Now is a great time to go into the mountains and see Wicklow’s larger land animals. Yesterday I went to Glendalough. The rut was on, when the stags roar and bellow threats at each other across the mountainsides, but they were almost invisible against the dried brown autumn bracken. During the rut they fight for the right to mate with the females. However, although they seem to be mere voices on the breeze, if you look very, very carefully you soon discover that the deer are hiding in plane sight.
If you scanned the landscape carefully you could see two enormous billy goats grazing on the valley floor near the old lead mine. The goats (Capra hircus) in the Wicklow mountains are normally referred to as “Feral Goats”, but they have almost certainly been living here as wild animals for many centuries, if not thousands of years. Whatever they were originally (which I feel still remains to be proven) they are definitely wild goats today, and must be treated with the caution you would reserve for any large wild animal. Goats are well able to butt someone who gets too close, with their reinforced rock-hard skulls. However, in tourist-infested Glendalough they are apparently quite comfortable in the presence of tourists, although rarely noticed by the visitors. It does take a keen eye to spot them in this rugged environment.
The goats here do get very large, especially the males, being about shoulder height to an adult human. They can be very handsome and the epitome of wildness, with massive scimitar horns. And they are among my favourite denizens of the mountains.
Behind the goats, almost invisible to the naked eye, were the deer. They were everywhere across the valley wall, but virtually impossible to see although they were literally a stone’s throw away. To spot deer in this terrain really does test your eyesight. Anyhow, these deer are much more deserving of the title “feral” since they are almost all partially, if not mostly, Japanese Sika. This is where we come to one of the grey-areas of science. Although the indigenous Irish Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) and the much smaller Sika (Cervus nippon) look quite different, they are in fact the exact same species, and not much more different to each other than Irish people are to Japanese people. The Sika were released in Powerscourt Estate in the late 19th century and quickly spread throughout Wicklow and began breeding very successfully with the Red Deer. So now Wicklow has a strange cross-breed. “Hybrid” is too strong a word in this case. Anyhow, any naturalist who saw the deer in the photo below would identify these females as Sika. The word “Sika” simply means “deer” in Japanese.
Finally a word about the sheep in the Wicklow mountains, the so-called Wicklow Cheviots. Many people wonder why there is a blue dye sprayed onto their fleeces, some people assuming that these are the equivalent of brands or ear-tags. This is not, in fact, the case. You will notice that the dye is sprayed on their rumps. That’s because these are all ewes, and the dye is put there by the farmers to mark them as females that have successfully mated with a ram, and so a closer eye can be kept on them in winter and spring when lambing begins.
Anyhow, these creatures are all up in the mountains right now, not far from the car parks, toilets, restaurants and other creature comforts we humans rely on, so pay a visit to the Upper Lake are of Glendalough and keep your eyes peeled for the big mammals.