Sika stalking in County Kerry
Holland & Holland’s Steve Rawsthorne heads into the McGillycuddy Reeks in wildest County Kerry in pursuit of elusive and wily sika.
Until very recently I had never heard of The McGillycuddy Reeks. The Reeks are a mountain range in County Kerry in the southwest of Ireland. The name comes from the 18th century, when one O’Sullivan Mor sent his son Mac Giolla to be taught by Saint Mochuda at Lismore. The son later became known as Mac Giolla Mochuda, and this was anglicised to become McGillycuddys Reeks. Reek is a Hiberno-English version of ‘rick’, meaning a stack, thus the name translates as ‘The Black Stacks’, a mountain range 12 miles long – the highest peak being Carrauntoohil at 1,038m in height. To put this in context, Snowdon is 975m and Ben Nevis is 1,345m.
A couple of years ago I had a brilliant – very light and rigid – carbon fibre stock made for a rifle of mine by Edmund Graef of PSE composites. We have kept in touch since and last year Edmund invited me to stalk sika with him and his good friend, Dominic O’Hea.
I flew to Cork from London and Edi took me to see his production facility in Kinsale, after which I met Dominic at his house for a great dinner cooked by his wife Teresa.
There was much talk of what was to come, and it rapidly became obvious this was not going to be a walk in a nice, flat park. Later we drove two hours through a gale and driving rain to Kenmare Bay where Dominic had borrowed a house for a few days. We were joined there by his son Wayne and friend Barry, both of whom would be hunting with us.
Somehow, the forecasters had got it dramatically wrong. The next morning the wind had dropped completely and the sun was peeking through odd shreds of cloud. Barry, Wayne and I set off into the hills, parking up at a barrier and then stalking on foot through a forestry block. The dense spruce plantations provide ideal cover for the sika to lie-up in during the day, before they venture out to feed at dawn and dusk. We hoped that after the weather the night before, there would be some out feeding on the open hill. The track we were on led us out there, climbing steadily all the way into scrub oak and silver birch and then petering out altogether into boggy expanses of heather, gorse and grasses which are interspersed with outcrops of rock. It is very similar to stalking in parts of Scotland.
The going was hard underfoot, we were in beautiful wild country, and there were no paths and no way of getting a carcase off the hill except in a backpack...
We crested a ridge and emerged from the treeline. To our right was a stunning lake with the hill rising behind it. Barry told me that there are ferox trout well over 2ft long in it and I wished we had brought a light tackle rod with us as well as the rifles! There was a fantastic royal red stag nearby, a truly magnificent animal. As detailed later, it is absolutely prohibited to shoot reds in Kerry; the reds here are the last of the native Irish red deer.
My Holland & Holland .300 was beginning to weigh on my shoulders; stalking in the south of England is a little softer. Rounding the end of the ridge, we were looking across an open bowl-shaped depression, 500–600 yards across and bifurcated by a small ridge with a few sheep and, hooray, at last, a sika hind.
From our position on the rim of the bowl there was a lot of open ground ahead and getting closer was going to be difficult. My Leica Geovids put the range at 337 yards and I would be shooting off sticks – a long shot!
With no wind, I held over about 12" and took my time to ensure the sight picture was correct, steadied my breathing and gently squeezed off the shot. The sound of the strike was clearly audible and the hind took off over the ridge, disappearing from sight.
We gave it 10 minutes and then went down to her. The shot was right where I wanted it, just behind both shoulders, and she had only run 25 yards or so. Had there been any wind at all, I would not have taken the shot – this is why you really do need to put in the time training on the range.
I was surprised at how small she was – the effect of a hard life on the hill. We gralloched her, loaded her into the rucksack and headed back to the car, seeing only a fleeting glance of another sika on the edge of a forestry plantation.
I had been advised to bring high lace-up boots and gaiters, but after four hours on the hill, my feet were soaked. I borrowed some wellies for the rest of the trip. Everywhere was boggy, and in the afternoon Dominic placed me in a small tower seat. The view was just stunning across the Kenmare bay to my left and the McGillycuddys out in front.
