BLOG: All about deer in the High Weald

High Weald Deer Management Coordinator Sandy Williamson explains the impact of deer on the landscape, and why managing deer numbers is so important…

“Deer are a revered animal; however, many parts of the UK are currently experiencing an overpopulation. The current estimated national deer population is 2 million – higher than it has been at any time since the last ice age, and rising every year!

At relatively low densities, deer can play an important role in maintaining open areas which can enhance biodiversity and habitat quality. However, as deer numbers – and population density – rise, they can have a negative effect on their environment.

2,000,000

current estimated UK deer population

Why are there so many deer?

The High Weald has a long association with wild deer. They thrive in the area’s rich landscape mosaic of small fields, woodlands and hedgerows, and their presence has helped shape the landscape we know and love today.

However, the deer population in the High Weald has exploded in recent years due to several factors including:

  • No natural predators
  • The introduction of 4 non-native deer species that are extremely successful at reproducing
  • The abundance of year-round agricultural crops including grass, providing a constant food source
  • Biodiverse woodlands that act as cover, breeding areas and food sources
  • Fragmented land ownership and uncoordinated deer management
  • Milder winters.

In the High Weald, Roe deer is the only native species. They are territorial and generally solitary, forming smaller groups in the winter. Fallow deer – a herding species that range across large areas – are the most prominent with increasing numbers of Muntjac. Where Fallow deer are at high densities, they out-compete the native Roe deer.

What problems do deer cause?

  • Deer ‘browse’ (nibble) plants, leaves and branches from saplings and small trees. Where there are larger deer populations, this damages plants and grasses on the woodland floor, preventing natural regeneration. It also removes vegetation from the ‘understory’ (plantlife growing beneath the woodland canopy) creating a ‘browse line’ that allows a view through the wood. Less understory means fewer places for species such as nightingales and dormice to feed and nest, as well as less carbon being sequestered.
  • Forestry interests, woodlands and hedgerows are negatively impacted and natural tree regeneration becomes almost impossible. Many farmers and land managers in the High Weald who plant new trees and hedgerows on their land to help nature soon find they have been stripped by deer before they can establish.
  • Deer consume and trample crops and grass, impacting food production.
  • Road safety is compromised, with increasing Deer Vehicle Collisions.
  • Unmanaged deer populations are more likely to suffer from disease or even starvation as the deer approach or exceed the carrying capacity of their environment

a herd of fallow deer in a field with trees in the background

The current deer management situation

Control of deer numbers by culling can be a sensitive subject. Managing deer in the High Weald does not call for eradication. Deer are an incredibly important part of the landscape in terms of history, amenity, recreation and economy. As land managers or stewards of the land, it is essential to understand that deer are a resource that must be managed effectively and respectfully.

Many landowners who are trying to manage deer rely mainly on recreational stalkers to carry out culls. It is estimated that on average only 1 in 3 stalks are successful, which equates to around 9 hours to cull each deer. The culling of female deer is essential to reduce and maintain population levels, but there is often insufficient emphasis on culling females.

Venison is a by-product of culling and the majority of carcasses go into the food chain. The value of the carcasses can be regarded as a cost offset to the culling operation but very rarely covers all costs. Recently, market forces worldwide, and lack of UK demand for venison because of the Covid-19 pandemic, have reduced demand in the hospitality sector. Prices paid for carcasses have been low, meaning the cost offset has been reduced.

Financial figures from one High Weald estate culling approximately 150 fallow deer per year conservatively estimated that each deer shot costs £50.  Recreational stalkers also estimated similar costs, illustrating the need to address the loss of income.

What is the High Weald National Landscape Partnership doing?

Given the issues above, we are focusing on increasing the understanding of deer populations and their impact across the High Weald, fostering a collaborative approach to tackling the problem, promoting venison and seeking solutions to address low carcass prices.

Our ultimate aim is a healthy, sustainable deer population contributing to a thriving High Weald Landscape!

Please visit our Deer Management page to learn more about our work and grant opportunities.

An aerial picture of deer in parkland
View all news