A Cunning Plot

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Deer manager John Johnson proposes that we follow the lead of the USA and manage woodland in a way that improves deer, habitat and crop quality

During the past few years, there has been a swell of information telling us that there are too many wild deer, and they are playing havoc with the environment. This may be true in certain areas, but not all, and neither does it apply to all species. The species causing most concern in some areas is the fallow deer. Muntjac is also a common culprit, with the damage it causes to the shrub layer in woodlands reducing biodiversity. But the humble roe is not immune from accusations.

I believe it’s time we look positively at what deer do for the environment, and take a more holistic approach to managing them. Hunters in the USA have been doing this for many years. Their activities may not all be viewed as correct, as planting food plots may be construed as baiting an area or artificially feeding a population to raise deer densities. However, planting food plots has been used successfully in Europe to produce a diversionary food source that encourage deer away from more sensitive areas.

Habitat management is just as crucial as shooting deer

More recently in the USA, there has been a growing interest in managing the existing habitat to benefit deer – not necessarily to increase numbers but to increase quality. Research has shown that a deer population can have a beneficial impact on their habitat by increasing biodiversity in the area. So the question is: How can we best improve the quality of our deer while improving habitats for other wildlife?

Roe deer, in particular, benefit from increased quantity and quality of browse. I noticed this for a few years following the storm in 1987, which effectively cleared large areas of woodland in the south-east. The resultant clear areas produced large amounts of new growth ideal for roe deer. Population increased, as did quality. However, an increase in population didn’t actually increase damage levels because there was more suitable habitat for the deer.

If we look at the general state of woodlands in the UK, I think it’s fair to say that there are large unmanaged areas that have proved too expensive to maintain for landowners. Woodland rides become enclosed and the tree canopy closes, reducing summertime light levels to the woodland floor. With the owner’s permission, this can be easily remedied by increasing the width of a ride with a scalloped edge. The width of the scallop depends on the height of the ride-side trees. A rule of thumb for the width calculation is: for ride-side trees that are 15 metres high, the minimum width of the ride would be 24 metres with a length of 50 metres, when in an east-west orientation. These areas can be alternated along the length of the ride.

Chicory provides ideal forage for deer

If there is any roe-friendly flora, such as hazel, that has not been cut in recent years, it can be cut just above ground level and will re-grow to provide quality browse that the roe will relish in early spring – providing, of course, that there is not a huge population of fallow deer in the area that will visit regularly and prevent regeneration. Light browsing from roe may not lead to perfectly straight beanpoles, but it will mean that there is a good source of food, plus great habitat for butterflies and other wildlife.

Woodland rides with an east-west orientation gather more light than rides that run north-to-south, so concentrate on the latter where possible. The scalloped edge of these rides provides wind shelter for deer and other fauna, as well as stalking opportunities when approaching these glades.

If there are no suitable rides, look at the general structure of the woodland. There may be parts that have areas of mature hardwood, like oak and beech, which provide high protein feed as the deer enter autumn. These hardwoods may be interspersed with other species, such as birch, ash and hazel, that add to the canopy cover.

Again, if there is hazel present it will provide much-needed feed for the roe in springtime. Removing these lesser species – birch for instance – will allow more sunlight to reach the woodland floor, encouraging regeneration of the ground and shrub layers, and provide areas where deer can be seen more easily.

A variety of seed mixes are available

Outside the woodland habitat, we may be lucky enough to have small open areas that can be improved for the benefit of wildlife. Our continental cousins have been doing this for many years, improving small rough grassland areas to create habitat that provides for not only deer, but also bees and butterflies. Seed mixes are available from various game cover seed suppliers, such as Kings, which has developed products using extensive knowledge of the use of such products in Europe.

If you are considering taking on any type of habitat management, firstly discuss it with the owner of the property, and then check with your local Forestry Commission advisor. There may well be woodland grants available that you can take advantage of.

We live in a shrinking world with more and more stalking pressure on deer – in particular, our premier lowland species, the roe. We need to work together with our neighbours and cooperate with management plans. The rifle is the last tool in deer management, and there is more to management than pulling the trigger.

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