In the mid-1990s, I was appointed BASC’s first ever deer officer. The role came about as a consequence of the growing interest in wild deer in England — not only because they were viewed as a sporting quarry but also because they were perceived to be having a negative impact in a number of areas, including forestry, agriculture and road traffic accidents. At the same time, the Forestry Commission formed the Deer Initiative to manage the nation’s deer.

When the initiative was set up, several important principles were agreed. First, it should not follow the Scottish model of a government agency with statutory powers (then the Red Deer Commission, now part of Scottish Natural Heritage). Second, it should not replace any of the existing private sector organisations such as BASC or the British Deer Society. And finally, it should be a genuine partnership between government departments, agencies and the private sector, which would be open to any national organisation that had an interest in the management of our wild deer population.

Deer expansion

Wild deer are both a national resource and a national responsibility. All species of deer are increasing in number and expanding their range in England. Fallow roe and muntjac deer are now widespread, while red and sika are locally abundant. There are also limited, though less significant, increases in the range and number of Chinese water deer.

There is currently no obvious reason why this trend should not continue. Of our six species, only red and roe deer may be considered native to Great Britain, but the modern populations in England and Wales almost certainly are not native and yet we currently make the distinction between the management of any of the individual species. The recovery of our native species, albeit from introduced stock, should be seen as a conservation success story. However, the introduction of four other species has meant that that success is now endangered.

A combination of factors has led to this significant expansion in the range and number of deer. Wild deer regularly cross man-made boundaries, so co-operation in their management is crucial. They can only be managed successfully through collaboration between a wide range of interests — public and private, statutory and voluntary. In particular, it is vital to ensure the involvement of local landowners and managers who can operate at a landscape scale.

The Deer Initiative, which covers both England and Wales, is made up of the partnership and a support company, Deer Initiative Ltd. The partnership includes 25 organisations including government departments, agencies and the private sector, and has an independent chairman (currently Jane Rabagliati). The partners all agree to a set of principles known as the Deer Accord and our strategy sets out our agreed priorities to “ensure the delivery of a sustainable, well-managed wild deer population”.The current priorities are to:

* Contribute to the conservation and sustainable management of woodlands and other habitats, in particular the achievement of favourable conservation status of protected areas such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest;

* Halt the growth of, and subsequently reduce, the number and seriousness of deer-vehicle collisions on our roads;

* Build the capability to react effectively to contain and control emerging zoonoses (that is, diseases transmissible to humans) and other health issues relating to deer.

These priorities guide the work of the wider partnership as well as the staff of Deer Initiative Ltd. The team of 11 full-time staff includes regional deer liaison officers. These regional officers, supported by contractors (known as deer management advisors) in local areas, are key to tackling emerging issues at a local level. We also help both public and private landowners to work together at a landscape scale and to best practice standards, so that deer management is effective, safe and humane.

The development of best practice guidance for England and Wales is a good example of bringing together the public and private sectors to achieve agreed standards across the industry. Now the partners are committed to rolling this out within their own organisations and are supporting events held by Deer Initiative Ltd. The most recent, held in the East of England and hosted by the Forestry Commission, attracted more than 80 participants from a wide range of backgrounds. Future events will be held across the regions.

Wild venison

In the East of England, Deer Initiative Ltd has supported the Wild Venison Project designed to support and increase the supply and availability of wild venison to local, regional and national markets. When the project started, a steering group was set up to provide guidance to the project officer and the appraisal officer. Members of the group include representatives of BASC and the British Deer Society.

Just over £580,000 of funding — from the Rural Development Programme — will be delivered by the project from March 2010 to the end of 2013 through match-funding (up to 50 per cent). To date, the project has delivered more than £1million of investment in capital infrastructure, with applications ranging from large estates to recreational deerstalkers across Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk. Individual project costs have varied from less than £2,000 to more than £100,000 and most applications have been for grant assistance with the purchase of processing equipment, chillers, larders and extraction vehicles.

Awareness and advice

In general, the Deer Initiative raises awareness, provides advice, training and support to landowners and deer managers. We advise government and private and voluntary sector partners on all aspects of wild deer management. This includes, for example, tackling deervehicle collisions, reducing deer impacts on vulnerable habitats and supporting deer management under environment stewardship and woodland grant schemes.

Our Government funders include DEFRA, the Forestry Commission (England), Natural England and Natural Resources Wales. We also receive significant support from the private and voluntary sectors. About half of our resources come from in-kind support.

The Deer Initiative is an example of a successful public/private approach to addressing a national issue. Its independent nature draws together a wide range of organisations and individuals with an interest in deer and the various impacts that they have upon our environment.

Despite the growing conflicts, people wish to see deer in the wild — and are thrilled when they do so. In many areas where deer are considered by ecologists and foresters to be a problem, the public is not aware that they pose a threat to woodlands, so considerable work needs to be done to raise levels of understanding. And there is a growing need to engage the wider public in a debate on the future of wild deer.