Deer Under Attack: Is Shooting Really the Way to Control Deer Numbers?

Every six months thousands of deer are culled. Vegan Life looks into whether shooting is really the way to control deer numbers in our countryside



Habitat fragmentation, lack of natural predators, and a growing human population are just a few of the reasons so many of our wildlife species are on the decline. Bucking this trend are deer: one species which continues to breed prolifically, with many experts believing the population is at its highest in 1,000 years with 1.5 to 2 million red, roe, fallow, sika, muntjac and Chinese deer currently roaming the countryside and semi-urban areas.


Because of this, every six months thousands of wild deer are culled, amid concerns from farmers and conservationists worrying about crops and biodiversity as large numbers of roaming deer can have an adverse impact on woodland vegetation by selectively browsing on herbs, shrubs and young trees.


deer shooting culled

According to Simon Leadbeater Phd, in his paper Deer management and biodiversity in England: the efficacy and ethics of culling: “Oliver Rackham makes the case against deer; ‘the biggest…threat to woodland is browsing animals…[they] subtract much of the woodland ground vegetation, replacing it with browsing-adapted plants, especially grasses. They render coppicing impracticable. They convert a woodland ecosystem into trees plus grass with no long term future for the trees’. He goes further; ‘deer are a really serious problem… [they] affect ground vegetation, small mammals, birds and invertebrates…Nearly all the efforts are anti-conservation; they subtract features from woodland without adding features’.”


While Simons goes on to question the efficacy of traditional practices like coppicing, and whether the impact of deer is such a great threat, it is clear the popular view focusses on the havoc believed to be wreaked by deer, leading scientists to argue that culling is essential if population numbers are to be reduced. A number of organisations- the British Deer Society claim culling-by shooting-is not only necessary, but ‘humane’.


Not everyone agrees.


Lesley Dove leads the activist group Stop the Deer Cull. She has been campaigning for six years to get an alternative to culling trialled on a special licence in the Royal Parks around London, as well as Hampton Court. She says: “This [culling] is cruel and unnecessary and also causes a huge amount of stress and terror to the surviving animals. It’s time to stop Richmond and Bushy Park being hunting parks.”


But according to a Royal parks spokesman: “Without population control food would become scarce and more animals would ultimately suffer. There would also be other welfare issues such as low body fat, malnutrition, high incidence of death from exposure to cold in winter and a build-up of parasites and diseases in deer.”


However campaigners like Lesley aren’t against controlling deer population: they just want to see a genuinely humane alternative to shooting the animals. Focus needs to be on management – the alternative for many deer is a lingering death. Lesley says: “In the last few years, it’s quite exciting, there actually is an alternative. It’s called GonaCon it’s an immune-contraceptive that can be injected, darted into the deer, it’s been used in the US on various mammal species.”


deer culled shootingThis method of control would be welcome from the animals’ point of view:  evidence suggests that whilst most deer are shot, this doesn’t actually confirm a pain free death for the deer and some will not die instantly from the wound and be left to suffer. According to an ongoing survey with The British Deer Society, 88 per cent of deer are killed with one bullet-leaving a number requiring multiple gunshot wounds. Simon Leadbetter writes: “Assumptions about suffering can be made. Some wounded deer may recover, but that they must suffer in some measure is incontestable. There are then 12 per cent which required additional bullets for dispatch – suggesting at the least a greater likelihood of suffering, though both bullets may be fired in quick succession. The fortunate 88 per cent majority will probably die quite quickly, though the BDS research assumes rather than demonstrates or records this.”


The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [RSPCA] believes any cull must be carried out in a humane and controlled way and be supported by strong science. In a statement they said: “We are opposed in principle to the killing or taking of all wild animals unless there is strong science to support it, or evidence that alternatives are not appropriate. Any decision to carry out a cull must be taken on a case by case basis based on the specific area.”


But if culling is not the only available method for reducing deer numbers and there are other preventative measures that can be used-why are we yet to adopt them?


Contraception measures have proven to work for reducing numbers and halting overbreeding for hill ponies in Dartmoor. Conservationist and founder of the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association Charlotte Faulkner administered the contraceptive (Improvac) to female ponies – who according to Charlotte would have hardly felt the dart – and trimmed back their tails to mark them out. The initiative which was backed by Exmoor Pony Society and the Exmoor National Park Authority has resulted in a decrease of foals and population.


Outlined in Simon Leadbeater’s paper, Dr Jay Kirkpatrick argues the technique called immuno-contraception can ‘achieve zero population growth relatively fast but it takes some time to actually reduce the population, but it can – and has been – done.’


Furthermore, experts are in agreeance that culling is in fact not reducing deer numbers. Immuno-contraception techniques may well need perfecting, but there is evidence that they work in some circumstances and certainly their use could be explored more vigorously than at present.


In addition to contraceptive measures, alternate methods include fences which limit the deer to certain areas, deer resistant landscaping and repellents, and live relocation of some deer to areas where they are far less populated.


Deer culling facts and statistics

  • The 1963 Deer Act in England and Wales and in 1959 in Scotland prevented deer from being treated like vermin and controlled who could shoot them and how; gunshot (shotguns) was outlawed.
  • The latest survey by The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) suggests as many as 173,000 deer’s are culled in England each year.
  • The Forestry Commission reported that in the season ending March 2010 of the 11,000 deer culled on FC land, 5,000 were adult females, 4,000 males and 2,000 (gender unspecified) juveniles.



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