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Deer management and deer numbers have been a talking point for government, for educational institutions and on television and radio programmes over the past year or so. Last spring, a research paper was incorrectly reported in the press to suggest that 250,000 more deer needed to be culled annually in the UK than we were currently shooting. Strangely enough, there wasn?t a massive outcry from the great town-living British public against this. Are they more mature about wildlife management than in the past, or did they just not pick up on it?

It is generally accepted that deer numbers cannot be left without some form of management and that is usually in the form of culling. In early January, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a half-hour programme, hosted by Monty Don, which was dedicated to deer and deer management. All the ?experts? who were interviewed agreed that deer numbers need to be kept in check and the only real option was lethal control. All good stuff for stalkers you might think, but within the more professional side of deer management ? those who are involved with deer as part of their day-to-day job ? there is some concern over this eagerness to kill large numbers of deer on a nationwide scale.

The National Gamekeepers? Organisation (NGO) has a dedicated Deer Branch that advises the organisation on all matters to do with deer in England and Wales ? and I am its chairman. The Deer Branch is made up of a committee of volunteers who are all involved in deer management in a professional capacity. In my day job, I am headkeeper at the Englefield estate in Berkshire, where I am responsible for managing the estate?s deer park as well as culling wild deer on its large lowland holdings.

A role for deer

The NGO Deer Branch?s stance on deer management is relatively robust. We feel that deer should not be treated as vermin and that they have an important role to play in our countryside. This applies to all six species of wild deer in the UK, whether they are considered native or not, because they are all here to stay.

Deer have a commercial value for an estate through the letting of stalking rights, clients who pay per stalk and trophy fees, and the venison market is buoyant at the moment. If you negotiate the letting of your stalking correctly, whether it is on a paid-per-outing basis or a full let of the estate, the chances are that you will earn more from that than from the estate forestry.

In terms of local deer management, the NGO feels that deer numbers fluctuate so much nationally that deer can only be managed at a local level by people who know the ground and the local issues, whether they are individual stalkers, gamekeepers or localised deer management groups. Such groups are particularly useful when dealing with transient deer species, such as fallow, which don?t adhere to estate boundaries.

A distant government body should not be dictating to landowners and stalkers what they should be doing. The NGO Deer Branch is against any move to link deer management with agricultural environmental payment schemes. This would effectively give government bodies control over how many deer a landowner would need to cull (or not) before any payments would be received, which would go against our idea of local deer management and broaden it out to become a national policy.

It also gives rise to the possibility of failing to achieve a cull target that has been set by somebody who doesn?t know your ground or local circumstances.
What would be the next step if this were to happen? You could have stalkers from elsewhere, who may be equally ignorant of the ground, imposed on you to try to achieve an impossible cull ? as has happened in Scotland. I?m not sure this would be fair to the deer or the Rural Payments Agency.

Why should the culling of deer be part of an Environmental Stewardship scheme when the control of vermin is not? For example, farmers are currently paid to grow wild bird mixes and ground-nesting bird cover, but there is no requirement for them to control vermin such as foxes and corvids whose activities can easily undo all their best efforts. A move to kill deer under these schemes is being considered, but after 20 years of full-time professional gamekeeping I am yet to see a roe deer eating a songbird fledgling or nest! Why should the killing of deer be linked to these schemes and not vermin control or proper woodland management?

In defence of deer

Deer sometimes get a rough ride when woodland is discussed and are often faced with the accusation that they are solely responsible for the devastation of certain habitats. There are always other factors that should be considered, such as poorly managed forestry. Often woodlands are left too long before any light thinning is done to allow the ground regeneration of plants. Under a closed canopy, plants take longer to grow and will be under more pressure from deer, hares and rabbits. This in turn can put more browsing pressure on other areas, where deer tend to concentrate away from the less suitable ground. If woodland and farmland are managed to a high standard for wildlife as well as for agriculture then there should be room for higher densities of all flora and fauna, including deer.

The NGO Deer Branch aims to help improve deer welfare and management in the British countryside and we have many active members involved in both professional and amateur deerstalking. A recent survey by the NGO indicated that we are achieving more than half the annual deer cull nationally, so we know what we are talking about. The Deer Branch may not be the largest organisation in terms of membership numbers, but it should have one of the loudest voices when it comes to practical, common-sense deer management.

In summary, deer should not be treated as vermin out of hand; they have an important role to play in the British countryside ? commercially, environmentally and aesthetically ? but we realise they can also become a problem. When they do, they should be dealt with at a local level. There really is no need for a ?Big Brother? approach to these issues. That may start with deer, but where would it stop?