Farm Ireland

Friday 16 November 2018

More work needed to curb Ireland's deer population

William Merivale

As our largest wild land mammal, deer are magnificent creatures and fully deserving of their place in the environment. However, their numbers have been on the increase for many years now and they cause widespread damage in our woodlands.

Deer damage trees by browsing and by fraying their antlers, and because of their sheer size they continue to pose a threat to trees for rather longer than the smaller browsing mammals already mentioned.

The damage to the timber caused by fraying can be extreme and the full extent may not be apparent until it comes under the saw.

Focus has fallen on the three main species, the native red deer, the Japanese sika deer, a nineteenth-century introduction, and the fallow deer. Historically, fallow deer is the species of estate parkland and now widespread in the wild.

In recent years, there have been reported sightings of the muntjac, probably imported illegally for hunting, and unless it can be rapidly controlled its numbers will also escalate.

In Wicklow, the native red has hybridised with the sika, though it is now believed that the extent of such cross-breeding, certainly in localised areas, is not as great as once thought.

For reasons that are still unclear such hybridisation does not appear to have happened in Kerry, even though sika are abundant and the two species can often be seen in the same vicinity.

A number of factors have contributed to the increase in numbers. The considerable increase in afforestation since the early 1980s has also increased their habitat; recreational hunting has accelerated their dispersal through the illegal practice of releasing and/or relocating animals; forest management practices such as clear-felling and deer fencing can push deer into new areas; and during the heyday of deer farming, many deer were deliberately or accidentally released into the wild.

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Furthermore, with no natural predators, and with their birth rate greatly exceeding mortality, the deer themselves are under constant pressure to seek out new habitat and feeding areas. In addition, deer hunting has tended not to be focused on deer management, consequently nothing like enough females are culled.

Until very recently, there was insufficient co-operation, even sharing of knowledge, between foresters and hunters. Foresters had little understanding of the requirements of deer management, concentrating for the most part on erecting costly deer fencing in order to exclude deer from young plantations, and relying on recreational stalking to do the rest.

Hunters had little knowledge or understanding of – let alone training in – forest management. There has at last been a growing acknowledgement on the part of foresters that their inadequate approach to deer management has meant that deer problems do not go away and that a crisis is looming. To say that our approach to date in tackling the problem has been at best ad hoc is an understatement.

Woodlands of Ireland was instrumental in starting a co-ordinated approach to dealing with the issue and in 2009 commissioned a detailed report carried out by Purser Tarleton Russell Ltd entitled Deer and Forestry in Ireland: A Review of Current Status and Management Requirements.

This was followed in 2011 with the joint publication by the Forest Service and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht of a draft Policy Vision for Deer Management in Ireland published for public consultation in September 2011.

It is testament to the amount of interest and concern in the subject that the Department received 27 detailed submissions from the public, all of which are available to view on the Department's website.

However, this work has stalled at the moment and much remains to be done.

Irish Independent