Managing deer to save the countryside

PUBLISHED: 13:55 17 February 2011 | UPDATED: 18:53 20 February 2013

Managing deer to save the countryside

Managing deer to save the countryside

The outrage over the shooting of the Emperor of Exmoor stag by a trophy hunter last autumn opened up the debate on deer culling, a necessity if woodlands and other species are to survive

The deer costing us dear

The outrage over the shooting of the Emperorof Exmoor stag by a trophy hunter last autumn opened up the debateon deer culling, a necessity if woodlands and other species are to survive. Sharon Chilcott looks at how wild deer in the woodlands of this region are being managed

Deer are beautiful, wild creatures and a glimpse of a majestic buck in a woodland clearing is a sight to behold, inspiring for many an artist and photographer.

Nevertheless, if numbers are too high, deer pose a serious threat to the very woodlands in which they live. Patrick Faulkner, a deer management adviser for the Deer Initiative, who is based near Leominster, describes the challenge: We need to achieve a deer population no larger than the habitat can support, in the worst possible weather conditions, without damage to the biodiversity. We need to balance the population with the food available.

The Deer Initiative, an example of a genuine public/private approach to addressing a national issue, has lead responsibility for the sustainable management of wild deer in England and Wales and brings together Defra, Natural England, the Forestry Commission. Patrick has been involved in setting up deer management groups throughout Herefordshire and the Wye. The groups involve landowners and land managers working together to count deer populations, quantify the damage and types of damage different species cause, and reduce it by means such as fencing, tree guards, deterrents and culling. Patrick provides training, from impact assessment to stalking, carcass assessment and butchery.

In Britain the deers main predators (such as bears, wolves and lynx) no longer exist, which is why mans intervention is necessary: If there is an imbalance in one species, the biodiversity suffers. For example 75 per cent of all small birds live in the woodland fringe and thats where a large proportion of deer like to feed. Butterfly species also live and lay their eggs in the dappled areas along the woodland edges. Once a vital habitat is destroyed, a spectrum of wildlife ceases butterflies, invertebrates, dormice and woodland flora and fauna.

All deer browse, meaning they eat the young tender shoots of bramble, young trees and shrubs and in some cases the flora and fauna. Says Patrick: For a woodland to regenerate naturally it requires at least 10 per cent of these plants to survive each year.

The importance of a balanced deer population is something Andrew Blake, officer at the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is only too well aware of, particularly as the Lower Wye Valleys native woodlands are some of the best remaining examples of ravine woodlands in Europe. In woodlands, deer at the right density can be of benefit, but at higher population densities, as in the AONB, and over a long period they can eat most of the woodland plants within their reach. They will then disperse to seek further food outside the woodland, bringing them into conflict with farmers and landowners and increasing the probability of road accidents. Most damage is caused by grazing, browsing and bark stripping, which affects woodland regeneration, commercial crops and the long term structure and composition of woodland flora.

With the help of The Deer Initiative, small exclusion plots have been installed throughout the Wye Valley AONB to help measure the impact of deer.

The Meat of Kings
All the wild deer species are excellent to eat and in his advisory role and private capacity as a professional deer stalker for 40 years, Patrick has become an advocate for the meat which is high in protein but low in fat and calories. Deer are culled in accordance with legal requirements and accepted codes of practice and there are strict laws governing when particular sexes and species can be shot, although there is no close season for muntjac as they breed all year round.

The key to enjoying venison is in the cooking. As the meat is almost devoid of fat it cant be cooked like other red meats and needs to be sealed to keep in the juices. Venison cuts should be cooked quickly at high temperatures and served rare or medium as overcooked venison can be tough, dry and mealy in texture. Venison can also be braised, put into casseroles, or roasted. One of Patricks favourite treats is a venison steak sandwich.

This is my treat when Ive had a busy day cutting up venison for other people. I take the little fillets muscle from the underside of the saddle, trim to size and dip in olive oil for about two minutes. Then I remove it and wipe dry in kitchen roll. I heat a heavy pan with a little oil until smoking hot, season the steaks with salt and fresh ground black pepper, place them in the pan for one minute, turn, and cook them on the other side, remove and let them rest while I prepare the bread. Warm fresh baked bread is best. I place the steaks in the bread, garnish with thin sliced tomatoes and mushrooms which have been warmed in the pan which the steaks have been cooked in, and indulge myself!

6 Species

1. Fallow deer
The most common deer in the Wye Valley AONB, as elsewhere throughout the region. Present some 400,000 years ago in Britain they were displaced by various ice ages but reintroduced, probably by the Normans. An ornamental species, they were favoured by parkland owners, and the present wild populations are largely escapees from parks broken up during the Civil War and again in the two World Wars. Says Patrick: An adult fallow deer will eat two tons of food a year and if you are a farmer and half of that is your cereal crop, thats costing you a lot of money.

2. Roe deer
Our other native species, and the second largest population in the region are roe deer. They are prolific breeders, having twins most years. Unlike fallow deer, who live in herds, they are territorial for most the year and keep to small family groups.

3. Reeves muntjac
Another species on the increase in the area. Introduced from Asia and about the size of a springer spaniel, they are likely to have escaped from Woburn Abbey in the 1900s and have spread out from there. They are unique amongst UK deer in that they breed all year adult does will produce a single fawn every seven months.

4. Red deer
There are also thought to be a small number of reds in the Lower Wye Valley.

5. Sika deer
People also claim to have see one or two sika a species introduced towards the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries in the Wye Valley.

6. Chinese water deer
The sixth of the wild deer species living in Great Britain, introduced at the same time as the sika.

Patrick is keen to hear from woodland owners or members of the public interested in finding out more about becoming a venison processor or retailer in Herefordshire and the Wye Valley. For this, or for any help or advice on wild deer in the area, contact him on 07989 330874.

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