Deer culling in Britain: what’s the problem and why are deer culled?

The UK's deer population is believed to be at its highest level for 1,000 years, with some two million deer in our countryside and semi-urban areas. Here is our expert guide on deer culling, including why and where it is done and the species of deer found in the UK.

Deer in a field with trees

The UK’s deer population is believed to be at its highest level for 1,000 years, with some two million deer in our countryside and semi-urban areas. As farmers and conservationists become ever-more concerned at the impact that deer have on crops and wildlife, scientists argue that an increase in culling levels is essential.

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Here is our expert guide to deer culling, including why and where it is done and the six species of deer found in the UK.

Deer in autumn
There are thought to be some two million deer in the UK/Credit: MarkBridger, Getty

How many deer are there in the UK?

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.

Red deer stag in Scotland
Red deer stag on mountain slope in the Scottish Highlands/Credit: Getty

What is the problem with deer?

  • £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 in the UK?

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:

Protection

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.

Good habitat

“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.”

Deer in field
The fallow deer is one of six species of deer found in the UK/Credit: 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.

Roe deer in wheat field
The Wildlife Trusts believe culling should be done as a last resort and says that fencing can help in many cases/Credit: 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.”


British deer guide

Just six species of deer live in the British countryside, but it can often be difficult to tell which is which – learn all about these spectacular animals with our deer identification guide.

 

Red deer

Stag in forest
The Red deer is Britain’s largest land mammal/Credit: Getty

Red deer migrated to Britain from Europe 11,000 years ago, making them one of two of the country’s truly indigenous species. Since their arrival, populations have risen and fallen with the loss and creation of suitable habitat. One of the UK’s most adaptable mammals, red deer are currently expanding in both range and numbers – while preferring woodland and forest habitats in England and southern Scotland, their opportunism has led to their inhabitation of open moor and hills too.

Fallow deer

Fallow deer, Dama dama, male, Kent/Credit: Getty
Fallow deer prefer grasses but will graze young shrubs/Credit: Getty

This medium-sized deer has palmate antlers. Coats vary in colour, from black and caramel to the more common tawny and white-spotted coat. Does and young have short barks, while bucks emit a deep groan, especially in mating season. Not a truly native species, as they are thought to have been introduced by the Normans in the 10th century.

Roe deer

Deer among heather
Roe deer are found throughout the British Isles, thinning out in parts of the Midlands and Kent/Credit: Getty

This native British deer is rusty brown in the summer months, turning grey, pale brown or sometimes black in winter. The small antlers with three prongs on males are known as tines. Roe deer are easily startled – their rumps bounding through forests and crops are a familiar sight to walkers and cyclists. They became extinct in England in the 1800s due to forest clearance and over-hunting, though the species remained in parts of Scotland. These days, they are widespread and abundant.

Muntjac deer

Deer in woodland
Muntjacs are solitary deer, sometimes found in pairs/Credit: Getty

This small, hunched deer was brought over from China in the early 20th century, spreading from Bedfordshire to populate large swathes of England. Unlike other deer species, muntjac have little impact on agricultural and timber crops. They breed all year round and are able to have kids when they are seven months old.

Chinese water deer

Deer in field
Chinese water deer reside mostly in eastern England/Credit: Getty

A small russet-coloured deer, turning light grey in winter. Found in wet areas, as their name suggests, these non-native deer are without antlers (though the males do have tusks). Introduced into the British countryside in the 1890s, they have spread through south-east England.

Sika deer

Deer in woodland
Sika deer inhabit areas with acid soils such as conifer woodlands, moorland and heath/Credit: Getty

Also known as Japanese deer, this medium-sized species arrived on Brownsea Island in Dorset in 1860. Escapees quickly spread through Britain, forming strongholds in much of Scotland. Like fallow deer, their coats vary from pale to dark, and they often have white rumps.

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Find out more about these impressive mammals with our guide to deer in the UK.