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Deer Management - Where does the Buck stop?

May 2, 2022

Sam Guthrie, Alfie Allingham and Jim Knight explore deer management, a complex topic that has garnered much interest over the years, but as the cost of living continues to soar and the impacts of COVID and Brexit are felt across the industry – what is the actual cost of deer management?

Part One: Why are there so many deer? What is the problem? Is there a problem?

As the country continues to invest in woodland creation, the costs associated with protecting young trees from deer cannot be ignored. Roe deer are found throughout the country, with red deer present in the Highlands and Dumfries and Galloway. To these native species, we can also add sika and fallow deer in places, and muntjac are also present in northern England. All these species like to eat tree growth and also fray the stems as a way of marking their territory – all at great cost to the forester.

It has to be acknowledged that new planting has, in turn, seen deer habitats expand and numbers rise. The impact of this is not just felt by foresters. Higher deer populations lead to increased road traffic incidents, and excessive numbers also degrade natural plant communities generally by reducing ground flora. In addition, the animals’ health and wellbeing is often affected as they compete for food and shelter.

Deer are naturally cautious and difficult to see. Accurate population assessments are difficult to come by, and there isn’t good data to rely on. This leads to a disconnect between the forestry industry and advocates of deer as to the scale of the issue – however, with members of the Forest Direct team having worked in the sector for 40 years, we are firmly of the view that there are now significantly more deer in the landscape than there used to be and that, without effective management, there is going to be a very significant impact on future woodland creation. It would be remiss of us not also to cover the wider environmental cost. High numbers of deer mean we do not see substantial natural regeneration of broadleaved trees on our hills and lowlands. We also do not see the regeneration of woodland understory. This has an immense impact on overall biodiversity in the country – although this isn’t solely down to deer – sheep and brown hares have to share some of the blame for this.

So, if we agree that something needs to be done, what are the options available to us?

Tree Shelters

Tree shelters have a high financial cost, and an environmental one as old shelters do not degrade and often disfigure planting schemes and pollute the environment with plastic fragments. There is a desperate need across the industry to move towards biodegradable options. Sadly, these are still to make financial sense for most schemes. Standard tree shelters cost up to £5 a tree, with their more eco-friendly but possibly less reliable counterparts coming in at around £6.50 per tree. For small scale planting, where tubes are often the favoured option, this additional cost can be prohibitively expensive.

Deer Fencing

Often viewed as the most straightforward option, particularly for larger areas, deer fencing definitely has its drawbacks. It is poorly funded by the Forestry Grant Scheme, meaning it is an additional cost burden on owners. Even once you have overcome the initial financial hurdle, the reality of maintenance can be a considerable time drain for a small team and an ongoing cost for landowners. However, fences do remain the most common means of deer management across Scotland and are certainly considered a more environmentally conscious approach. Having said that, the visual impact of deer fencing across the landscape and the straight edge forest boundaries that they create should not be underestimated. In addition, deer fencing is a known cause of bird strikes that is particularly harmful to low flying birds like black grouse. It can also impede the movement of animals, e.g. from high to low ground in winter.

Also, if deer fencing is required on a property boundary, then there is the question of shared responsibility. For example, is it fair that the tree grower may need to carry the cost of fencing to exclude the neighbour’s unmanaged deer?

Deer Management

The most effective solution is a coordinated and systematic programme of deer management. This can allow a more sustainable deer population to remain without impairing natural tree growth and regeneration. There is an increasing awareness of the need for this approach (as is practised in many European countries). However, this requires coordinated action across property boundaries with adjoining owners agreeing to deer management plans and sharing implementation costs. Although not suited to every site, this approach allows some grazing of the undergrowth as not all animals are excluded from the site and often leads to a more species-rich plant undergrowth establishing itself. Since we have no apex predators, it also represents a step towards seeing humans as part of the landscape and ecosystem where we play an active role in managing the welfare of our deer populations.

It is essential that organisations such as The British Deer Society continue to push best practice in deer management, ensuring that it is undertaken responsibly using qualified stalkers by all industry members. Deer are an essential component of a diverse woodland ecosystem and have a rightful place in the landscape, so we need to take a proportionate approach.

If you would like to discuss woodland creation and deer management, please get in touch.