Today’s guest blog is by Geoffrey Guy who lectures at Reaseheath College. Geoff is the Director of Education for Bushcraft Education Ltd, and the founder of the Bushcraft Education blog:
Bambi: a Menace to the British Countryside
A red stag striding through the heather of a Scottish hillside might be a majestic sight but did you know that despite the decline in many species of British wildlife thanks to pollution, agricultural intensification, urbanisation and other factors, we currently have more deer in the British Isles than at any other point in history, and that’s not necessarily good news for the environment.
The current wild deer population in the UK is in the region of 1.75 to 2 million and this is increasing every year. This number is made up of six separate species (although the numbers for each species I present here are based on figures from a study by Harris et al from 1995 and do not reflect the actual current total deer population in the UK). Our native red (Cervus elaphus) and roe (Capreolus capreolus) deer make up the largest proportion of this figure with approximately 360,000 (347,000 of which live in Scotland) and 500,000 (350,000 in Scotland) individuals, respectively. The survival of roe deer in England and Wales was a close run thing though; by the 1800s they were locally extinct due to the pressures of hunting (they never received the same protection as the red and fallow which were sought after quarry of the rich and landed and so were jealously guarded by keepers and foresters). Roe deer were hunted excessively by the hungry population of medieval Britain, and they only recovered thanks to re-introductions from Scotland and France.
The remaining four deer species in the UK are not native having been brought to our shores either for food or sport or more recently to populate the grounds of stately homes and to stock zoos and private collections.
The fallow (Dama dama) deer was the first of these introductions, originally brought the British Isles by the Romans and held in ‘vivaria’, (enclosures) probably primarily for food, these all died out. Following the Norman conquest in 1066 they were successfully re-introduced and have been here ever since, and now number around 100,000 (4,000 in Scotland). Much later the other introductions began and Japanese sika (Cervus nippon) were introduced to Viscount Powerscourt’s estate at Enniskerry County Wicklow in the 1860s and were later introduced to, and escaped from, other parks around the British Isles. They now number around 11,000 (9,000 in Scotland) in the wild. Chinese water deer (Hydropotes inermis) were an introduction to London Zoo in 1873 and after later moves to Whipsnade and other collections became established in the wild, the current population stands at around 2,100 individuals all of which live in England. Reeves muntjac were introduced to the deer park at Woburn Abbey and also became established in the wild with a population now around 40,000.
This might not seem like a problem and certainly the successful re-introduction of roe deer should be seen as a success but are all these deer really a good thing? However, the massive deer population has led to approximately 74,000 deer related road traffic accidents each year which result in between ten and twenty human deaths each year. Added to this, deer actually cause a lot of environmental damage too.
There is a universal deer-related problem, however: habitat degradation. Many conservation organisations including the Woodland Trust and RSPB recognise the part deer have played, and continue to play, in degrading habitats, particularly woodland. The damage deer do is not limited to actually eating the ground flora in woodlands but they eat shoots from regenerating coppice stools and strip bark from trees in poor winters, ‘frey’ it with their antlers to mark their territory, or strip the ‘velvet’ from their antlers. These degradation of woodland habitats is bad in and of itself and can have a massive impact on the viability of businesses that rely on woodlands such as foresters and the few cottage industries and specialist woodland managers that deal with coppice products or provide raw materials from woodlands. Additionally the degradation of woodland ground layer vegetation including the thicket layer, formed by regenerating coppice which form a thick, lush understory, has knock on effects for other wildlife, certain species such as nightingales, dormice and some butterflies rely on this thicket layer and all are threatened.
So although deer may be majestic animals and the sight of one might be quite exciting while you are out and about on a walk or the highlight of an educational programme if you happen to be working with groups in areas where deer are present. But perhaps it’s as important to mention the negatives of large populations of wild deer as it is to rely on the ‘awe and wonder’ of seeing them to affect people’s perceptions of the environment.
As a footnote, it’s worth pointing out that red deer and sika deer are capable of interbreeding to produce fertile offspring. Because of this, and the wide-ranging nature of ska stags, even geographically remote populations of red deer are at risk of becoming hybridised and it is possible that within a few generations all UK red deer will be hybrids.
Harris,S., Morris,P., Wray,S. & Yalden,D.W. (1995). A Review of British Mammals: Population Estimates and Conservation Status of British Mammals Other than Cetaceans. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough