IIf there’s one thing beef farmer Ted Rowley has learned while trying to manage wild deer on his property, it’s this: For every deer he sees, there are at least 10 others he can’t see.
“At first you see some deer and you think it is very cute,” he says. “But what is not seen is the great amount that there is in all the landscape.”
Australians have become more and more used to the idea that deer will appear in places where they shouldn’t, even nearby and in major cities. This week, two men were reportedly caught by a deer while sunbathing on a beach in the Royal National Park south of Sydney, an event that led to them fleeing the bush, getting lost, needing rescue and ending up fined for violate coronavirus restrictions.
Last month a deer was seen running through the streets of Fitzroy, just a short walk from Melbourne’s financial district, during the recent city closure. Later he was captured and euthanized. In October, two deer roamed the inner Sydney suburban streets of Leichhardt, Balmain and Annandale.
While they may have made headlines recently, wild deer have not had the same profile as other invasive species (think cats, foxes, and pigs), but they have had a similar destructive impact on vulnerable ecosystems. They also pose a threat to biosecurity as possible carriers of disease and are a risk to road safety in and around towns and cities.
A federal parliamentary investigation examining the impacts of wild deer, goats and pigs recently found that they pose an urgent and intensified risk to Australia’s natural environmental values, agricultural productivity and cultural heritage.
Rowley, who raises cattle on about 800 acres west of Jindabyne, next to the Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales, realized that large numbers of deer were living locally shortly after moving to the area about a decade ago.
In the worst case, he estimates that between 300 and 500 fallow deer roamed the property at night and the potential loading rate on the farm was cut in half because the animals were eating the improved pasture.
Neighboring farms were experiencing a similar problem and formed a group to campaign for stricter pest controls in the state.
Rowley now handles the problem by hiring a deer hunter to shoot wild deer for commercial use. He and his neighbors also use thermal scanners and night vision rifle scopes to spot deer.
“The really important thing about deer is that they learn very quickly. They learn to avoid spotlights and noise and will change their behavior after one or two exposures to a technique, ”says Rowley. “So after five years, we still have a huge pest problem.”
Experts say Australia has a window of opportunity right now to try to control deer populations, which are spreading across the country and increasing in numbers.
“Over the past 10 years I have heard many stories of deer having negative impacts on farms, environmentally sensitive areas, replanting areas and roads,” says Andrew Cox, executive director of the Invasive Species Council.
“These stories have been increasing in frequency.”
Cox describes deer as “ravenous eaters” that can strip the underside of large areas.
“Sometimes I describe it as a slow moving plague of rabbits. And at the moment we don’t have the tools to stop it ”.
The Morrison government is funding work that aims to gain a better understanding of the size of the problem and develop new methods to address it.
Through the Center for Invasive Species Solutions, it has appointed a national deer management coordinator, Annelise Wiebkin, who is an ecologist with biosecurity expertise.
She is developing a national management plan, to be completed next year, and Rowley is a member of a committee that provides advice.
Wiebkin says that although deer have been around Australia for a long time, the problem really emerged in the last 20 years after the peak in deer breeding in the 1990s.
As a result of the deer being released or moved, seed populations have formed in many places and numbers have increased, he said.
The size of deer populations nationally is unclear, although Wiebkin estimates it to be around 2 million, with 1 million found in Victoria alone.
To 2020 survey of New South Wales populations found they were present in about 22% of the state, up from 18% in 2016.
In Tasmania, there are concerns that the state’s only wild deer species, the fallow, is spreading into the world heritage wilderness area.
“I think it’s safe to say that they are spreading in distribution and increasing in number in every state,” says Wiebkin.
“We have a window of opportunity to get over it before it spreads further.”
Part of Wiebkin’s role is to try to develop consistent national approaches to deer.
New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT recognize deer as a wild pest.
In Victoria and Tasmania, they are still managed as a hunting resource, which, according to Wiebkin, places limitations on what landowners can do to manage deer.
Victoria, however, is reviewing her Wildlife Act and has released a new deer. strategy which aims to prevent the establishment of new populations.
Tim Beshara of the Wilderness Society says states that regulate deer as a game species are “actively pursuing a policy of promoting the persistence of deer in our forests forever.”
“They do it at any cost to native species,” he says.
The other concern is that the only tool to control populations today is aerial or ground shooting and some traps.
The costs of this management are high and for obvious security reasons its use is limited in more populated urban areas.
In some breeding seasons, populations can grow by as much as 35%, which means that a significant number of animals must be culled just to keep populations at the same level.
There are currently no registered baits for deer in Australia, but Wiebkin says research will be done in the near future.
“I would like to see more tools available to land managers,” he says.
“Aerial culls in parks or on private land will continue and are a very effective way to reduce the numbers.
“But some populations are so high that literally thousands have to be managed.”
She says Australia must be vigilant to protect its world heritage areas and forests of national importance from deer.
“It’s also important to get on top of the little isolated patches of deer because one day they are going to grow up,” he says.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism