I have recently been discussing reasons for the reduction in the local deer population with fellow stalkers. Deer have become high profile since the Government demonised them and encouraged people to shoot more of them. At the same time, the Government also encouraged the public to go out and enjoy the countryside and to take their dogs out, which has had a huge impact on deer and other wildlife. One of the main reasons that deer have become centre of attention is the large number being killed on the roads. There will always be road traffic accidents (RTAs) as deer migrate or are chased out by other deer.

It is, however, interesting that there were far fewer deer-related RTAs during the foot-and-mouth outbreak when the countryside was closed to the public. It also seems that many more people have centrefire rifles capable of killing deer, often fitted with a sound moderator. These are not necessarily in the right calibre, but it is almost impossible to tell if a deer was killed legally. The March extension to the doe season could be seen as a move towards the open season in place on some Scottish forestry blocks. Certainly, more does are shot as a result, and the shooting of kids of either sex has also increased. The recession has led to more deer being shot for cash as opposed to food, both by legitimate stalkers and poachers. Years ago, during the Miners’ Strikes, I read that the countryside around the mining villages was devoid of any game as the miners struggled to feed their families. It is interesting that in the current recession farm animals and deer are being taken for the same reason.

It seems, too, that more people have become involved in the trophy business, guiding foreign clients. I don’t see this as sustainable in the long term, as some of them rely on permission to shoot over several farms and the stalking consists of driving around until a trophy is spotted. This is hardly in the true spirit of hunting or good deer management and is occasionally done without the full permission or knowledge of the landowner.

“They may be territorial, but not to the point of starvation.”

Then there is the question of the availability of food for the deer. I have no doubt that deer migrate in search of better pastures, even if only temporarily due to disturbance or bad weather. They may be territorial, but not to the point of starvation. At this time of year, we should also be aware of the changes in woodland as it reverts from dense bramble cover and no canopy to full canopy and no ground cover. This directly affects the number of deer the woodland can support without an adverse impact on the local flora. Deer managers must be careful not to make snap judgements of numbers and be aware of such influencing factors. The past two wet, cold summers have affected kid survival rates. At the time of this year’s heavy snowfalls, deer that were in poor condition would have fared badly. The milder winters have probably increased the parasite burden on deer. My dog picked up ticks throughout last winter, and deer often have clusters of them. I often have the pleasure of a ked for company after a successful stalking trip. Then there are various endo-parasites, such as liver fluke, pneumonia and TB plus the odd injury — I’ve shot several deer with broken or missing legs. Deer occasionally break a leg running through woodland, but undoubtedly stock netting topped with barbed wire kills and injures a considerable number each year, and agricultural machinery inevitably catches a few kids.

Two years ago, an autumn count in a local area recorded 32 roe, half of which were kids. Based on that count I shot fi ve adult does that winter, but I doubt I could find 10 deer in the same area now and no does were shot this year. Proportionately, the numbers are similar on another area. Both areas are affected by different factors. One suffers from a high level of public disturbance coupled with night poaching with dogs and rifles. The other area has seen several deer die in RTAs, and I suspect a couple of deer have been killed on the railway line. My annual deer cull in these areas has been virtually abandoned. I have a friend who is a member of a deer management group, supported by the Deer Initiative, who tells me that at the last meeting of 30 or so members they recorded a cull of more than 500 deer between them, the majority of which were bucks.

Naturally, most of their members prefer to stalk during nice weather. This is hardly deer management. I asked how they carried out their census. They don’t do one. This means they have no idea how many deer are on the ground. They also had no record for each specific area, so there will be overshooting in the most popular areas and perhaps none in the more distant ones. There are two management groups in that county, plus heaven knows how many more independent stalkers doing their own thing. So there, as with the rest of the country, no-one really knows how many deer are shot or involved in car accidents. But maybe that doesn’t matter if, as argued, we are only taking the surplus? I think the reality is that deer are now under huge pressure and we should take a step back from this drive to wipe them out.