War must be declared on deer if exploding numbers are to be controlled and damage to wildlife limited, says a new report.
Experts say that only by killing 50 per cent to 60 per cent of deer can the numbers of deer be kept under reasonable control – with a rising trade in venison a useful offshoot.
The idea of deer management will be nothing new to many of those resident in the South West, where it has been a regular activity to maintain a healthy population.
But this is slaughter on a far greater scale than the 20 per cent to 30 per cent culling rates recommended before.
With total numbers conservatively estimated at about 1.5 million, it could result in more than 750,000 animals being shot every year.
Many of those are in the West Country, with the uplands of Exmoor renowned for red deer, which prove a big draw in the rutting season.
Research in 2009 for the Exmoor National Park Authority presented recent red deer numbers in the park of up to 3,000.
Each year more than 14,000 vehicles are damaged and 450 people injured or killed on roads as a result of collisions with deer. A cull in Herefordshire in 2005 reduced the number of deer collisions on the A49 from 50 to zero.
Deer strip woods of flowers, brambles and shrubs, and disturb the ecology to the point that native birds are lost. The rarity of nightingales is largely blamed on deer.
Shooting by trained and licensed hunters is the only practical way to keep their populations in check, according to Dr Paul Dolman, from the University of East Anglia.
“I don’t think it’s realistic to have wolves and brown bears in rural England,” he said at a news briefing in London. “In the absence of natural predators, the only way to manage them is to shoot them.”
The result could be a welcome supply of fresh, healthy meat, said Dr Dolman.
“If we shifted part of our diet to deer it wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
Although kept on private land, wild deer were virtually unknown in England for 1,000 years until their reintroduction by the Victorians.
Britain has six deer species, four of which were introduced since Norman times.
Like foxes, deer are now starting to feel at home in urban environments, said Dr Dolman.
“Studies have been done in Sheffield that show roe deer living in cemeteries,” he said.
“Muntjac deer will move into private gardens and allotments. Fallow deer are wide ranging – they live in woodland but come in to feed. There are housing estates in London where they’ve been known to graze on lawns in the evening.
“There have been no accidents yet but it’s only a matter of time.”
Dr Dolman led the first full-scale census of roe and muntjac deer populations across 234 square kilometres (145 miles) of woods and heathland in Breckland, East Anglia.
The researchers drove more than 1,140 miles at night using thermal imaging cameras to spot deer and provide an accurate estimate of their true numbers.
The results, in the Journal of Wildlife Management, indicate that existing management strategies are failing.
Allowing deer numbers to expand unchecked would have “consequences a lot crueller than culling”, Dr Dolman maintained.