Dwelling on Deer: Culls and Control

There is no way around it, our small island is positively bursting with deer. So many in fact, that the issue of overpopulation and its subsequent implications are up there with the other great threats facing our countryside. And, arguably, of much greater concern than other issues prone to dominating the headlines – many of which, though emotive, result in a much more limited fallout. The issue of overpopulation is under-reported, and when it is tackled in the media, more often than not, coverage is met with a barrage of scornful comments from those who hold Bambi to heart, peeved at the notion of widespread and systematic control. The polarised views of those on both sides of the “deer debate” spilling out again this week when it was announced that the City of London Corporation had decided to allow stalking in Epping Forest.

Like a great many people, I, personally, adore deer. The sight of a Roe buck bounding through a thicket representing one of the most inspiring sights in British nature. I do, however, also believe in deer control, for myriad reasons. Not least due to the impact of overpopulation on the countryside. I believe action must be taken against deer, on a large scale, and fully support ongoing efforts to bring down numbers across various areas of the country – despite my admiration of the beasts themselves. As such, and after catching wind that Muntjac – an invasive deer species from Asia – have been sighted in my local area for the first time in recent memory, I thought I would explain my views on the subject in a little more detail here.

The UK deer population is widely believed to be at its highest level for a millennia, with some sources claiming that numbers have effectively doubled since 1999. With numbers of our native red and roe deer soaring due to the extirpation of their natural predators – the bears, lynx, wolves and so forth which, historically, would have kept numbers in check. And numbers of our non-native species, Fallow, Muntjac, Chinese Water Deer and Sika, also on the up. The overall positive trend in deer numbers attributed, by the Deer Initiative (the body which promotes sustainable management of deer): to milder winters, changes in agriculture, increased woodland cover and greater habitat connectivity. In addition, again, to a lack of natural predators. All in all, there are estimated to be some two-million deer now residing in the UK, though given their elusive nature, there could well be many more.

But what does two-million deer mean for the ecological make-up of Britain? Surely such a monumental increase in native species – in the case of the red and roe, at least – should be celebrated? Well, no actually, it shouldn’t. At least by those who hold the best interests of our countryside to heart.

Deer, much like Beavers, are ecosystem engineers. They shape their habitat through grazing, something which would not pose a problem under normal circumstances, but can have a major impact on woodland ecosystems in the present. Selective browsing by deer hindering the growth of saplings and preventing the natural regeneration of trees. With oak, ash, hazel and rowan often hardest hit, yet not alone. And in Scotland, browsing by Red Deer has been shown to directly impact upon the growth of Scots Pine.

Deer, however, do not just rely on trees as a source of nutrition, and can impede the growth of many woodland shrubs and herbaceous plants. With Muntjac – perhaps the most problematic of our deer species – shown to directly reduce the coverage of species such as bluebell, wood anemone and dog’s mercury. The tendency of deer, when present in numbers, to quickly degrade a woodland, not very good if you are a forester, a rewilder or indeed, a conservationist seeking to restore the state of an SSSI.

Deer do not just impact upon botanical assemblages, however, and through feeding can pose a direct threat to other fauna. Through the removal of habitat, they also threaten invertebrate populations which depend on favoured plant species for food and nectar. Something which, in turn, may lead to a decrease in the number of insectivorous birds within a woodland. With deer also capable of removing the breeding habitat of many more bird species, particularly those that nest close to the ground, in thickets and low-growing shrubs. Indeed, many such birds, including the Nightingale, Willow Warbler and Wood Warbler, are facing substantial declines at present.

Finally, and through similar means, deer also decrease habitat suitability for small mammals. Which, when coupled with the other implications listed above, highlights a clear need for action to combat the problem of overpopulation. Culls are not pretty, they are not enjoyable and they are certainly not something to look upon with pride – we upset the balance after all – but they are necessary when all else has failed. And in the absence of other viable means of control.

There is more, however, and the control of deer populations may also directly benefit the deer themselves – something often claimed by sportsmen, yet dismissed by many disapproving of their antics.

Under normal circumstances – meaning in the presence of predators capable of managing deer populations – many deer would not live through to old age. The sick, the decrepit and often, many of the young taken by carnivores before they can mature. Without such predators, however, deer are living longer, often to the point of tooth erosion as a direct result of their hearty diet. This process happening over time, but ultimately, leading to the loss of said teeth and thus the drawn-out starvation of deer who, otherwise, would have met their end much earlier. With many diseases and infections also bringing about similar results. Control may, in fact, help reduce the number of deer meeting such a grizzly demise and thus benefit their welfare, who would have thought?

Control may also, and this part is solely speculation I hasten to add, provide an answer to the welfare problems predicted when Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) arrives in Britain. A disease I blogged about quite recently, which for many years has swept unchecked across America, and now, has been confirmed in Norwegian Deer populations. The disease – which isn’t really a disease as such, caused instead by a misfolding protein – resulting a prolonged death as the deer effectively “wastes” away, unable to feed. CWD spreads in a number of ways, through the soil, direct contact and via the ingestion of contaminated food items, and spreads rampantly when deer live in close quarters. Thus, culling – with the aim of thinning out populations – may help reduce the risk of a pandemic, should the disease ever arrive on our shores. Which I sincerely hope it does not. Less deer is better than no deer, right?

I am not anti-deer by a long shot, and I would hate any of those reading this post to interpret my words as such (doubtless some will regardless). I am, however, definitely of the opinion that deer, in their current populous state, require management. And implore anyone opposed to such to read further before giving in to bouts of blind range. Actions such as this, which often appear to be working to the detriment of conservation and welfare, are often far more complicated than they first appear. And in this case, I fear sustainable (yet nationwide) management, may be the only option.

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1 Response

  1. Avatar Tim says:

    James, you quite correctly highlight the dangers of high density deer populations to woodland biodiversity and the need for careful controls on their numbers.

    But the converse is also true.

    The UK’s woodlands evolved in the presence of deer and where they are at very low density or absent this also leads to a loss of biodiversity, typically with more vigorous species such as non-native Sycamore and Brambles becoming dominant and an imbalanced dense understorey.

    This in turn has negative impacts on some woodland birds such as Tawny Owls, Dung Beetles and the Bats that feed on them, together with a loss of the floral species that many Lepidoptera depend on.

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