DICK AHLSTROM, Science Editor
Irish Times
27 Mar 2012

Visit Nat’l Biodiversity Data Centre for description and super large photo of the Red deer – Click again on their thumbnail image to view (Photo: M Brown – NPWS)

MUCH IRISH history hinges on how long one must be resident here before being considered truly Irish. While the answer is highly contentious for humans, new research shows the Kerry red deer is as Irish as you can get, proven to be living here at least 5,000 years.

Analysis of ancient DNA recovered from the bone collection at the National Museum’s Natural History Museum shows the Kerry reds have roamed the mountains of Killarney for at least that long.

The reds in Kerry today are the direct descendants of those ancient herds, according to lead researcher Dr Ruth Carden, a scientist working at the National Museum. “They were coming up as very unique,” she said yesterday.

She decided to study the Kerry reds while based in Killarney and working towards her PhD. She would hear the males bellowing in their distinctive way during the rutting season, a sound that echoed across the hillsides. “I wanted to see if this sound might be the same sound heard by the early settlers in Ireland,” she said.

She assembled a team of scientists and won funding from the Heritage Council, Kerry County Council, Screebe Estate Galway and Ircset, the Irish research council for science, engineering and technology. The team publishes its findings this Friday in Quaternary Science Reviews.

The red deer species is widespread across northern Europe and the team had access to 1,400 DNA samples used for comparative purposes. Some of the bones held by the museum were as much as 30,000 years old. There are also populations of reds in other parts of Ireland North and South.

The genetic analysis showed that some of these herds were descended from animals imported from Britain in the 1800s and 1900s, matching historical records.

The DNA showed that the reds away from Kerry have started to “hybridise” or cross-breed with Sitka deer, a species introduced here in 1860. No such intermarrying for the Kerry red population, Dr Carden added. Sitkas also live in the forests of Killarney but the DNA analysis showed no interbreeding had yet taken place.

“They [the Kerry reds] represent a unique population within the Irish context. We feel they should be given some special conservation status,” Dr Carden said.

Ultimately, however, the Kerry reds, too, were “runners”, newcomers to Ireland brought here by the Neolithic “Irish” who first got to this island 9,000 years ago. Ultimately everyone is an import, with the Kerry reds originally hailing from what is now Britain.