Our Chief Executive Tim Bonner writes:

One of the great paradoxes of British conservation is that the mammal which most obviously has to be culled in the largest numbers to protect biodiversity, is also the one which the public is least comfortable with being killed. Whether it is because of Bambi, big eyes, or majestic form deer are close to the hearts of British people. Unmanaged populations of both indigenous and introduced deer species in the countryside can, however, be disastrous for many other species of both flora and fauna, as well as the health of the deer themselves.

New research published this week, and widely reported, has used modern technology to show that woodlands with high deer densities differ in their structure not only in the understorey, where deer are able to browse, but throughout the whole canopy profile which affects birds, small mammals, insects and many other species, as well as tree recruitment and regeneration.

As the League Against Cruel Sports proved so conclusively at its land holding in Somerset, refusing to manage deer populations (in that case red deer) will also lead to individuals dying slow and agonising deaths from disease and starvation. On one occasion LACS’s own stalker blew the whistle after having to dispose of 107 dead or dying deer in 12 months on just 300 acres. Such abdication of responsibility is rightly considered gratuitous cruelty by responsible deer managers and is thankfully rare. There is, though, a significant problem with keeping on top of the burgeoning deer population, which is thought to be higher now than at any time since the Norman invasion.

There are simply too many deer in many parts of our island and they are having a very significant impact on lowland habitats, especially in woodlands where their browsing removes the understory which is crucial for many other species. Woodcock, for instance, are thought to be in decline as a breeding species in the UK, reversing an upward trend throughout the 19th and 20th century. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust believes that habitat degradation driven by high deer densities is playing a significant role in the decline.

The reasons we cannot keep deer numbers in check are complex. In part it seems to be cultural as stalking and deer management play second fiddle to game shooting across much of the UK, whereas the opposite is true on the continent. In part it may be the complicated patterns of land ownership and sporting rights in this country, allied with the difficulty of managing such species when they move into areas of human habitation. Then there are the political difficulties for institutional land owners of any cull of wild animals, let alone one as attractive as deer.

But whatever the difficulties they must be overcome if we are to keep the deer population at a sustainable level. This is a challenge certainly, but also an opportunity to show how important wildlife management is to the conservation of the countryside we love.

Tim Bonner
Follow me on Twitter @CA_TimB