The RSPB has come in for criticism over the way it culled a large number of red deer at its Minsmere reserve. The charity ordered the culling of 250 red deer at the 1,000 hectare property in Suffolk last November and December, but its actions have been criticised by wildlife and animal rights enthusiasts, including some of its own members, who feel culling is at odds with its conservation aims. The RSPB said its decision had not been taken lightly and it saw culling as “a policy of last resort”.

On its online forum, the RSPB stated: “The decision to control deer was not taken lightly. As part of our annual monitoring of the reserve’s habitats, we review the quality of the habitat, and the factors affecting its deterioration, where applicable. It is through this process that we’ve ascertained the recent deterioration in the quality of our reedbeds and heathland as a result of grazing pressure from the large red deer population. The RSPB is a science-based organisation and we considered all non-lethal techniques before determining that this was the only remaining option to safeguard the integrity of the habitat.

“Deer have no natural predators in the UK and with relatively mild winters, there is little mortality caused by frost and snow. Therefore, their population levels are not naturally controlled. We take our responsibility to protect vulnerable habitats and wildlife seriously and would not be undertaking this action if it would have a detrimental impact on local populations of wildlife.

“Our culling was carried out by experienced stalkers, using best practice guidelines and with full risk assessments in place. Our stalkers were appointed with the full approval of the Deer Initiative. The carcases have been sold to a local game dealer.”

The charity’s actions have been supported by the British Deer Society (BDS), which, together with the Deer Initiative, worked with the RSPB in assessing the situation at Minsmere and formulating a management strategy.

Dave Goffin of the BDS told Shooting Times: “The RSPB clearly has not entered into a red deer culling exercise on its Minsmere estate without careful and prolonged consideration. During October 2011, deer management specialists employed by the BDS visited Minsmere following a request from the RSPB and subsequently compiled a written report to them detailing its findings and recommendations. It was apparent that the deer population exceeded the carrying capacity of the estate and that the habitat vital to other species of flora and fauna was being severely damaged as a result.

“The BDS made a number of recommendations in its report, including the requirement for an initial forensic cull to be implemented, an annual cull to be undertaken based on current deer population dynamics, the necessity of an appropriate deer management infrastructure and careful consideration to be given to the engagement of suitable culling contractors.

“All evidence suggests that the RSPB has considered the BDS’s advice resulting in a successful, efficiently administered outcome. The BDS is fully supportive of the pragmatic approach to deer management taken by the RSPB on its Minsmere reserve. This has been conducted professionally, safely and humanely, and with consideration to longer term land management and deer welfare.”

Peter Watson, director of the Deer Initiative, also expressed support for the RSPB’s actions. He said: “The RSPB take a responsible, science-based view of sustainable deer management and we have supported it fully in this approach by ensuring best practice guidelines were followed throughout this process. Its approach to maintaining a lower population of wild red deer will help sustain important habitats and continue to provide enjoyment for visiting members of the public to watch.”