Conditions changed constantly and rain and hail was sped away on a stiff wind to be followed by bright sunshine and clouds. Above the treetops half a mile away I could see the white tops of cloud filling a valley below them and above, Carrauntoohil. A red hind showed – the first they had seen there – and as dusk fell, a sika hind followed suit 210 yards away across a bog. I watched in the hope that she would cross towards me to save me from having to recover her from the other side, but when she showed no signs of cooperating, I wedged myself into position and she dropped instantly to a neck shot.
Happy, I struggled across the knee-deep bog. I gralloched the deer and Dominic joined me. He slung the carcase across his shoulders and just marched off across the bog as though it wasn’t there. They breed them tough out here!
The next morning I was out before first light with Edi and we covered miles of hill in search of our elusive, secretive sika. I saw nothing in three hours, although Edi said he had seen half a dozen but hadn’t been presented with a shot. He took one of his rifles in a tactical form, in case we had to shoot distances. As we headed back a couple of miles across steep hills and bog, we spied a hind and calf on the edge of a plantation and skirted our way round to where a shot was possible, 300 yards downhill at a steep angle. I dialled in the elevation and set the rifle on the bipod – for this sort of shooting, it was ideal. Carefully squeezing off the shot, the hind ran into the plantation. Wayne joined us and spent half an hour on his hands and knees under the tree cover. He later said he had been ‘a horse, a hound and a donkey all in the same day’. It was hard under there and he did a great job of recovering her!
That evening we saw a dozen or so sika, and it was great to watch them undisturbed, behaving as deer do if they are left entirely alone; feeding in the open, two hours before they usually appear elsewhere. I was grateful for the opportunity, but we didn’t manage to get anything and as the rain set in again the next morning – perfect timing– it was time to head back to England.
Things to consider
If you want to hunt deer in Ireland, you will need a European Firearms Pass and an Irish Visitor’s Firearms License, available from An Garda. You will also need a Hunting License from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. To obtain this you will need to show proof of insurance – BASC are very helpful if you are a member.
Take either very good wellies or Gore-Tex-lined leather boots and gaiters – you will need them. There are options to hunt on easier, lower ground; I had opted for the higher, more interesting locations, which requires a reasonable level of fitness. You should also be confident and have practised shooting out to 200 yards as a minimum with a suitable rifle – my .300 H&H magnum was ideal. You can hunt red deer in parts of Ireland, but not Kerry. Fallow and sika are both on the quarry list. It’s not too far to go, not too expensive and a huge challenge – give it a go. The hospitality is great and they even speak English!
Deer in Ireland – a history
All of the sika in Ireland stem from six deer introduced by Lord Powerscourt at Powerscourt House in 1860. Later, some were given to other estates in Fermanagh, Dublin, Carlow, Cork and Denegal. There are now around 20,000 sika in Ireland.
Red deer have been in Ireland since the last Ice Age, in about 10,000BC. The last remaining true Irish reds are in Kerry, hence the ban on hunting them there. In other parts of Ireland they derive from imported Scottish reds; many of the naturally occurring deer were eaten in the Great Famine of 1845–47. It is believed there are now some 700 naturally-occurring Irish red deer, up from 60 in the 1960s.
Fallow deer were introduced by the Normans in around 1169 and are widespread in Ireland today. There are now also a few colonies of Reeves’ muntjac – deliberately introduced, it would appear. Efforts are underway to totally exterminate them.
There was an Irish elk species of deer, not related to the moose or elk, which stood 2.1m tall at the shoulder, and had antlers weighing around 90lb which measured 7ft across – now I would like to shoot one of them! Unfortunately, they became extinct during the last Ice Age.
Roe deer were introduced in 1870 by Sir Henry Gore-Booth on the Lismore Estate in County Sligo, but died out in around 1920.