A pregnant doe has been found shot dead by poachers on a Northern Ireland estate.
The killing of the deer has shocked staff on the Drumbanagher Estate outside the village of Poyntzpass,Co Armagh.
Animal lovers will also be outraged at the killing of the animal outside normal hunting season.
The pregnant deer was one of a number shot dead by what are suspected to be unscrupulous venison dealers in the run-up to Christmas.
It’s also thought the deer may have died in agony as they were not killed as humanely as possible.
The harsh economic times are thought to be encouraging poaching as people look for cheaper ways to cater for Christmas.
The meat is an alternative to turkey during the festive season, and deer welfare campaigners are asking the public to be vigilant when it comes to offers of unusually cheap venison.
Licensed stalkers at the estate discovered two of their herd shot dead at the weekend. The team cares for and manages the wild deer herd and knows the animals individually.
Conor Douglas, a stalker at the estate, said the grim discovery had been “upsetting” for the team.
“We found two deer in two separate locations around the outside of the estate on Saturday which appear to have been shot, not by our group of stalkers that are licensed to be here on the estate, but opportunist freeloaders who have no regard for wildlife, the suffering or welfare of the deer,” he said.
“It’s a very upsetting situation for anyone who works in the field.
“Obviously these people are doing a lot of harm to the herd of deer which have been very closely and professionally managed.
“One of the deer was an elder hind who was pregnant, and she was lying there dead, and obviously the foetus was dead as well.”
He said there was a black market trade in venison, particularly in the run-up to Christmas.
“We are aware that this goes on,” he said.
“In these tough economic challenges that people are facing, folks are being persuaded to do this type of thing where they can make some money because who cares about the welfare of the deer, it’s worth £150.
“But these people are shooting them from firearms which are not quite powerful enough for the job; the deer are being wounded and making their way off into the night and lying down and essentially bleeding to death. They’re shooting them with what we call fox calibre guns — small calibre firearms that are simply not powerful enough to shoot a deer humanely.”
He said red deer, fallow deer and sika deer were all being targeted by poachers.
The animals can often be seen in fields and out in the open during the winter period, making them easy targets for hunters.
Professor Jaimie Dick, a lecturer in animal welfare at Queen’s University, said deer poaching is a well-documented problem in the festive period.
“There’s a big surge in poaching at this time of year, they shoot the animal, quickly butcher it and sell it on,” he said. “I know there’s some hotspots like the Clogher Valley and in around deer farms and estates, and particularly before Christmas there’s always somebody out to make a buck at this time of year.”
He warned the public that if offered venison from a less than reputable source, or at a price that seems cheap, not to accept it and report it to police.
The Drumbanagher Estate has reported the incident to the PSNI and they are investigating.
A police spokesman confirmed officers had been informed about the incident.
“Deer are protected by law within the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985,” he said.
“It is an offence to enter land without the consent of the owner or occupier or other lawful authority with the intention of killing or taking deer.
“Information about deer poaching, or wildlife crime of any kind, can be passed to a local police station by contacting 0845 600 8000.”
Poachers are using “medieval” methods to illegally secure venison to sell on the black market.
Reports of a surge in deer poaching to fuel the Christmas demand for the luxury meat have emerged after two deer were found shot dead at a country estate in Co Armagh.
Professor Jaimie Dick, a lecturer in animal behaviour at Queen’s University and a member of the British Deer Society, said the instruments illegal hunters use can be barbaric.
“They sometimes use things like crossbows and a calibre of rifle that are not suitable for deer,” he said.
“It’s quite horrendous. It’s a very nasty business when they’re killing deer with dogs, crossbows and sub-standard rifles.” The animals then run away and collapse somewhere in the forest, eventually bleeding to death.
As well as killing pregnant animals, out-of-season hunting can leave young fawns orphaned and then they starve to death.
Experts estimate that 60% of female deer shot out-of-season have a fawn at foot, and when they are killed the youngster dies.
In 2009 the Countryside Alliance reported that deer poaching had reached epidemic levels in some parts of Northern Ireland and the Republic. It said that deer poaching regularly spiked in the run-up to Christmas as demand for venison rises.
Chairman of the Northern Ireland branch of the British Deer Society, Charlie Canavan, said there are a number of grave concerns over deer poaching besides the sheer cruelty.
“The minimum legal calibre for the dispatch of a deer humanely is .240, using at least a 100-grain bullet,” he explained.
“Anything under that is totally illegal, plus it is also a wildlife crime and they are trespassing with a firearm, so they are breaking the law in several ways.”
He said it also dangerous for other people as the shooters don’t have the proper skills, including the use of a backstop, which is knowing where the bullet may go if it misses or goes through the target.
“It is mostly done at night with a lamp and these people have no knowledge of a backstop for the bullet which can travel for a couple of miles,” he added.
“You are supposed to be able to see where the bullet may go and use a hill or forest to potentially stop it. It is totally illegal to fire a rifle without seeing where the bullet may go — it could kill someone.”
And he said there is also a health risk: “People who will buy deer illegally and put it into the food chain create a problem for us as a lot of these people are not trained in carcass inspections and they can’t spot diseases.”
Mr Canavan said poaching is widespread across the country and he felt the economic downturn is definitely playing a part.