There are thought to be some two million red, roe, fallow, sika, muntjac and Chinese water deer in Britain’s countryside and semi-urban areas, the highest level for 1,000 years.
Numbers may have doubled since 1999, according to the Deer Initiative (which promotes the sustainable management of wild deer) and other sources. As farmers and conservationists become ever-more concerned at the impact that deer have on crops and wildlife, scientists now argue that an increase in culling levels is essential.
Winter deer in the Cairngorms National Park ©Getty
The issue in numbers
£4.5m: The cost of damage caused by deer to plantations and other commercial woodlands, according to the Forestry Commission of Scotland.
8,000 hectares: The area of woodland with Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status that is currently in ‘unfavourable’ or ‘recovering’ condition due to deer impacts. This is likely to represent a fraction of the real picture, according to the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST). “Deer can affect the age diversity of a woodland, resulting in a fall in numbers of species, and strip bark off older trees, which kills them,” says Paul Wilkinson of the Wildlife Trusts.
74,000: The number of road traffic accidents a year involving deer, which kill between 10-20 people, according to the RSPCA.
£4.3m a year: The cost of deer damage to crops, according to Defra, with the greatest damage on cereal crops in east and south-west England.
50%: The decline in woodland bird numbers where deer are present, according to the University of East Anglia’s Dr Paul Dolman: “Deer will eat the understorey and so the coppices, for example, lose their shrub layer. That can be a problem for nightingales and other long-distance migrants, such as willow warblers, chiffchaffs and blackcaps.
Why are there so many deer?
Berkshire deer ©Getty
Red and roe deer are native to the UK, while Normans brought fallow with them to hunt. These have been supplemented by escapees from introduced populations of Chinese water deer, muntjac and sika. There are other reasons for population increase, including:
The 1963 Deer Act in England and Wales and in 1959 in Scotland prevented deer from being treated like vermin and controlled who could shoot them and how; gunshot (shotguns) was outlawed.
Lack of predators
“If the UK was natural, we would have lynx, bear and wolves, natural predators of deer,” says Dr Paul Dolman, “as well as humans. [Historically], deer wouldn’t have stood a chance in the countryside because people were hungry. Now people aren’t living off the land so deer are much more likely to survive.” According the RSPCA, an estimated 350,000 deer are culled each year.
“Everything is in the deer’s favour,” says Peter Watson of the Deer Initiative. “Forest cover has increased and farmers grow crops all year round.”
Scotland deer ©Getty
Does Britain need an intensive universal cull of deer?
A University of East Anglia study has suggested localised, targeted culls – rather than a widespread cull – of up to 53 percent of muntjac and 60 percent of roe deer might be necessary. “We need a strategic objective. All the focus seems to be on areas where deer are out of control, but that leaves deer free to cause problems in other areas in the future,” says Dr Paul Dolman.
The Deer Initiative also accepts that culling may be necessary. Chief executive Peter Watson says: “As long as numbers continue to increase, we have to accept there are going to be more of these hotspots. There’s a wider question of just how many deer we can live with.”
The National Gamekeeper’s Organisation (NGO) agrees on the need to cull more deer in certain areas. “ The way to cull deer is on a regional and local basis, with gamekeepers and recreational stalkers liaising with one another,” says Charles Nodder of the NGO.
Fallow deer ©Getty
Mark Nicolson, of the British Deer Society, opposes a widespread cull but agrees culling is needed in some areas: “There are large parts of the UK where the deer population is in harmony with the environment, but there are places where it is not. We’re one of the few animal charities that supports culling. We need to focus on management – the alternative for many deer is a lingering death.”
The Wildlife Trusts believe culling should be done as a last resort and says that fencing can help in many cases. “The deer is an iconic species, something that is a thrill to get a glimpse of,” says the Trusts’ Paul Wilkinson. “But there’s a need to introduce some management. Nobody goes into nature conservation to kill things. But we need to be grown up about it. Both culling and fencing are valid, but shooting should not be seen as the first option and it should be underpinned by science. We are trying to promote a wide abundance of wildlife and if one species becomes overly dominant then we are not achieving that. We have to recognise that deer no longer have a natural predator.”