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Spotlight on countryside deer

PUBLISHED: 10:36 20 July 2012 | UPDATED: 10:37 21 February 2013

Spotlight on countryside deer

Spotlight on countryside deer

We are all so used to scary stories in the media about vanishing wildlife that it comes as a bit of a surprise to find one group of species which is thriving in today's countryside: deer...


We are all so used to scary stories in the media about vanishing wildlife that it comes as a bit of a surprise to find one group of species which is thriving in todays countryside: deer. There are more of them now in Englands fields and woodlands than at any time since the Middle Ages, and theyre continuing to spread to new areas.

New research by the British Deer Society (BDS) has shown that in the last five years our native roe deer, once confined to the south of England and East Anglia, have continued their recolonisation of areas where they have not been seen since King Harold was a boy. Most of Lincolnshire now holds roe, while Shropshire, Gloucestershire, Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire are all showing increases. Even the red deer is popping up in new areas across England, and it remains amazing how such a large animal can arrive and take up residence in the countryside largely unseen by human eyes.

Meanwhile the more recently arrived Chinese water deer is consolidating its hold on the east of England and has expanded most noticeably into Buckinghamshire, just as muntjac are continuing their push west into north Devon and Somerset and are now putting in appearances as far north as Newcastle upon Tyne.

The BDS confirms that all six deer species have extended their range since the last national report in 2007 and although the new survey considers distribution rather than population, it would be logical to deduce that this too is increasing. It seems that the British countryside of the 21stcentury, with its expanding area of tree cover and its multitude of farmland conservation schemes, provides the perfect habitat for our largest land mammals.

Thats good news for deer enthusiasts, but a potential headache for farmers, foresters, nature reserve managers, gardeners and motorists. For not only is the burgeoning deer population munching its way steadily through tender crops, young trees, bluebell woods and herbaceous borders, but it is also causing a serious hazard on our roads. It is estimated that over 70,000 accidents a year in Britain are now caused by deer, most of them in the south and east of England and central Scotland where large populations of deer coexist with high volumes of traffic. In most accidents it is the deer that comes off worst from the encounter, but about one percent of incidents result in human injury and there are now about 20 human fatalities a year resulting from deer-vehicle collisions.

The fact is that we humans long ago did away with the large predators such as the bear, wolf and lynx which regulated the deer population in prehistoric times, so if deer are to be managed, then it is our responsibility to do the managing.

Essentially deer can be controlled in two ways. Either you prevent them from getting to where you dont want them, or you reduce the local population. The first option involves the use of fencing, which can be a very effective way of stopping deer getting into gardens and newly planted woodlands. But deer-proof fencing is expensive. It costs money to erect, and once in place it has to be maintained year after year. Deer quickly detect and exploit any weak point in a fence, and a deer fence that allows deer through is worse than no fence at all.

The only other practical option is culling, and as most species have the ability to increase their population by 30% each year, culling is pretty much essential if the balance of the countryside is to be maintained.

Culling of deer, though, raises all sorts of curious attitudes and prejudices, which vary according to the species involved. There is no doubt that the larger species the magnificent red deer with its handsome branching antlers and its bellowing roar that may be heard through the autumnal oaks, and the dappled fallow lurking in the wooded hinterland of some ancient deer park are considered by some to be more majestic than their smaller cousins. Special venom is reserved for the little muntjac, a species which has been with us for little more than a century but which has adapted to occupy almost any green space in our towns and cities. The fact that it has a particular taste for expensive ornamental shrubs probably has something to do with the intense hatred which is reserved for the muntjac by some gardeners. Personally, I have a sneaking admiration for the little beasties and I like to see them about, though preferably not in the busy lizzies.

The need to cull deer raises new opportunities. Firstly, the provision of sporting deer stalking can bring a new source of income to farms and estates. Recreational stalkers currently account for around 65% of all deer shot in Britain, and many are prepared to pay for the privilege of having deer stalking on their doorstep, so deer can be a valuable resource as well as a potential liability.

Secondly, deer are fantastic to eat. There is nothing as wonderful as fresh venison, and as the wild venison market is gradually developed, this delicious, lean and succulent meat is increasingly available from local butchers and farm shops.

It seems the perfect solution. Instead of fretting about damage to crops and biodiversity, or watching a mounting toll of dead and injured deer at the roadside, we can enjoy them in the grill pan and casserole, or on the barbecue. And at the same time of course, we can continue to enjoy their presence in better managed numbers in the countryside.

Graham Downing 18thJune 2012

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