What Future For Our Red Deer?

On 4th August DEFRA published a consultation on reducing deer numbers to aid woodland establishment and timber production. The consultation, which was little publicised, ran for a month – the holiday month – and closed on 3rd September. When we learnt about it I contacted Matt Peaster of the Quantock Deer Management and Conservation Group (www.quantockdeergroup.co.uk) who too had only just found out about it. He quickly arranged a meeting with Anthony Trollope-Bellew and Hugh Warmington, both landowners and tree growers whose land holds and is affected by deer; two chaps from the Quantocks Staghounds, one of them also a stalker; and Dr Jochen Langbein, an authority on deer with much experience in the Quantocks. 

DEFRA states that the UK deer population is estimated to have increased from 450,000 in the 1970s to two million today and that deer cause a substantial threat to young trees and woodlands; they can also cause significant crop damage. To deal with this, DEFRA proposes to allow land managers to cull male deer by shooting at any time but to keep the existing close seasons for female deer. 

The problem is that one stag can mate with a lot of hinds – that is the point of the rut – so that unless great numbers of stags are killed it will have no effect on the production of red deer calves and thus no reduction in deer numbers or damage to young woodland. What it will do is to further reduce the numbers of big stags on the Quantock Hills that we all want to see. This may be good news for young stags which, given the chance, can mate when they are about two years old, but obviously does nothing to reduce productivity and thus population size and loss of young trees. 

DEFRA also proposes to allow shooting of stags at night. It notes that night shooting “can be particularly effective where deer have become nocturnal in areas of increased public access”. How big a risk does this pose to those of us who like to walk the hills after dark? 

We are very fortunate that here on the Quantocks we have a long-running annual deer count. Although some deer are inevitably missed, so that numbers are always under-estimates, they do give us long-term trends and so we know that since 1991 total numbers have been as low as about 300 and up to 950; this year there were 676 (574 hinds & calves, 29 prickets, 59 young stags, 14 older stags). This is very interesting as the number of males in a natural situation with no hunting should probably be twice that. This number and notably the small number of older stags reflects the current levels of stalking and possibly poaching. 

All of us who met agreed that the numbers of deer – both red and roe – on the Quantocks do cause problems for people who want to increase tree cover. We also agreed that to reduce numbers hinds, not stags, must be killed. That creates welfare issues as hinds have dependant calves for much of the year. So, taking that into account and the risks of night shooting, my view is that any cull needs to be undertaken by employed professionals. 

Friends of Quantock, the AONB Service and others all put in their own comments to the consultation, all broadly on the lines that the cull as proposed will fail utterly to reduce damage to new woodland but will further reduce the numbers of older stags which are a major cultural resource in the Quantocks and contribute greatly to the natural beauty that the AONB exists to protect. We and others will continue to press for a sensible and effective approach. 
John Andrews, September 2022