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Rising deer numbers in political spotlight

While rural residents have been aware of the issue for some time, climate change has put a focus on the UK’s booming deer population

Female fallow deer

Fallow deer have been proving problematic in Oxfordshire

The UK’s increasing deer population is as much an opportunity as a challenge. That is the message from stalkers and rural residents. (Read more on the growing impact of the deer population.)

The inexorable rise in deer numbers has been observed by country people for some years, and now a drive to increase woodland cover has brought the issue to public and political attention.

Oxfordshire farmer James Whittle told Shooting Times: “Fallow deer have become an ever-increasing problem for us; we lose significant amounts of maize and other crops to trampling and grazing. Over the time I have been here, the population has risen significantly.”

Two million deer

Recently published figures suggest that there are now more deer in the UK than there were when William the Conqueror invaded in 1066. It’s estimated that more than two million deer now live in the UK, and the population is continuing to rise rapidly.

While much of the political focus has been on open hill deer in Scotland, it is woodland populations that have shown the steepest rise. (Read our guide to UK deer species.)

As the population has grown, incentives to cull the animals have decreased, with venison prices at an all-time low and stalkers finding themselves facing opposition from activists and residents who don’t understand the need to manage deer.

The UK has ambitious tree-planting targets, intended to prevent the worst effects of climate change, but damage to young trees caused by deer can have a significant effect on how well those trees establish. Forestry England has identified booming deer numbers as a major brake on tree planting.

But deerstalkers and food campaigners are keen to see the issue differently. For the Country Food Trust, venison offers a potentially abundant and low-cost source of protein for those in food poverty. SJ Hunt, the Trust’s chief executive, told Shooting Times: “We are piloting a collaboration with Forestry England to take five tonnes of venison and use it to feed a million people. There is a need to cull around 750,000 deer this year and we hope to use some of that venison to help families that are struggling with the cost of living crisis.”