Wildlife Conservation.

I welcome the Minister to the House. Before I speak about the native red deer species, I thank the Minister for his visit to Killarney on 26 July when he launched the updated management plan for Killarney National Park and signed an historic new five-year agreement with the trustees of Mucross House. Both are very much appreciated and I record my thanks to him.

The Minister and I have discussed this matter here before. At the time I did not receive any numbers as to the native red deer herd size. The first thing we need is an accurate figure. As we know, the native red deer were faced with extinction not too long ago. I have heard various numbers mentioned and if the Minister has an accurate number I would be delighted to receive it.

It is a pity that I have to speak before the Minister does, as my reason for tabling this matter on the Adjournment was to get an update from him on the information he has from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. While those working in the service are conscientious in their own way they have had difficulty with the herd. It is complicated by the fact that the native red deer are greatly outnumbered by the sika deer. Considerably more road accidents are caused by sika than by red deer. I accept that deer will wander in search of grazing and will stray beyond national park boundaries. If a cull is required, we should remove the imported sika species. Perhaps Killarney National Park should be the preserve of the native red deer.

Encroachment has taken place on the uplands mainly by sheep and also by rhododendron, etc. Many different accounts have been given. I ask the Minister to outline the Department's position on the cull. No one wants the danger of guns in the park. Many walkers traverse the park. We are encouraging more walking holidays and hill walking. While some of these hunters are probably very responsible, I would prefer if the sika deer could be shot with tranquillisers and taken out of the park. Deer are becoming a nuisance to farmers — in particular on the Mangerton side towards Kilgarvan. I can supply the Minister with the name of one poor farmer who is bedevilled by the animals. I accept that while they are on his lands they are his property but he will not seek a licence to shoot deer. However, perhaps he could be assisted in that work by an appropriate member of staff.

I appeal to the Minister to work with Kerry County Council to provide more road signs showing that deer are wandering. As we know, the road from Killarney to Kenmare passes through the heart of the national park. The 100 km/h signs on that stretch of road should be removed. It is hardly possible to achieve such a speed with the chicanes, twists and narrowness. I appeal for the signs between Mucross village and Fivemilebridge to be removed.

I tabled this matter to get an update from the Minister. Perhaps I might be allowed to make a quick response after the Minister has spoken.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue and also for his kind words. I will give him an assurance regarding guns in the park, as I understand how sincerely he is concerned about that matter.

The Wildlife Acts enable my Department to make orders providing for open seasons for the hunting of wild red, sika or fallow deer. In general, the open season for stags runs from 1 September to 31 December and for hinds, including antlerless males, from 1 November to 28 February. Some regional variations exist in Dublin and Wicklow. Applications for licences to hunt wild deer under section 29(1) of the Wildlife Act 1976, as amended, are considered by my Department from 1 August for the following open season. Some 2,215 such licences were issued for the 2003-04 season and 2,475 were issued for the 2004-05 season. The extent of the deer-hunting season is reviewed annually by staff of the National Parks and Wildlife Service of my Department, taking account of the conservation needs of the individual species.

Moving to the location of concern to the Senator, the position is that outside of Killarney National Park, wild sika and fallow deer can be hunted during the open season for deer, on foot of a deer hunting licence. However, with regard to red deer it has become clear that there is a large population of these deer over a wide area of County Kerry. Senator Coghlan may recall when we were recently in Killarney that there was a suggestion that the herd had gone from some hundreds, with its viability in question, to a figure of thousands. I will ask for detailed figures to be sent to the Senator as soon as they become available.

That is what we need.

I am aware that is a concern of the Senator. The trend of a hugely increasing red deer population has led to concerns being raised on how to control the overall population. There is also substantial evidence of ecological damage as a consequence of expanding deer populations. My Department must have regard to such concerns and considerations.

The trend in red deer population numbers shows that the Killarney red deer population is in no way at risk, and consequently there is no longer a basis for having a significantly more limited regime in Killarney than has been the case in other parts of the country. For these reasons, and as was already signalled to this House in May 2005, I have decided that for the upcoming 2005-06 open season, female red deer in County Kerry will be included in the open season as a method of controlling the increase in the numbers of the species throughout the county. It is accepted that hinds, as breeders, are the main source of deer numbers and hence the need for greater management of females. Furthermore, by limiting the season mainly to female deer and antlerless red deer, there is no attraction for trophy hunters.

