – even our (tiny by international standards) national parks, many of which have residential homes right in the middle of them. Wolf-Human conflict would be assured.

So that leaves us with option “A” – putting bullets in tens of thousands of deer, none of whom have really done anything to deserve it, beyond committing the terrible crime in Eamon Ryan’s eyes of eating too many leaves.

I confess that, in the longer term, I think the country might benefit more from a serious and well thought out plan to re-introduce some top-tier predators. Wildlife tourism is a massive and growing international market, and is probably more lucrative than the returns gained from grazing sheep on the mountainsides of Killarney. Killarney national park as a location where one could encounter (from a safe distance) Brown Bears and Packs of Wolves might hold much appeal to international visitors, much as the Puffins on Skellig do.

But doing it, I fear, would require more planning, consultation, policing, and public compensation than the Irish state is willing to countenance, or, to be frank, has the competence to deliver.

Bullets it is, then.

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