Balancing Biodiversity - Deer

Deer are a much-loved part of woodlands in the UK. A glimpse of deer is a rare treat for most, an insight into a wilder world, independent of humanity and its plans and ambitions.

The number of deer in the UK is believed to be at a record high, leading to an imbalance in nature. Over-browsing of young trees and scrub by deer is now acknowledged to have significant negative impacts on the rest of the ecosystem. This is especially true as two Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS) spread across England, namely Reeve’s Muntjac (henceforth “muntjac”) and Chinese Water Deer (henceforth “water deer”). Wild Ken Hill has not been immune to these effects. We’ve noticed over browsing in parts of the woodland, and in the long run we have lost species like the Nightingale from our woodlands.

Without making interventions to address this problem, we limit the potential habitat for many other species. This is particularly true of woodland birds dependent on a dense and complex understory, which were identified as one of the most at risk groups in the recent State of Nature report.

UK’s Deer Population

The UK’s deer population is believed to be at its highest levels for 1,000 years. It is estimated that there could be as many as 2 million deer (British Deer Society), with natural predators such as wolves, lynx, and bears have long since disappeared from our shores. The only predator left is us, humans.

It is widely accepted that the numbers of deer have been long underestimated. The impact of this has been highlighted in the recent State of Nature report, as well as by many NGOs, (including BTO, the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and National Trust), conservationists, and academics (see peer-reviewed research papers such as this one for the science). There is a wide recognition that the UK’s deer population does need to be both reduced in number and controlled.

At Wild Ken Hill, we have five of the six species of deer present in the UK: Red, Roe, Fallow, muntjac, and water deer. Like other parts of the UK, despite good deer management, we see negative impacts here on the wider landscape on a daily basis and have identified that this is having a significant impact on our goals to improve biodiversity. The headline photo shows a hedgerow in the rewilding area that is overbrowsed at the base by deer, creating a clear line.

Difficult Decisions

Good conservation management sometimes involves difficult decisions. It’s not all about success stories, such as curlew headstarting (although we think that’s important too!).

At Wild Ken Hill our approach to improving biodiversity is three-fold: regenerative farming; traditional conservation and rewilding.

The concept of ‘Rewilding’ is widely debated, but our approach generally follows the principles outlined in the State of Nature report, which in short allows the recovery of ecological processes with minimal human intervention.

That being said, ‘Rewilding’ does accept that there are certain species that do require human intervention due to a lack of natural predators. Certain species of deer in the UK (particularly the non-native species) fall into that category.

Deer Management

There are several options to manage deer, but in practice there is really only one or two options which provide practical and workable solutions.

Some conservationists argue that fencing might be one solution, however the predominance of deer, and the scale and terrain they cover, makes this impossible at Wild Ken Hill. Deer can jump most fencing and are frequently found grazing, for example, within the beaver enclosure here – which is fenced all the way around.

Trials involving fertility control have also been discussed, but we believe that the prevalence, wide distribution, and lack of natural barriers would make this extremely difficult – if not impossible – to administer on a large scale. There is also the issue of this releasing hormones into the environment, which will have an impact on both the deer and the biodiversity here at Wild Ken Hill.

It is a complex issue, and our team has considered both scientific research and local knowledge to help us make this difficult decision. It is something we will continue to monitor, with the help of the British Deer Society (BDS). The additional information we will acquire from forthcoming BDS surveys (which will include thermal imagery and visual counting) will help to inform our approach moving forwards.

Our Approach

Following much deliberation, we have decided to partner with the British Deer Society, a leading UK charity promoting ethical deer management.

The BDS have undertaken research on deer populations across the UK and believe that deer play a vital role in maintaining habitats which benefit wildlife. However, they also recognise that in order for the UK to have a healthy population which is in balance with the environment, humans do need to take action.

The BDS approach is to educate and train stalkers in the highest standards of ethical deer management. BDS also prioritise the stalking of Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS) of deer, which have the biggest impact on biodiversity here at Wild Ken Hill.

Nick Rout, Head of Education and Training for BDS explains “through the robust training and assessment we provide to new and experienced Deer Managers, we are confident the levels of competency are being raised. Our instructors take pride in helping people understand deer behaviour, habitat, feeding habits, and essentials required when culling deer in a safe and responsible way, in line with the management and conservation objectives.”

The BDS will not only help to manage the deer population, they will also be monitoring the number and type of deer, enabling us make informed decisions about deer management going forwards. They also use non-toxic/lead-free bullets (as recommended in The People’s Manifesto), which aren’t harmful to the wider environment.

“When deer management is professionally undertaken, it is safe, responsible, and humane. Provided high standards can be maintained, and the venison that arises is professionally and safely processed before entering into the human food chain (or increasingly the organic pet food chain), it is the only currently effective option to maintain both healthy populations of deer, a balance of numbers with other grazing and browsing mammals, and a vibrant diversity of wildlife in rewilding and other conservation projects.” Comments Jonathan Spencer MBE (Former Head of Environment for Forestry England. Retired July 2019, and, amongst other duties, Senior Manager responsible for the Wildlife Management Team).

The Future

We believe in tackling the key issues facing biodiversity head-on. That includes adopting the most ethical and humane way to manage deer.

By managing the deer population at Wild Ken Hill, we hope we will improve the quality of woodland habitat, thereby benefitting a wide variety of wildlife. We will be doing our own surveys alongside those being undertaken by the BDS and will update you when we have the facts and figures.

We also think that venison is a great, ethical, and sustainable source of food and hope to be able to provide venison burgers to you in the not-too-distant future!