The scientists carried out a census of roe deer and muntjac deer populations across 234 square kilometres of woodland and heathland in East Anglia in the UK, and the results suggest that current management strategies for deer are failing. Although deer numbers in the area appeared stable, it was only because thousands of individuals were being pushed out into the surrounding countryside.
The study indicated that a cull of 50 to 60% of the deer would be necessary to keep their populations under control – much higher than the 20 to 30% that had previously been recommended.
There are six deer species in the UK, of which four are introduced. The current UK deer population is thought to stand at around 1.5 million, meaning there are more deer in the country now than at any time since the last Ice Age.
In the absence of natural predators, deer populations are continuing to expand and are believed to be damaging woodlands, as well as causing road traffic accidents and damage to crops.
According to Dr Paul Dolman, an ecologist at the University of East Anglia and one of the authors of the study, “We know deer are eating out the… vegetation of important woodlands, including ancient woodlands. Deer are implicated as the major cause of unfavourable conditions in terms of woodland structure and regeneration. There is evidence that deer reduce the number of woodland birds – especially some of our much loved migrant bird species like blackcap and nightingale, and resident species like willow tit. We have a problem.”
Dr Kristin Wäber, another of the study’s authors, said, “Native deer are an important part of our wildlife that add beauty and excitement to the countryside, but left unchecked they threaten our woodland biodiversity…. Current approaches to deer management are failing to contain the problem – often because numbers are being underestimated. Cull targets are often too low.”
The researchers have suggested creating a market for venison to make a cull more ethically and economically acceptable.
“What we are advocating isn’t removing deer from the countryside – what we are advocating is trying to get on top of the deer population explosion and try to control the problems that are being caused. And in a way, [venison] provides a sustainable food source where you know where it comes from, you know it is ethically sourced, you know it is safe to eat, and that puts food on people’s tables,” said Dr Dolman.
However, others are opposed to a cull. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) said that it was “opposed in principle to the killing or taking of all wild animals unless there is strong science to support it, or evidence that alternatives are not appropriate.” It also added that any cull must be carried out in a controlled and humane way.
Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author