There are too many deer in Britain, and they have no natural predators. Is it time we ate more venison, asks PETER FROST
Our good friends Marion and Robin invited Ann and I for dinner last weekend.
Actually those aren’t their real names, but for reasons that will soon become obvious that’s what I’ll call them.
The couple, who live deep in the country, like to live off the land. They grow most of their own vegetables, make their own bread with flour from the local windmill, raise chickens for eggs and meat and aren’t averse to shooting a rabbit or even a game bird or two for the pot.
Dinner was truly amazing. We started with a huge dish of scarlet crayfish caught in the local river. These unwanted pests from the US are killing off our indigenous crays so the more you can catch and eat the better.
Then came the main course. Fallow deer Wellington – two beautiful venison loins covered in wild mushroom and peppercorn pate, and then plaited into a flaky pastry case. It was heavenly.
Robin had butchered the meat himself but when I asked him where he had got the deer he tapped his nose and winked knowingly.
We stayed the night and waking early I peeked out of the window. There chomping through the flower beds and vegetable patch was a beautiful fallow deer.
Robin and Marion weren’t as thrilled as I was by their early morning visitor. The complained loudly about deer damage to their precious veg plot.
They went on to tell me about the amazing population explosion among deer. Last year researchers at the University of East Anglia declared deer a serious threat to the British countryside and went on to say that only a cull of half of the country’s 1.5 million animals can save woodland and birdlife.
Is it true? Do we really need to kill more than half the wild population of some deer species? There are now more deer in Britain than at any time since the last ice age.
Four of the six species are non-native invasives. British deer no longer have any natural predators except my mate Robin and others like him, and now sadly gangs of far more organised and greedy poachers with their packs of lurcher dogs.
What damage do deer do? They are herbivores and cause damage to Britain’s ancient woodlands. They eat native plants and wildflowers, undermining the regeneration of woodland. If nothing is done the only mature broadleaf trees to survive will be on posh private estates with enough money to pay keepers to control the marauding deer.
As numbers increase, deer are forced out from woodlands and into other habitats including farmland where they cause still more damage.
They are also a danger to humans. Each year about 450 people are injured or killed on the roads and more than 14,000 vehicles are severely damaged as a result of collisions with deer.
The University of East Anglia report suggests harvesting the animals for meat to make any cull ethically and economically acceptable.
In the Scottish Highlands and in the south-west those who make their living from the posh end of the venison stalking business certainly don’t want fewer deer.
All over the country, all through time there has always been a bit of small-time poaching for the pot. It always been illegal and at one time the penalty could be transportation.
It isn’t to be confused with the mass, commercial poaching of deer using packs of lurcher dogs. Hunting with dogs is itself illegal since the 2005 Hunting with Dogs Act. It is also unbelievably cruel with deer, often young fawns, being torn to pieces rather than killed cleanly.
The RSPCA with the support of the police are so worried about this kind of poaching that they are running a well publicised campaign at the moment. This mass kind of poaching is driven, not by desire for a good meal from the land, but rather by greed and the enjoyment of bloody cruelty disguised as sport.
Most British mammals are decreasing in numbers. Some to dangerously low populations.
However larger mammals, like deer and wild boar, are increasing by leaps and bounds. So much so that some people are suggesting introducing some large predators like wolves and lynx to keep down numbers naturally.
As so often when we humans try to interfere with nature that could lead to even worse and unbalanced results in our wildlife. It’s a hard decision.
Should we cull our wild deer and reduce numbers to a sustainable level? I can see the logic, particularly if we make good use of the meat.
The reaction to the badger cull has indicated it won’t be an easy idea to sell.
This article appeared in the Morning Star 21 February 2014