Deer: menace or mismanaged?

It is believed that between 1.5 million and two million wild deer roam the British Isles the highest number for 1,000 years, suggests Defra with most species increasing in range and distribution, according to the British Deer Society’s 2007 Deer Distribution Survey. This is why Peter Watson, executive director of the Deer Initiative (DI), has called for the number of deer culled to increase from about 350,000 to 500,000 a year.

With growing evidence that our six types of deer red, roe, fallow, sika, muntjac and Chinese water are on the rise, Mr Watson appears to have heeded the Country Life manifesto (April 10, 2008), which called for a 30% reduction in the wild-deer population to reduce the economic, conservation, human and welfare costs that such numbers bring. Although there are problems with the increase in all our wild-deer species, there is particular concern about muntjac, fallow and roe. David Whitby, head keeper at Petworth Park, which has the oldest and largest fallow herd in Britain, and is deer spokesman for the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, reports: ‘Muntjac are decimating our wild flowers, such as bluebells and orchids.’

Historically, the West Country’s red deer were carefully managed by the three stag-hound packs, which are still hunting the deer under the restrictions of the Hunting Act. Tom Yandle, chairman of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, says that there has been no boom in the local red-deer population and that, although the situation is unsatisfactory, the hunt is still doing its part for deer management. ‘There are about 4,000 deer here. We do a count with the Exmoor and District Deer Management Society, and it has been relatively static for 10 years,’ he says. So, why do we find ourselves in this predicament?

Mark Nicolson, chairman of the British Deer Society, is clear: ‘If nine out of 10 areas are well managed and there’s one that’s not, it means a potential increase it’s not rocket science. Winters are warmer, there are more trees, and the deer are spreading. Management has not always kept up.’ Unconvinced that global warming and agricultural cropping changes are the main reason for deer increases, Mr Whitby believes it’s down to something far more simple: money. ‘It’s a legacy from the years when venison prices were so low. At one point, it was 30p a pound; 25 years ago, I was getting £1.20 a pound for fallow and now, at last, the price has returned to that level and higher.

When there was no financial incentive, people simply stopped shooting deer, especially the females. The massive deer boom has been brought about by several years of severe under-culling.’ However, if recreational stalking is more popular than ever, with more than 1,300  gaining their level 1 and 2 Deer Stalking Certificates last year, how can this be? ‘One of the ironies is that the people who shoot deer actually want to see them at a level that is much higher than any of the interest groups would like,’ says Mr Watson. And, as recreational stalkers tend to go for trophy males, the females may not be sufficiently culled. ‘If you want to control deer, you shoot females, end of story,’ states Mr Whitby. He is especially worried about the return of an old foe: poaching. It’s estimated that 50,000 deer are poached each year. ‘That’s an unfortunate downside to improved prices.

Now, it’s possible to get about £100 for a female, depending upon the species that’s a lot of money for a poacher to walk away from.’ CLA president Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher concurs: ‘Poaching in the form of illegal coursing has been a problem in certain parts, particularly East Anglia and the North-West, for decades. Although the Government claimed that the Hunting Act would bring an end to it, poaching has certainly increased. We put it down partly to the significant increase in deer numbers, and partly to a jump in the demand for venison.’

Now, with the DI planning to target muntjac and some localised problems with fallow, the biggest challenge will be to get everyone to work together. ‘It’s all about getting local landowners to collaborate,’ says Mr Watson, ‘to decide what their priorities are and to come up with a plan, which is difficult in England and Wales, as there are lots of landowners and interested groups.’ Nick Walmsley, the National Trust’s forest and conservation advisor, agrees, ‘The way it’s run, the Government can’t do a great deal about any plant or animal that is spreading throughout the UK. It can make laws, but it’s down to individual landowners to play their part, and with a species like deer, the only way they can be managed is for people to work in partnership. That’s the biggest challenge. The deer themselves are not the problem it’s us.’