Wise words

John Johnson looks back to a fulfilled prophecy and says deer managers and enthusiasts alike should plan now to avoid future problems


In a recent tidy-up of a cupboard I came across an article written in the autumn of 1990 and published in the CLA magazine entitled ‘Woodland deer management for profit’. It was written by Arthur Witchell, who at the time was a land agent working for Humberts. He predicted an increase in deer numbers after the 1987 and 1990 storms in the southeast, plus the effect of the new woodland grant scheme. These factors would lead to greater habitat diversity and ideal conditions for increased holding capacity, in particular for roe deer.

Richard Prior also predicted that roe would colonise every county in England. Roe at that time had already reached the Welsh borders. How right they both were! He also suggested that if stalkers and deer management were inefficient, their sport or livelihood could be a political target in future years.

So after 24 years, how have we fared? The storms of 1987 and 1990 had the foreseen effect. This was noticeable on an estate I have advised on and more recently managed – roe deer density and quality increased. Time has moved on and the habitat has changed, canopy closing in and good roe habitat disappearing, leading to roe numbers decreasing.

On the political side there is growing pressure to increase the cull levels as deer numbers rise in some areas – this is the case in particular with fallow. Although the popular media would suggest that is a widespread national problem, this is not strictly true. These ‘hot spots’ of high population are to be found in isolated areas where deer numbers have been allowed to increase either by lack of management or changing land occupancy bringing about fragmented land ownership, making a coordinated approach to deer management almost impossible. Taking this all into consideration, deer have spread, numbers in some areas have increased to unacceptable levels, and therefore it could be suggested that we as stalkers or deer managers have failed.

If we are to survive and protect our interests, we clearly need to get our act together and be seen to improve the standard of our deer management. Most landowners would want the following:

■ Forest and crop damage limitation

■ Healthy, good quality deer

■ Sustainable income from venison

■ Sustainable income from stalking revenue when applicable.

All clear: Clearing areas can create roe-friendly glades

All clear: Clearing areas can create roe-friendly glades

Generally it is not possible to manage deer correctly in isolation. This is more the case with wide-ranging species such as fallow deer. Less so with roe deer, but those who read the well publicised report by Professor Dolman from the University of East Anglia on the subject of ‘sources and sinks’ will be aware of the problem even with territorial species such as roe deer and muntjac. We need to take into consideration what goes on on the other side of the fence.

To maximise the rewards we need to consider the management of our deer with a more holistic approach. Cooperation with your neighbour is critical. Even if they are totally anti-shooting, you still need to be aware of the situation and factor it in to your plans. Habitat, in particular with roe in mind, will be key to maintaining and maximising a sustainable population. Added to this it is already being suggested that habitat is an important factor for the welfare of our deer.

Habitat transformation: This ride started out with a closed canopy…

Habitat transformation: This ride started out with a closed canopy…

I have previously written briefly on the theory of habitat improvement. Theory is one thing, practicality is another, so looking at a practical example may well be a better way to approach the subject. The example estate is in West Sussex and covers around 900 acres, half of it comprising woodland that varies from areas of commercial Corsican pine to chestnut and hazel coppice interspersed with areas that are obviously the remains of ancient woodland. The area did benefit from the effects of the storms of 1987 and 1990. Roe deer numbers rose for several years following these storms where areas of woodland were destroyed – this destruction had the benefit of creating deer-friendly glades.

But with the closing canopy that has occurred owing to the lack of ongoing woodland management, the roe deer population has suffered. Another factor has been added to the formula. With an ever-shrinking countryside, and a general public that takes more pleasure from walking in it, disturbance is becoming a factor not only for deer but for all forms of our cherished wildlife. Even on the open hill in Scotland, the impact of human disturbance on deer is becoming increasingly obvious and is the subject of scientific research.

Deer can become acclimatised to human activity when restricted to footpaths and other rights of way. But walkers quite often have their pet dogs with them, which are allowed to roam over an increasing area. Research in Europe leads towards the conclusion that this type of disturbance can lead to reduced body weights and fertility.

The woodland is basically in two cohesive blocks divided by a narrow lane that runs virtually from north to south. The area on the western side of the road receives most of the attention. The area has surrounding arable land that is under various cropping regimes. There are a number of public rights of way with additional woodland tracks leading off them. These tend to tempt the walkers to stray from the official rights of way. With this in mind, part of the woodland improvement program will involve an education project that will endeavour to explain the importance of minimising disturbance in woodlands.

After several years of persuasion, the owner agreed to a woodland management plan that will not only improve the habitat for the

…until the woodland management plan came into effect

…until the woodland management plan came into effect

roe deer but will also benefit other species including birds and insects. These improvements will also create opportunities for easier sighting of the deer, and make culling operations easier. Areas of commercial Corsican pine have been thinned, providing a useful cash crop.

This thinning operation has already affected the fallow population. It was once a good place to shelter, but the more open aspect has resulted in the area being less frequently used as a bedding ground. But with the aid of the income from this crop and money received under the woodland grant scheme, the woodland tracks are being widened with scalloped edges that will provide much-needed sunlight in the resulting glades. Work has already started. We hope over the coming months we will be able to report on just how this area develops. Only time will tell.

John Johnson supplies trail cameras and other essential tools for the wildlife manager at www.digitalwildcams.co.uk – or call 07860 650319.

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