Co-ordinated effort needed to make deer cull effective and humane
John Stowers knows about deer. As the South West of England deer liaison officer for the Deer Initiative he monitors their numbers, assesses the damage they do and advises, where appropriate, on their efficient and humane dispatch.
So when the University of East Anglia's Dr Paul Dolman released his report at one minute past midnight on Thursday, last week, calling for a dramatic increase in the number of deer shot across the UK, Mr Stowers knew he was likely to be in demand.
As the Deer Initiative makes clear, the organisation is a one-stop-shop for deer control. Its website announces: "The Deer Initiative provides the framework and toolkit for effective and sustainable management of wild deer in England and Wales. We help landowners and others to work together at a landscape scale and to best practice standards, so that deer management is effective, safe and humane.
"We raise awareness, provide advice, training and support to landowners and deer managers. We also advise our government, private and voluntary sector partners on all aspects of wild deer management. This includes, for example, tackling deer-vehicle collisions, reducing deer impacts on vulnerable habitats and supporting deer management under Environmental Stewardship and Woodland grant schemes."
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If ever that kind of support was needed for those who own land which harbour deer, it is now. According to the university report there are estimated 1.5 million deer in the UK at the moment, more than at any time since the last Ice Age. No one can be absolutely sure about deer numbers, but there is no question they are on the rise.
Mr Stowers said: "The problem we've got is our woodland – and particularly our ancient woodland – is in an unfavourable condition, entirely down to deer. They are woodland creatures and they are very good at breeding. What happens when the numbers rise is there is competition between them for food. That is when they range or spread out and go onto farmers' fields to eat their crops. They will start to browse on other less favoured plants.
"They will destroy all the bramble, all the ivy and then go onto to the bluebells, oxslips and other wild flowers. If we allow this to continue some of our woodlands may never recover and those that will can take years. We are trying to bring ancient woodland back into good health."
Add to that concerns from hard-pressed farmers, whose crops are targeted, not just by deer, but by woodpigeons, rooks and crows, and warnings from conservationists that dramatic falls in the numbers of ground-nesting birds can be attributed to deer browsing and you have a perfect storm looming which can be addressed only – according to the university researchers – by stepping up culling targets from the current 20% up to 50% or 60%, taking out more than half the deer population.
Mr Stowers and the Deer Initiative are cautious about the research from East Anglia, as is the British Association of Shooting and Conservation. BASC said: "This research is specific to an area of land in East Anglia and it is dangerous to take their estimates of population and extrapolate these to an overall figure for the number of deer which might exist across the country."
Mr Stowers agrees. For one thing muntjac – which was studied by the university – only exist in small numbers in Dorset and Somerset at the moment, and not at all further West. In eastern England muntjac's prodigious ability to reproduce is staggering and one of the reasons for the report's grim warning. The females are sexually mature from three months and can produce a fawn in seven months from mating. Within 72 hours of giving birth they are ready to mate again, meaning that a single doe can potentially produce two fawns every 14 months.
Although their are currently relatively few muntjac in the Westcountry Mr Stowers warned there was no room for complacency. "They are our smallest deer," he said. "Fifty centimetres at the shoulder, the size of a springer spaniel, they have canine teeth, like tusks, and the males have antlers. They will attack a dog if cornered – and the dog will generally come off worse."
There is no close season for shooting muntjac and the recommendation is that stalkers should seek out and shoot heavily pregnant does. That may sound heartless, yet in fact it is the most humane way to control this invasive and fast-expanding species which is already nibbling at the borders of the Westcountry. It means there is little chance of taking out a doe which has a dependant fawn, thus reducing the risk of leaving vulnerable orphans to fend for themselves.
But if muntjac are not too much of a problem in our region yet, roe deer most certainly are. Although by nature roe live in small family groups, not herds, pressure on food supplies, caused by rising numbers, mean they can be seen in ever greater groups gathered together and often doing significant damage to woodland or farmers' crops.
Mr Stowers said he often saw groups of roe running along the main road of his home village in Devon. "They are searching for a new food supply because there is too little food in the woodlands," he said. But deer and roads don't mix, as 74,000 accidents involving the mammals each year show. Marksmen are often called upon to dispatch deer which have been injured in road accidents, which cause serious damage to 14,000 vehicles a year and 450 injuries.
It is the landscape and the deer themselves that suffer the most from the population explosion, however. In Devon's Teign Valley experimental areas have been 'deer-proofed' to demonstrate the benefits of drastically reducing heavy browsing. The results, according to Mr Stowers, are dramatic. Plants – indeed the entire understory of the woodland – is regenerated if deer are kept out. It is impossible to fence off the whole Westcountry woodland, however. Shooting, by qualified experts using high powered rifles with the correct calibre ammunition for the species concerned, is the only efficient way to cut the numbers.
That may be bad for the individual deer but good for the species overall. Mr Stowers explains: "There is no doubt that where deer build up in numbers their resistance disease drops. They can get infested with ticks, which cause Lymes disease, which can be passed onto humans. Keeping the whole herd healthy, that is the whole point of culling; it is done for the benefit of the deer." To ensure that benefit is felt, however, requires a co-ordinated approach. Deer are no respecters of land owners' boundaries and not every land owner will allow deer to be shot. Some encourage the deer and exclude any stalkers. Others allow stalking but not all stalkers record their kills. That is something the Deer Initiative wants to overcome. "Until we get these people working together we will not solve this issue," said Mr Stowers. "In the end we are interested in the welfare of the deer we all love to see."
For further information, advice, support and to link up with other landowners for a concerted approach to deer culling log onto www.thedeerinitiative.co.uk