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Dublin: 4 °C Sunday 15 December, 2019

Copper deficiency believed to be cause of distressing condition among Red deer in Killarney National Park

Killarney once had one of the richest copper deposits in the country.

Image: Christopher Brown via Irish Deer Commission

VETERINARY TESTS HAVE identified “copper deficiency” in the Killarney National Park, as the probable cause of a distressing condition among the region’s unique Red deer this autumn, the Department in charge of the National Parks and Wildlife Service has said.

Killarney had once one of the richest copper deposits in the country and boasted a thriving copper mining industry and a lakeside copper mining trail is a popular walk in the national park.

The Department of Culture Heritage and the Gaeltacht say tests of a small number of deer have shown they are suffering from “enzootic ataxia” a condition brought on by copper deficiency.

However the diagnoses is being questioned by the conservation and deer management body the Irish Deer Commission which first spotted unusual stumbling and staggering among the Killarney Reds this autumn.

The Irish Deer Commission says it is rare among wild deer and this will is the first time ever it will have occurred among wild deer in Ireland.

The commission had suspected the deer were affected by a fungus on ryegrass which can bring about a condition known as “staggers” involving stumbling and convulsions and even death, and it called for a thorough investigation and the destruction of all ryegrass within the national park.

A stag with stunted horns was observed in a distressing condition on the fringes of the annual rut walk organised by rangers and the commission to observe the 6,000 year old rut in Killarney in October.

However, now according to the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, several of the deer carcasses sent for tests to the regional veterinary laboratory confirmed the animals were not suffering from Staggers.

“There were a number of recent media reports suggesting that a number of Red Deer in Killarney National Park were potentially suffering from ‘Staggers’. The NPWS in observing behaviours recently in a very limited number of deer (6-8 deer) followed the appropriate veterinary protocols to ascertain the cause and sent several of the deer for tests at the Regional Veterinary Laboratory (RVL),” it said.

The results from these tests have confirmed that the animals were afflicted in fact by enzootic ataxia, which is a condition that can be brought on by copper deficiency.

“This is a natural occurring phenomenon that happens where the animal(s) in question fails to get the necessary trace elements (copper) from their food sources,” the Department said.

A very small number of animals have been identified as having the copper deficiency in the park.

“Further tests and sampling in conjunction with the RVL, to determine the extent of the issue within the Red Deer herd in Killarney National Park, were to be carried out,” the Department also said.

The Irish Deer Commission says while it has no reason to doubt the diagnosis made by the laboratory in Cork, “enzootic ataxia is very unusual in wild deer ” and it was not aware of such a diagnosis in Irish wild deer previously.

“The Commission are consulting with leading deer veterinary experts who believe copper deficiency is no means the sole cause of the condition and may be complicated by elevated levels of other elements in the forage and soil of Killarney National Park,” its spokesman Damien Hannigan said.

It is known there are also other conditions that produce the same clinical signs to enzootic ataxia, such as the staggers condition, he added. 

“It is critical we fully understand the cause of the condition and negate any risks to the future conservation status of this unique and important deer herd. The suggested enzootic ataxia diagnosis creates more questions than answers,” Hannigan said.

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Anne Lucey

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