Wednesday, 18 April 2018
I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for taking this matter on behalf of his colleague, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan. This situation speaks for itself and has led to a lot of recent publicity because there is an increase in comment, and more importantly, concern among residents and the general public.
Deer populations have greatly increased in the last few years. Before I get into the matter I would like to congratulate the Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, on the further investment announced in the national development plan for trails and other amenities in the national park. That is very important for Killarney and for tourism.
I refer to the deer situation. As I have said, the deer population has greatly increased. What is primarily needed is a proper management plan and engagement between the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Kerry County Council. In the last few years the deer are encroaching on farmland all over the place, well outside the national park. I know they are a wild animal and we cannot say they are totally the responsibility of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, but in a sense they are because that is the deer's' primary home. I know that farmers can get a licence, and if the deer are on their property and damaging vegetation and feed, they can deal with it. There has been a significant cull this year of about 97 animals. Once the culls are happening properly in the open season, I think it is proper.
We do not have an exact count for the native red or the sika, but the sika are also growing in number and, as we know, they are an imported species. The Kerry Deer Society, of which I am a member, would not mind seeing a huge reduction in the number of sika. They are more difficult to deal with than red deer. They probably do not do as much damage to grazing, but they are all over the place and there was an unfortunate incident on Innisfallen Island where a few of them were found starved to death because there was no grazing left for them and the number there has been culled down to about 20. I would argue that 20 is still too many sika to be left on Innisfallen Island, but that is a matter for the National Parks and Wildlife Service to consider further.
I wonder if the service is considering not alone depopulation, but translocation of deer. I am thinking of the Kerry red, and in the interests of genetic purity, that we could transport some of these deer to other national parks. I do not know about Ballycroy. It is a vast acreage in Mayo. There are some deer in Letterfrack already and in Doneraile. The State should consider other offshore islands. There have been some deer for years on Inishvickillane, thanks to the former Taoiseach, Mr. Haughey. There are other offshore islands that could be considered. Perhaps that would be good for the deer as well.
The concern is among neighbouring landowners on all sides of Killarney National Park - north, south, east and west. The deer are even encroaching slightly on the town, coming in at King's Bridge, opposite St. Mary's Cathedral. There are grass verges there and there has been some good grass growth. The deer have been encroaching during the night and have been photographed right outside the cathedral gates. That has been a new development.
I could go on about a whole lot of other aspects but I do not think there is any point. I am looking forward to hearing the statement the Minister of State has on the matter and I am sure we can have further engagement. However, I would ask in the interests of road safety as well as everything else, that there be an active engagement with Kerry County Council on the matter.
As Senator Coghlan will be aware, my Department together with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine published Deer Management in Ireland - A Framework for Action in 2015, which recommends a series of actions on deer management and conservation in a number of areas, including addressing the impact of deer in places where they are widespread.
There is a significant challenge in attempting to balance the demands of agriculture, forestry and conservation with the need to ensure that deer populations occupying the same land resource are managed at sustainable levels, and in a responsible and ethical manner. It should be noted that while the National Parks and Wildlife Service of my Department does license the hunting of deer, my Department does not own the deer population. They roam freely throughout the countryside and are present in many parts of the country. It is not part of the remit of the Department, nor indeed would it be generally possible to cordon them onto specific areas of land. Ultimately, however, where deer species are increasing in range and numbers, depending on the annual count and instances of damage caused by deer to habitats, especially woodland, culls need to be carried out to ensure that deer populations do not reach levels that would have negative ecological consequences.
With regard to Killarney National Park in particular, Senator Coghlan will be aware that the Department, as part of its regular ongoing management operations, carries out localised annual deer counts on State lands, where appropriate. Deer have the potential to impact significantly on woodlands, including the iconic yew, oak and also wet woodlands within the park, for example by bark stripping of mature trees and preventing regeneration.
My Department commissioned a comprehensive survey and report in the winter of 2016 on the distribution, population density and population structure of red deer and sika deer in Kerry national park. The study found that the total estimated red deer density over the entire study area of 13.64 sq. km. was some 708 deer. A further census of areas of the park was commissioned by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, southern division and conducted in spring 2017. On foot of these reports circa100 deer have been culled within the park to date during 2018. This is in addition to more than 120 deer which have been culled between 2015 and 2017.
As part of the Department’s ongoing proactive management of the habitats and species in Killarney National Park, it is also proposed to conduct a Killarney National Park deer census during 2018. This work will be undertaken by external specialists. It is hoped to initiate this process shortly. As mentioned earlier, the Department does not own the deer population. Deer are wild animals and they roam freely throughout the countryside. Control of deer on private property is the responsibility of landowners. Wild deer in the State are protected under the Wildlife Acts, however, there is an annual open season during which deer can be legally shot under licence. The open season for deer operates generally from 1 September to the last day of February, depending on the species and gender of deer. Landowners may also apply to the Department for a permission under section 42 of the Wildlife Acts to cull deer where necessary outside the annual open seasons.These permissions offer a facility whereby a person can obtain a permit, on a case-by-case basis, to prevent serious damage caused by individual deer on specific lands. Permissions are only issued where there is evidence of such damage.
The Department has granted over 5,000 deer hunting licences for the current deer hunting season. Licences are issued for an annual period with all licences expiring on 31 July 2018. Last year the Department issued 21 section 42 permits for deer in Kerry. To date this year, eight section 42 permits for deer have been granted for Kerry with nine applications currently under consideration.
The Senator will also be aware of the issue of fencing, which has sometimes been raised with regard to deer management in Killarney National Park. There are no plans to fence the national park. Fencing it would not be a viable solution and would not achieve the desired results for a number of reasons. The presence of deer is not confined to the national parks and consequently fencing of these properties would serve no practical purpose in terms of wild deer control or management. The park is over 10.000 ha in size, including some rugged terrain. Fencing this area would be an enormous task that is unlikely to result in the desired objective. Sika deer are capable of going under fencing that is eight inches off the ground, while red deer are capable of knocking down fences that are preventing them from reaching traditional feeding and shelter grounds. The erection of a fence this size could also impact on the sensitive habitats within the park. There are many deer outside the park boundaries. I am aware that there have been cases where wild deer have been involved in collisions with vehicles. I am of the view that improving sight lines for motorists, as well as improved, possibly larger, signage is likely to be the most effective measure to assist motorists in remaining vigilant when driving through areas where populations of deer can be expected.
Officials from the Department have discussed this with Kerry County Council and I understand that Kerry County Council has prepared a scheme of works, which includes a number of measures including the trimming back of overhanging tree branches and the enhancement and relocation of roadside signs etc., in this regard.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am delighted to hear his remarks towards the end regarding the work with Kerry County Council and the scheme of works it is preparing. I accept there always has been culling of old and infirm animals, I refer to the native red deer primarily, which has been important but it is now necessary to do more. There are over 200 deer at Knockreer and Killarney golf club alone, which is only a small section of Killarney National Park. In Muckross there are several herds, which is apart from what is on Torc, Mangerton and the rugged terrain which was referred to. I am sceptical about the number given of 708 but am delighted that another deer count by external specialists will be undertaken this year, which I welcome very much.
The Minister of State spoke of the number of licences that had been issued. It is quite in order for farmers to be allowed do this on their own ground because if the deer are on their land, they are the farmer's property. However, within Killarney National Park, where so many people roam freely through trails and walks, it is essential that the Department would not issue licences to anyone apart from its own staff or rangers.