Many of us are very fond of deer but their booming populations threaten our woods
Booming deer populations pose a threat to our woodlands, says Sara Maitland.
There are six species of wild deer in the UK. Two of them are native: red deer, our largest wild land animal, and roe deer, which are smaller, more likely to be seen in woods and, in my personal opinion, tastier.
Fallow deer, with the spots, were probably introduced by the Romans, and although that population died out completely when the legions withdrew in the mid-5th century, they were reintroduced after the Norman Conquest and are now often treated as part of our natural heritage. Then there are three introduced species that have become feral in the last 150 years: muntjac, which are tiny and make a disturbing coughing noise; sika, which have a worrying tendency to hybridise with red deer, and Chinese water deer, which are very pretty and still rather unusual.
Deer are very much beloved in the UK. I believe there are several good reasons for this: they are extraordinarily beautiful; they are just the right degree of ‘wild’ to make seeing one exciting without being too demanding and without any chance of failing to identify what we have seen; a good number of us were brought up on Bambi and The Yearling (a 1938 children’s novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings); they have an iconic status, particularly in Scotland, and they are flourishing, so we are spared any guilt or anxiety about them.
But – there is always a ‘but’ – there is a serious problem. There really are too many deer. Over the last century, the populations have been expanding fast. Deer have no natural predators in the UK; one of the strongest arguments for wolf and lynx reintroductions is this would help to rebalance the deer population. It needs to be rebalanced because deer are extremely partial to the shoots of young trees. Oliver Rackham (1939– 2015), our great woodland authority, was explicit in his belief that deer were the biggest threat to woodland regeneration – greater than climate change, commercial exploitation or urban development. It is a stark choice: either we ‘manage’ and reduce our wild deer population (this does mean culling) or we imperil the future of our woods.
Rackham also suggests the deer population explosion is more likely to have been caused by the reduction in poaching than by the extermination of wolves. Without wanting to encourage criminality, it is worth pointing out venison is delicious and eating more of it would help our woodlands, and our agricultural productivity generally, as deer are greedy for more than tree shoots.
I have heard people suggest deer fencing would be a more humane approach to protecting the trees than reducing the number of deer by culling. There are a number of unintended consequences to this tactic, however, of which the most serious is that crashing into deer fences is the major threat to capercaillie (a super-grouse, listed as one of the birds most likely to become extinct in the UK) and black grouse, which are also at risk. They may both be less beloved than deer but are nonetheless an important part of our ecology. Fencing is also ugly in itself, expensive to maintain, an impediment to free access and, often, useless in heavy snow, as the deer can just walk over them. If it comes to a choice – and I believe it does – I would support the health of our native woodlands over a reduction in our deer population (no one is suggesting eliminating them). It’s time we were less sentimental about this.
Sara Maitland is a writer who lives in Dumfries and Galloway. Her works include A Book of Silence and Gossip from the Forest