Management or Predation?

Proper deer management involves planning and calculation before you shoot. Photo: Brian Phipps

Are we really managing our deer properly? John Johnson looks into the criteria we need to fulfil to be able to answer that question affirmatively

I expect if we were all asked why we stalk, most of us would say we were ‘managing’ deer. If we add to this the amount of bad press that deer are getting by destroying the natural environment, and the fact there are far too many deer, then we have a licence to go out and just keep pulling the trigger with a clear conscience that we are assisting in conserving the countryside for the benefit of all.

But are we actually managing our deer or just predating them? The word management infers that there is some kind of plan, and some form of monitoring that confirms just how successfully or otherwise the plan is performing. I was surprised to hear from a landowner at a deer-oriented meeting in east Sussex that he estimated that the fallow deer population’s doe-buck ratio on his property was 20 to one, and yet he was still being encouraged to shoot as many deer as possible as there were ‘too many deer’. So let’s ask ourselves the question: Are we really managing deer?

There are four cornerstones of deer management:

Population, monitoring and management;

Habitat management;

Stalker management;

Infrastructure management.

Managing a herd is a long-term and multi-faceted process. Photo: Matt Smith

As individuals, we can easily relate to the first two categories. With either of these we need indicators that show just how much impact our efforts are making on the population. Let’s look at a typical scenario.

We have been told by a landowner that he is concerned about the amount of impact the deer are having on a specific piece of woodland following the recent publicity. So what do we do first – get kitted up and start shooting? If it is management, then we first need to assess just what impact, if any, the deer are having. We can do this by doing some initial basic surveys, looking at browse lines and general browsing impact. Key indicators in deciduous woodland environment would include bramble, ivy, honeysuckle, rose, hawthorn, sloe and other young deciduous trees and shrubs, including coppice shoots. Of course it is critical to determine just what is responsible for the browsing activity and differentiate principally between deer, rabbits and hares. Deer always seem to get the blame as they are the most visible culprit.

Monitoring the impact is comparatively easy. Deer exclosures can be created in sample areas of a woodland. They can be constructed using various types of netting. A roll of weld mess can be used to create three self-supporting exclosures by cutting the roll into three equal lengths and forming circles. If it is necessary to allow smaller mammals in the area, the whole thing can be raised six inches or so above the ground to allow rabbits in – so deer-rabbit impact can be observed as a whole, or just deer impact.

It is not necessary to use anything other than weld mesh 1.2 metres wide owing to the comparatively small area. Larger areas can be constructed cheaply using the various types of plastic deer-proof fencing that can be found on the market. As these areas will be larger it is advisable to use 1.8-metre material. Using these methods we have a simple, visible indication of the level of impact the deer are having.

Next we need to look at the structure of the population. In an ideal balanced wild population we would typically expect roughly a 1:1 male-female relationship. In herd species this ratio would be comprised of varying age groups.

There are some individuals who think more does mean more bucks, hence more trophies to hang on the wall. This is simply not true as an out-of-control doe population may well lead to loss of good habitat that in turn leads to lower body weights and a reduction in fertility.

A clean kill of the right animal will help others thrive. Photo: Brian Phipps

Getting a true picture of the overall structure of the population is critical for the cull planning process. This type of data can be collected during the stalking outing, annual census or using camera trap technology that is collecting data 24/7.

While collecting this data we must take into consideration the home ranges of the various species. Roe have a comparatively small home range while the larger species can have far ranging and seasonal home ranges. In this case individual stalkers should be taking into consideration their neighbours’ management activities when viewing the overall picture. Cooperation on a wide scale is critical in managing and maintaining the larger species correctly, and achieving a well-balanced and healthy population.

Lastly we need to look at the information that can be gathered from our previous culling activities. Information needs to include carcase weights, sex, estimated age (don’t get bogged down in the details – yearling, middle age and old will do), in milk or not, number of foetuses and sex if possible. This information will assist in forward planning as it directly allows us to assess the health, fertility and therefore the prospective reproduction rate of the population.

So before pulling the trigger, if we are to be considered as managing the population we must be assessing, planning, carrying out the plan and monitoring on an ongoing basis, making annual adjustments to maintain the optimum level for the specific areas under management. Of course we have to consider that one area’s optimum deer population may be totally different from another’s, but the management process will still be the same.

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