I was taken by the point that Senator Coghlan made to me when I recently visited Killarney, that we do not want to see people popping off at deer simply in order to have an antlered trophy. For practical reasons regarding enforcement of the hunting licences, antlerless male red deer are being included in the open season for Kerry alongside red deer hinds, because we know there is a difficulty in distinguishing the antlerless deer from the hinds.

The following changes to the wild deer open season have been made: Female and antlerless sika, fallow and red deer can be hunted throughout the State, without exception, from 1 November 2005 to 28 February 2006. Male sika and fallow deer can be hunted throughout the State from 1 September 2005 to 31 December 2005. Male red deer can be hunted throughout the State exclusive of the county of Kerry from 1 September 2005 to 31 December 2005. It will continue to be illegal to hunt antlered male red deer in County Kerry over one year of age.

I assure the Senator and the House that the open season dates will continue to be reviewed on an annual basis in my Department taking account of the conservation needs of each species. Senator Coghlan is concerned about the dangers of hunters in the park and I can understand that. With regard to Killarney National Park, in which hunting is prohibited at all times of the year, deer culling is conducted by experienced, trained and licensed park personnel only. The current policy of not issuing hunting licences to third parties for Killarney National Park will continue and I am sure the Senator will take some assurance from that.

On average, approximately 150 sika deer and 50 to 60 red deer per year have been removed by park personnel, including in areas adjoining the national park, such as farm lands and on KiIlarney golf course. Many of these were sick, old or lived alone rather than with a herd. Their removal is an important element of the ecological management of the national park. We all know that in the natural state, predators would take down such individual animals.

Within KiIlarney National Park, extensive counting of deer species by staff of the National Parks and Wildlife Service has taken place since the 1970s and details of those figures have recently been provided to the Senator. I will ensure that the Senator gets a full, detailed breakdown. I recommend to the Senator that those concerned about the future of red deer should continue to keep in close contact with the regional management of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The service has great experience and expertise in dealing with the conservation and management of wild deer, and especially the red deer of Kerry, which are a vital part of our natural heritage.

I am aware that the Senator has expressed concerns previously about issues outside the park, in particular the 100 km/h speed limit on the Kenmare Road, and has requested that the number of deer warning signs be increased. The responsibility for these matters rests with the local authority concerned rather than with my Department. However, the National Parks and Wildlife Service has brought the Senator's concerns to the attention of the local authority and has asked that his suggestions be favourably considered.

I thank the Minister for his courtesy and for considering the concerns I expressed when the matter arose in May and also on his visit to Killarney. I accept what he says about the licensed park personnel being the only people allowed to cull deer in Killarney national park. We are at one on that.

I also his accept his assurance about trophy hunters and antlered male deer. We know that during the rutting period, which is currently in progress, some male antlered deer will unfortunately lose their lives, but I would be concerned about shooting deer which have merely lost their antlers through their present natural activity. Perhaps the Minister might consult his personnel in the area. I accept he has some very experienced people in the National Parks and Wildlife Service and I would be loath to go against their advice, but the Minister might keep the matter under review. With regard to the future of tourism, the people of Kerry and Killarney would perhaps prefer that the sika deer be removed from the national park.

I am aware of the Senator's concerns and believe we are ad idem on the issue of trophy-hunting, something I do not want to see. The culling and the allowed hunting are meant to keep all the species in check. There has been something of an explosion in the red deer population in the area. We do not have wolves or other predators in Kerry. It will continue to be the case that deer will be dealt with only by licensed park personnel. Licences will not be issued for hunting in the park for the very reasons the Senator has outlined.

If I may mangle the words of Oscar Wilde, one of whose characters described the loss of one parent as being a tragedy, but the loss of both being carelessness, I am not sure how many of the large deer in Kerry national park lose both parents in the rutting season. I know it involves a very vigorous activity for the deer. However, no hunting currently takes place there.

Mar fhocal scoir, I would like to have a definitive number for the red deer population.

I welcome Eoin Cronin and his group to the Visitors Gallery.