| We must kill Bambi: why culling deer is a no-brainer|
|Last week scientists from the University of East Anglia produced some dramatic research arguing that a massive increase in the amount of culling will be necessary to keep the UK deer population under control: they recommend a cull of over 50%. The research is local, and only addresses two of the six UK deer species (roe, a native, and muntjac, an invasive and fairly recent introduction), but extrapolated nationally and across the other species, that would beabout 750,000 deer. It is an alarming figure.|
What the headlines overlook is that culling, in various forms, is already taking place perfectly legally across the country. If you have ever been walking in plantation forestry and come across a rickety-looking metal structure about 4m high with a chair at the top, that's a deer-shooting stand: people sit up there and cull deer. You need permission from the owner and, of course, a rifle licence, but it is a normal procedure in privately owned and Forestry Commission woodland. In the Scottish Highlands red deer are culled by rather posher stalkers, usually under the supervision of a local professional, which creates much needed jobs.
But the real reason why all the excitement is a bit ridiculous is that, frankly, it is a no-brainer. The deer population of the UK (as in much of the rest of Europe, large sections of the US, Japan and Australia at least) is rising rapidly, for not entirely clear reasons, and is currently one of the most serious threats to our woods. Deer destroy woodlands – they damage trees, devour seedlings, prevent decent coppicing, eliminate a number of key (and much loved) plants like oxlip and bluebells, reduce cover for several endangered birds – for example nightingales – and encourage bracken, rough grass and littered clearings.
We love deer. They are so very beautiful. I stood on a hillside just recently and watched the deep wave of a roe deer running through long grass for over half a mile until it rose, almost like a bird, over an old dyke and vanished. My heart lifted. They speak to us culturally too – in the magic of fairy stories and the dream of old country pubs called The White Hart and the biblical longing for "cooling streams". And Bambi of course, and Rawlings's The Yearling and all that childhood innocence.
We have curious personal tastes in species. People do not get wound up about "culling" rats, and go eagerly out to buy products that offer a 99% cull of "household germs". I told some people recently about watching a stoat kill a rabbit, and how thrilling that was – but they were gravely distressed that I had not interfered and rescued the rabbit. (Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit versus the nameless but wicked weasels and stoats of The Wind in the Willows.)
We think we love forests too. We elected a government to cut disability benefits and charge students for education, but we were outraged when it suggested selling off commercial forestry. Too much of our ecological thinking is moral rather than scientific, sentimental rather than well-informed; but above all, it is species rather than habitat driven.
And often, therefore, charities and organisations that really know better feel obliged to raise funds for particular species rather than for habitats, which are harder to "sell". Even the woodland of our dreams is unrealistic. We do not have any true wild wood in the UK – we have ancient woodland that is ecologically adapted to human interests, and has been for more than a thousand years. Our woodland flourishes under woodcutting, coppicing and light grazing. It will not survive tender-hearted neglect plus the heavy grazing of more deer than have been around at any point since the last ice age. The size of the deer population is not, in any normal sense, "natural".
Deer fences do work to some extent, but they affect other species: no gate that keeps out muntjac allows the passage of badgers; black grouse and capercaillie are killed by fences. And I can see nothing natural about shooting contraceptive darts into female deer (a serious proposal). Of course we need to cull them. Get a grip.