The UK is heaving with fallow deer. You see them in groups in the fields and much of our woodland is eaten bare. The cost of damage to agriculture and forestry is impossible to assess and the animals are constantly involved in road traffic accidents, causing misery to man and beast. Fallow deer are in a state of total mismanagement. Besides controlling numbers, we ought to be producing fallow trophies to rival any other country, but if two or three first-class heads come up for scoring in a year it?s something to talk about. So what?s wrong? And what can be done about it?
If more attention were to be given to over-population of fallow in England than to the current politically motivated pressure to cut down on the number of Highland red deer, it would be a start. Unlike roe, muntjac or even Chinese water deer, while fallow are an ornament to the countryside, they have no clout to encourage better management, little or no interest for the visiting stalker, a deplorable venison price and bear the blame for farm and forest damage.
Nobody has estimated their numbers, though a BASC survey has produced the astonishing claim that its members shot between 45,000 and 56,000 fallow in 2003 alone. No doubt this does not represent anything like the total, but to sustain even that size of cull demands a population of around 150,000. Thanks to the Deer Initiative?s current research on deer-related vehicle collisions, we also know that of the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 traffic accidents involving deer annually, fallow are the most often involved in England ? 38 per cent of the known total, or 10,000 to 15,000 ? and there are many accidents that remain unreported.
High fallow density in a particular area quickly generates a black spot for traffic accidents. Ashdown Forest has been quoted as an example of this, where more than 1,000 deer have been hit over a five-year period ? 215 of them between January and September 2006 alone. The size of the animal increases the chance of serious damage and human injury. This is an area of high traffic speed and density where, for various reasons, practically no collaborative deer management has been attempted and few deer have been culled. Thankfully this situation is now being tackled by the formation of the Ashdown Area Deer Group.
While we are looking at this aspect of over-population, more than 250 deer-related accidents a year involve personal injury, with high medical expenses and car repairs estimated at more than £11million, plus police and ranger time. Shouldn?t we do something? The Highways Authorities can install the latest devices such as headlight reflectors at black spots, but the truth is that if there are too many deer, their natural tendency to range will be increased by the need to search for food.
Every stalker knows that there are not only too many fallow but, in most areas, does vastly outnumber bucks, adding to their productivity. The rifle and scope bears some of the blame. In the bad old days of shotgun drives ? nobody wants to go back there ? the first deer to come near was shot. Sex didn?t matter. It is the nature of fallow, when on the run, for the bucks to come at the back, thus passing safely through the line when everyone was unloaded. Nowadays a stalker sees a herd of fallow doing what they shouldn?t and has as many shots as he safely can. Strangely, when the crowd of does has departed, any deer left stretched out will inevitably have spikes of some sort on its head. Of course, you will say: ?Not me. I?m always very selective.? Well, some are, but it happens, doesn?t it? There is something about antlers that draws the predator?s eye.
What?s to be done? Reduce numbers and underlying productivity by a large cull of females. Easy to say, but less straightforward to carry out. In the post-war years a number of local deer control societies were formed, offering a culling service by riflemen as an alternative to the then legal shotgun drives.
The movement started in Sussex and spread to other southern counties. A herd of fallow may have a radius of activity of several miles, so ideally every landowner within that home range ought to belong to the organisation. A landowner could contact the society and one or more stalkers would respond, shooting the offending deer on his land or anywhere adjacent belonging to participating members. Two problems caused this excellent idea to flounder. When roe started to become valuable, landowners found they could profitably let stalking and, if roe were to be excluded, they no longer needed the ?police force? to carry out culling of fallow on demand. Gameshooting also became more commercial, making stalkers less welcome on some shoots. As a result the deer control societies gave up and the fallow profited.
With this history, can deer control or management societies have a significant effect on our present troubles? ?Yes,? says Robert Underhill, consultant to the Deer Initiative, who started the South-East Wiltshire Group nine years ago. About 60,000 acres are covered by the group, with nearly 100 per cent of landowners participating. This took time (and probably a good deal of diplomacy). Cull figures for all five species present are exchanged, but co-operation is centred on fallow. Most estates manage their own roe, which may get over one of the previous stumbling blocks. The move to extend the open season for female deer into March, however distasteful it may be to some of us, might help overcome the difficulty of culling on intensive shoots.
The Deer Initiative has been the mainspring for the formation and support over the past eight years of deer management groups in 36 areas across England. Will this be the answer to our fallow problems? According to Robert Underhill, ?No, but it will make a significant contribution, given the goodwill and collaboration of the landowners involved.? Jamie Cordery, deer liaison officer for the south-east England Deer Initiative, comments further, ?It?s the absolute key in areas where the deer range extends across boundaries,? he claims. Fallow venison, especially doe, is delicious. If we were keener on eating it, that would help, too. Maybe we can turn a pest into an asset ? and if more of us aim at does rather than bucks, we might also have more good stalking sport.
For more information, visit www.thedeerinitiative.co.uk and www.deercollisions.co.uk