Illegal hunters and poachers are threatening to wipe out the last remaining deer in woodland on the outskirts of Derry, it has been claimed.
Kevin Harkin, who has set up the online campaign group Deer Friends, says there may now be as few as just five or six fallow deer left in Burntollet Woods.
He says that over the last two decades numbers have dwindled dramatically from around 30 and the picture (below) shows the local deer population is in difficulty.
It is unusual for a fawn to be born so late in the year when their calving season is in June, he explained.
“I suspect the reason is that the rutting season last year was disturbed by hunters and poachers so much that the deer didn’t get a chance to breed until much later.”
According to Mr Harkin, who lives in the area, deer numbers are so worryingly low it may be too late for them to recover.
Deer can be hunted while in season, and strict guidelines govern the practices of legal hunters and qualified stalkers. They can only be shot with high calibre rifles, designed for a quick kill.
However, Mr Harkin said: “I do know that deer have been shot with low calibre rifles; shotguns; killed with dogs; while nets are also used.
“A major concern is the number of people out here with high powered rifles. No-one knows who they are, where they are or if they are following the guidelines. There could be as many as 15 people in the woods, not knowing who is where, at any one time.”
Mr Harkin said: “This is nothing to do with the romantic ‘one for the pot’ notion, this is highly organised; it’s about big money.
“People need to be aware this is happening; it’s important to check in restaurants that their venison can be traced, that it comes from legitimate sources. Restaurateurs also need to have a conscience and avoid poached deer.”
Mr Harkin, whose lands are now a sanctuary for deer, said he set up his facebook group Deer Friends out of frustration at finding dead deer across the countryside.
“I hope to educate people about deer in the area and raise awareness of what is happening to the deer population.”