Exploding Deer Populations

Many people will be aware over the last decade of the rise in the number of roe, red and muntjac deer in the Forncetts. The UK’s deer population is at its highest level for 1,000 years with about two million deer in our countryside and semi-urban areas.  Farmers and conservationists are increasingly concerned about their impact on crops and the natural environment. Where deer are present the number of birds and small mammals declines. They eat the vegetation and shrubs in woods and coppices, knocking out the low thickets necessary for such creatures as nightingales, warblers, blackcaps, voles and harvest and field mice to thrive in.

2024.05.Red deer Cervus elaphus hind with juvenile Charles.J.Sharp.800pxjpg

 Red deer(Cervus elaphus) hind with juvenile by Charles.J.Sharp

There is a question about how many deer we can live with. 

The All Things Wildlife website explains that large populations of deer with no predators lead not only to decimation of woodland, thickets and crops, but weakness in the deer themselves. Predators such as the brown bear, lynx and wolf once controlled deer naturally in Britain. They are long gone. They took out the sick, old and weak members of the deer population creating smaller and stronger groups. This balance was demonstrated successfully when wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in the USA in 1995. The wolves naturally controlled deer and elk allowing biodiversity to increase by restoring a rich, wild habitat with regenerated forests.  Fear of predation keeps grazing animals on the move, preventing any particular area being over-grazed. It also protects trees and saves money on costly culls and fencing. Eco-tourism is another strand in this debate; people pay to see magnificent ‘apex predators’ in parts of Europe where brown bears, wolves and lynx have been reintroduced.

Journalist, George Monbiot, is among those who suggest we need to bring back important missing species in this country, particularly the wolf and the lynx. Humans are not efficient at culling the deer populations or moving them effectively, but apex predators manage them brilliantly.  Scientists have suggested sites in Cumbria and Scotland as possible areas for the reintroduction of wolves and the small, handsome, Iberian, feline lynx. Culling is probably the only way of managing deer in East Anglia. We don’t have the large spaces of varied landscape that wolves need but perhaps lynx are a possibility.  Public surveys are apparently in favour of lynx but farmers are unconvinced, say the NFU, fearing they would prey on livestock.

Red deer, beloved and hunted by the Normans, gradually became scarce and were then reintroduced to landed estates, including Tacolneston Hall, by the Victorians. The small, hunched muntjac are stocky and tasty! They were brought from China to Woburn Park in the early 20th century and are now widespread and common in the Forncetts. They have a bold manner when confronted by chance and have a rather harsh call that echoes across the village at night. They enjoy garden plants and bark from young trees and prevent coppice regeneration.  Unusually they are able to breed all year round.

Red deer are Britain’s largest land mammal. I encountered a huge stag in the Hapton valley, perhaps 1.35 metres at its shoulder. It careered down a wooded bank early on a spring morning, coming out of the mist and straight across the road up the old railway embankment into an oak thicket. I stood transfixed by the galloping beauty of its rust-red body with cream rump and elegant head, surmounted by branching antlers. I half expected an Arthurian knight to appear in pursuit.

My neighbour, Sharon, saw a large herd of perhaps twenty red deer, probably unrelated males, crossing the B1113 near the Bird in Hand, in broad daylight. Were they connected to the rut? This is the breeding season that occurs from September to November when the stags appear on the hinds’ home range. They compete for the females by displaying their strength through roaring, parallel walks and fighting.  Red deer graze on tree shoots and agricultural crops putting them in conflict with farmers and woodland growers. They need management to ensure a sustainable balance. The culling of deer operates on a close season when the organised shooting of each species may not take place.

Roe deer are chestnut brown, turning greyer in winter. In Forncett we see them on field edges, in scrub and copses. Their pale rumps catch the eye as they bound into undergrowth. They eat grass, leaves, berries, crops and tree bark and shoots.

It would be interesting to hear what Forncett Flyer readers feel about the debate and what they think about the local deer population, its beauty and its destructive potential. Do people think we need more culling or should we be reintroducing missing predators to support natural processes and protect habitats and biodiversity?


All Things Wildlife


The Wildlife Trusts

The British Deer Society

Guardian Newspaper 11-08-2023.


 May 2024

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