Deer in firing line as experts call for cull of up to a million
Experts are urging all-out war on deer which could see almost a million animals being shot each year in the UK – with the Westcountry likely to be one of the hotspots for a cull.
The call to arms was made yesterday after new research showed that only by killing 50% to 60% of deer can their numbers be kept under reasonable control.
This is slaughter on a far greater scale than the 20% to 30% culling rates recommended before. With total deer numbers conservatively estimated at about 1.5 million, it could result in more than 750,000 animals being shot every year.
Deer are said to be having a devastating effect on woodland, damaging farmers' crops, causing road accidents and threatening danger to public safety in urban areas.
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Roe deer are a common sight in Westcountry cities, grazing parks, roadside verges and even roundabouts in and around Plymouth, according to local marksmen who control them.
Elsewhere, across the rural Westcountry, farmers' crops are being targeted by increasing numbers of deer.
However, any policy to radically increase the number of animals culled is likely to be controversial with animal rights organisations and some conservationists. Nevertheless, research from the University of East Anglia has concluded that stepping up shooting by trained and licensed hunters is the only practical way to keep deer populations in check, for the benefit of the countryside overall.
Dr Paul Dolman, from the University of East Anglia, said: "I don't think it's realistic to have wolves and brown bears in rural England. In the absence of natural predators, the only way to manage them is to shoot them."
Although they were kept on private land belonging to the nobility, native wild deer were virtually unknown in England for 1,000 years until their re-introduction by the Victorians.
Today, there are more deer in the UK than at any time since the Ice Age. Although it has been suggested that they could number more than 1.5 million, no-one knows for certain how many there are.
Each year more than 14,000 vehicles are severely damaged and about 450 people injured or killed on British roads as a result of collisions with the animals.
Deer also strip woodland of wild flowers, brambles and shrubs, and disturb the ecology to the point that native birds are lost. The fact that nightingales are now so rare is largely blamed on deer.
Britain has a total of six deer species. Roe deer and red deer – common in the Westcountry – are the only two species native to the UK. Four others have been introduced from abroad since Norman times. The most recent newcomers were the muntjac deer and the Chinese water deer, which became established in the wild in the 1920s.
Expanding areas of woodland surrounded by farms, together with the lack of natural predators, have provided perfect conditions in which deer can flourish. And, like foxes, they are now starting to feel at home in urban environments, said Dr Dolman.
"There have been no accidents yet but it's only a matter of time. These are large animals with sharp antlers. If you had one cornered in a school playing field, it could be nasty," he added.
Landowners such as the National Trust would have to help organise culling with support from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). And the meat should be eaten. "We're talking about putting venison steaks on your family table or eating venison at gastropubs," said Dr Dolman.