The British deer population is now the largest in a thousand years, but is their impact on the environment positive or negative? PETER FROST investigates
Driving back from the country last night at dusk I just missed by inches a huge and handsome red deer stag that came out of the hedgerow, down the bank.
He was in full horn with a full coat rack of antlers. At this time of the year stags are getting ready for the rut and have little else on their mind but the delights of the three, or so, dozen hinds he would need to service if he was to play his full part in passing on his genes.
I guess he was an escapee from one of the hundreds of venison farms we now have in Britain.
The number of wild deer in our countryside is believed to be at its highest level for over 1,000 years, with some 1.5 million wild deer in our forests, woodlands, farm fields as well as suburban and other semi-urban areas.
The large number of wild deer to be found has encouraged a huge growth in shooting and eating venison both legally shot and illegally poached.
Many supermarkets sell venison from time to time, but, disappointingly, much of this comes from New Zealand, Spain and Poland. In the case of New Zealand, the cost in food miles could hardly be worse. We import over 40,000 deer carcasses each year to bolster the home-grown venison market.
Latter-day Robin Hoods shoot wild deer and argue that reducing numbers not only results in great meals but also helps sustain our fragile countryside balance. Poaching remains illegal, but it isn’t hard to find black-market venison if you know who to ask. Some will be wild, but stealing from farms and deer parks is also a big industry.
Deer have a number of serious negative effects on different aspects of our environment, with damage to our ancient woodlands having reduced the number of birds they can support. Some say bird numbers are down by more than a half.
Farmers and conservationists too are ever more concerned at the impact that deer have on crops and wildlife, with many scientists now arguing that an increase in deer culling levels is essential.
The statistics of the damage deer can cause certainly give pause for thought. The Forestry Commission estimates the annual cost of damage caused by deer to plantations and other commercial woodlands at £4.5 million.
At least 8,000 hectares of woodland with site of special scientific interest (SSSI) status are currently in what are classified as unfavourable or recovering condition due to deer damage and this is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg.
Deer can affect the age diversity of woodland, resulting in a fall in numbers of species — they strip bark off older trees, which kills them.
They also cause more than 50,000 road traffic accidents every year and at least 20 are fatal to the people involved. Thousands of deer are killed on the roads and only a few of them finish up in the cooking pot,
Deer damage to arable crops amounts to more than £4.3m a year and gardeners know just how much damage a couple of early morning visitors can do.
The greatest damage is to valuable cereal crops in east and south-west England.
There are six types of deer living wild in Britain — the Scottish red deer, roe deer, fallow deer, sika deer, Reeves’s muntjac and the Chinese water deer. Of those only Scottish red and roe deer are natives.
Somewhat confusingly, our adult deer and their offspring have different names. Red and sika deer have stags and hinds and the young are called calves. Other species have bucks and does and the young are kids or fawns.
Fallow deer are almost natives, having become extinct and been reintroduced twice, first by the Romans and then by the Normans. In both cases they were brought back for both sport and food.
The other species are escaped or released aliens. They were introduced as decorative and food species on large country estates by rich and often aristocratic landowners.
A few other exotic escapees can be found too, but numbers of these are tiny.
So why are there so many deer and why are they doing so well? More woodland planting — it has more than doubled since WWII — and climate change have both contributed.
In 1963 the Deer Act in England and Wales and the 1959 Act in Scotland prevented deer from being treated as vermin and controlled who could shoot them and how. Hunting with shotguns was outlawed and rifle shooting with its far tighter regulation was required.
Since lynx, bear and wolf became extinct in our islands deer have no natural predators except humans. Proposals to reintroduce lynx and wolves have come to nothing and few people would suggest controlling deer numbers by bringing back the bear.
Do we need an intensive cull of deer? A University of East Anglia study has suggested localised, targeted culls rather than a widespread cull.
North of the border the situation is different. Sustaining wild red deer for the popular if expensive sport of stalking contributes £170 million a year to the economy and provides 2,500 full-time jobs.
Deer make an interesting and attractive addition to British wildlife — they are well suited to British countryside. Together they make a valuable contribution to our biodiversity.
They also make a nourishing, healthy and delicious addition to our autumn dinner tables.