By Fleur Macdonald
© The New York Times Co.
CIRENCESTER, ENGLAND » During a spring day of sun and showers in Gloucestershire in southwestern England, Mike Robinson, a restaurant owner and self-styled “hunter-gatherer,” was out counting the deer on his land. On any given morning, he can see up to 40. He spotted a hind, a female deer, walking more cautiously than normal, a sign that she had company. “Generally, baby roe deer are smaller than the height of the grass,” he said. “So very often you just see the top of their heads or their ears.” Hinds had only started giving birth in recent days. “We’re going to see this colossal increase in numbers,” he said.
In a normal year, deer hunters and government culling programs help limit the herd, and restaurants form an important market for the venison. With the pandemic, hunting and culling stopped, the market for venison collapsed and, as a result, the deer population of Britain is exploding, decimating the plant life that many species depend on.
“Heavy browsing and grazing can impact severely on woodland plants and heath land, and salt marsh habitats,” said Martin Fowlie, a spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. That can lead to declines in bird populations, he added.
To avoid that, some wildlife experts now see a need for drastic action to reduce the deer herd, including through an expanded program of culling.
For some, the answer to making culling more acceptable is simple: “Anything shot must be eaten,” says Tim Woodward, CEO of The Country Food Trust, a charity that distributes game meat, and who supports the idea of a mass cull.
While deer are difficult to count, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says the population exceeds 2 million, causing over 74,000 traffic accidents a year and inflicting heavy damage to crops, woodlands and marshes.
Deer are also among the challenges to Britain’s plans to reduce its carbon footprint. The government has said it hopes to increase tree planting to about 74,000 acres a year by 2025, up from about 25,000 acres a year now, to sequester carbon. Herds of voracious deer munching on unprotected saplings could undermine that effort.
Yet the idea of a rapid expansion of hunting and culling has the potential to cause upset in a country with a well-developed animal rights movement.
“We will never achieve ecological harmony through the barrel of a gun,” Elisa Allen, director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Britain, said.
“If deer numbers must be reduced,” she says, “the key is to leave the deer in peace and target their food sources by trimming back low-hanging tree branches, keeping grasses cut short and shrouding saplings with corrugated plastic tubes or sleeves.”