Many of us are very fond of deer but their boom­ing pop­u­la­tions threaten our woods

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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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Lynn Hatz­ius

Sara Mait­land is a writer who lives in Dum­fries and Gal­loway. Her works in­clude A Book of Si­lence and Gos­sip from the For­est

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