Farm Ireland

Friday 23 February 2018

Deer explosion now grave worry

A management plan to cut deer numbers is vital, as is public education on the problems they pose

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

There is currently no national deer management policy in Ireland despite the serious damage deers are causing to our woodland. There is also very little cooperation between the various State bodies with responsibility in this area.

This situation has led to a population explosion among deer in the wild and continuing heavy financial losses for many woodland owners. It has also been alleged that in some cases, animals are being bought from deer farms and illegally released into the wild to increase the numbers available for sportsmen to shoot. If this is true then the very people who are in a position to control deer numbers are in fact partially responsible for their increase. This is, of course, perhaps only natural in that all sportsmen, be they hunters, shooters or fishermen, want to conserve and increase the numbers of the species they hunt.

Fishermen are the ones who are the guardians of our water quality, and most angling clubs stock rivers and lakes to ensure sustainable sport for their members. Gun clubs rear pheasants and ducks and conserve habitat to allow their quarry increase in numbers. This is, of course, right and proper. Pheasants, woodcock or fish do not damage the natural environment and provide excellent sport in addition to badly needed income in rural areas through sport tourism.

Deer, however, cause havoc among young forestry plantations by browsing and stripping bark from the trunks of young trees. Natural regeneration cannot occur where deer numbers are high and the cost of fencing them out is prohibitively expensive. Where fencing does occur, it pushes the population into neighbouring woodland and simply passes on the problem. The same can occur where clearfelling takes place and the deer then move on and the problem is passed to the unfortunate owners of adjoining woodland.

In the past some deer farms have closed due to financial losses, and anecdotal evidence suggests that in some cases their remaining stock has been released into the wild. This would, of course, further increase the problem as farmed deer are able to adapt to life in the woods. The public perception of deer tends to be one of shy, attractive creatures frolicking in sunlit clearings in woodland -- Bambi is probably what first springs to mind whenever deer are mentioned.

However, like grey squirrels, deer numbers must be controlled and the public have to first be educated and made aware of the reality of the situation. This can best be achieved by starting with good wildlife education in our schools. The CRISIS (Combined Research and Investigation of Squirrels in Irish Silviculture) group has done a wonderful job in informing the general public of the damage grey squirrels cause to our native reds and to our woods and wildlife habitat.

The same approach is now needed to allow for a coordinated culling of deer and the restoration of a sustainable and manageable population.


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Woodland cover is increasing each year as a result of our afforestation schemes but, with deer populations at unsustainable levels in many areas, something has to give and, unfortunately, it is our stock of young trees that suffers. Broadleaf crops are particularly vulnerable and often young trees are browsed to the point where their leaders are continually nipped and are eventually reduced to valueless scrub.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service are aware of the problem, but have been unable to mount a coordinated campaign to reduce the population of deer to manageable numbers.

At present, most Irish foresters leave university with little or no knowledge of the importance of deer management and, equally, most recreational hunters in Ireland know very little about forest management and have little or no training in this regard.

Shooting of deer in Ireland has not been focused on management and there has been no emphasis on female culling -- an essential part of any programme to reduce their numbers. In continental Europe, deer management is a key part of forest management training but, so far, nothing on those lines has been introduced here.

There are, of course, many responsible and knowledgeable sportsmen who fully understand the needs of the owners whose land they shoot on and also the urgent need to reduce deer numbers. But there are others who simply wish to see deer numbers increase and can act illegally by introducing breeding stock into areas where previously deer numbers were low. At present in Ireland, we have Red deer, Sika, hybrids between Reds and Sika, Fallow deer and the recently introduced Muntjac. The first wild sightings of Muntjac were reported in 2007 in Co Wicklow and since then in various other locations. Muntjac originated in southeast Asia and are very secretive and difficult to spot in woodland. Adults are only 10-15kg in weight and 50cm at shoulder height. They were introduced to Britain around 1900 and released in the Duke of Bedford's estate at Woburn Abbey. Since then they have appeared in France, Holland and now in Ireland. This breed is currently designated as a pest to Britain farmers and foresters as they feed on vegetation, young trees and coppice.

It has been suggested that their spread in Ireland may be as a result of multiple, deliberate releases and, as they didn't fly here, this seems likely.

Deers have no natural predators and, like so many introduced species such as mink and grey squirrels, their populations will continue to increase unless controlled.

It had been suggested in the past that the wolf be reintroduced to the Irish wilderness. While this might help in controlling deer, it is unlikely that our sheep farmers would welcome any additional predators harassing their flocks.

A further problem is the closure of so many small abattoirs throughout the country and the consequent difficulty of having carcasses butchered and sold. As there is no established quality control system in place to facilitate a domestic market for venison, there is little chance of developing this potentially valuable outlet.

The lack of local slaughtering facilities is something that organic farmers and other small livestock producers constantly complain about and perhaps the Department of Agriculture could re-examine their regulations in regard to this.

A comprehensive review of the current situation regarding deer in Irish woodland has recently been published, and it clearly outlines the huge problems facing woodland owners and the urgent need for deer population control.

The report was commissioned by Woodlands of Ireland and the authors have done a superb job in producing a document that covers, in easy-to-read detail, all aspects relating to the current status of deer in Ireland. The need for a proper system of deer management is repeatedly highlighted, as is the fact that if nothing is done within the next decade, then the damage to the economic and biodiversity values of Irish woodland will reach catastrophic levels.

In attempting to put a figure on the financial cost to woodland owners from deer damage, the authors note a loss of timber values, estimated at €34m, for recently planted broadleaves. Further losses occur in biodiversity, reconstitution costs, potential EU fines for non-compliance with the Habitats Directive and loss of investment through failure to achieve the objectives of the Forest Service grant schemes.

In commercial conifer crops, there is recent data that suggests that, in areas of Ireland that have high deer densities, up to 22pc of the potential revenue of the crop amounting to €3,800/ha may be lost.

The report strongly recommends that an Irish deer management unit be established with adequate statutory powers and budgets to effect the necessary changes. Such a unit could, perhaps, be established within an existing Government department. Many people might disagree with the need for yet another statutory body, but something must be done and, given the urgency and seriousness of the current situation, perhaps this is the best means of finally putting a workable management system in place.

The wrangling and disagreement must end between the various groups with interests in deer management. Hopefully, both sporting and forestry interests can, in future, cooperate with one another for the greater good and finally agree on a strategy that will benefit all.

Copies of the report can be obtained by contacting Woodlands of Ireland at Seismograph House, Rathfarnham Castle, Dublin 14 or email The report will also soon be available to download from

Irish Independent