The RTE Prime Time programme discussed wild deer management in Ireland in a TV programme aired on June 8th, 2021 @ 21.30. While such discussion is welcome, it is important it does not unintentionally vilify wild deer or have unintended consequences for the conservation and management of wild deer, in particular, wildlife crime and the illegal killing of wild deer/ deer poaching. Often comment around wild deer and their management can be arbitrary and unqualified as a result of political or landowner pressure.
A contributor to the program on behalf of the Wicklow Deer Management Project, a project overseen by the Wicklow Uplands Council, claimed there were no “recreational hunters” (a term used by some agencies to describe licensed hunters) in the project, despite the programme presenter introducing two licensed “recreational” hunters as part of the project.
The Wicklow Deer Management Project contributor further suggested that such licence holders only cull male deer and were not assisting with deer management. The most recent cull data from the National Parks and Wildlife Service show just under 20,000 female wild deer were culled by licensed deer hunters in Ireland, the culling of female deer is an essential activity in managing deer numbers. Despite been in receipt of substantial taxpayer funding, it has been suggested that the project has not produced any cull or deer management data, the project has excluded many local stakeholders, and is deemed to be a failure by some. Local deer management groups are generally considered a best approach in deer/ land use conflict areas. Such conflicting and misleading comment is unhelpful to the project and the important role of managing deer at a sustainable level.
Below is a statement issued to the programme editor by the Irish Deer Commission which provides factual information on matters such as:
- Overview of current deer management in Ireland
- Challenges for deer management in Ireland
- The illegal killing of wild deer
- TB and wild deer
- The introduction of the wolf and contraception as a form of deer management
OVERVIEW OF DEER MANAGEMENT IN IRELAND
Deer are a protected species under our Wildlife Acts and an important part of our natural heritage with deer present in Ireland since Neolithic times over 5,000 years ago. Our three common deer species are Fallow deer introduced by the Normans to County Wicklow in 1169, the Sika deer introduced by Viscount Powerscourt into Co Wicklow in 1860, and the red deer present in Ireland for over 5,000 years.
Deer numbers at sustainable levels are an asset and benefit ecosystems, however where deer numbers become excessive, they can have negative impacts on land objectives such as farming, forestry, and the wider ecosystem. In the absence of a natural predator, it falls on licensed deer hunters to manage their numbers.
Data supplied to the Irish Deer Commission (IDC) by the National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) show 5,838 deer hunting licences were issued by the Wildlife Licensing Unit of NPWS under Section 29 of the Wildlife Acts in the 12-month period up to February 28th, 2020. Over the last 10 years the number of licences has grown by 56%, or 257% since 1999/2000
Further data provided by NPWS show 44,381 wild deer were culled by licensed deer hunters in the 12-month period up to February 28th, 2020. Similar data shows an increase of 42% in the number of deer culled over the last 10 years or 380% since 1999/2000. It is important to note this data is based on annual hunter cull returns which is not independently verified.
Despite claims of growing wild deer populations, in the absence of national and verified deer density data, the true wild deer population is unknown in Ireland. In the absence of data, the current levels of annual deer culling maybe appropriate, require additional culling, or have negative consequences for the future conservation status of our wild deer. Anecdotal evidence from those involved in wild deer management would suggest a small number of localised areas have excessive wild deer numbers and these areas should be supported, where in most areas’ wild deer are being managed at a sustainable level. County Wicklow accounted for 36% of the national cull in the 12-month period up February 28th, 2020, with five counties accounting for 75% of the national annual wild deer cull. County Wicklow is unique in terms of wild deer and their management due to large areas of private and state land ownership, and the management of wild deer in these areas.
Conclusions that the increasing wild deer cull returns are linked to an increasing wild deer population should be avoided as data shows the increase in deer culled has a direct corelation to the increase in the number of hunting licences, with the average remaining at 7/8 deer culled per hunter, per season, since 2004. Often expanding wild deer range (the area where deer are present) is confused with deer density (the number of deer).
An unknown factor for wild deer populations in Ireland is the impact of Covid-19, deer management was not considered an essential activity with no wild deer culling in many areas during the 2020/21 open wild deer season, this combined with a worldwide crash in venison prices and delays in the issuing of hunting permits by NPWS, could potentially create the perfect storm in terms of negative impacts for farming and the wider ecosystem by wild deer.
Landowners who suffer genuine crop damage from wild deer can apply for a permit under Section 42 of the Wildlife Acts to cull wild deer outside the open hunting season (September 1st to February 28th) data shows less than 0.25% of landowners have such a requirement suggesting wild deer conflict or high wild deer densities is the exception but where these problems occur landowners should receive additional support in managing wild deer.
Wild Deer Management Challenges – the management of wild deer in Ireland is an emotive topic and often can lead to entrenched and polarised opinions, with NPWS on the receiving end of continuous pressure from interest groups, in particular farming interests who perceive wild deer as a pest or vector of disease.
The management of wild deer is the responsibility of the landowner, or the owner of the sporting rights, this includes our six National Parks where wild deer management is the responsibility of NPWS. A basic requirement of wild deer management is a plan or a deer management plan, where the wild deer population is known by sex, age and species combined with other herbivores, local habitat and land use factors a cull plan is devised. Under a recent Freedom of Information Request by an IDC member, we were informed only one of our National Parks (Glenveagh, Co Donegal) has a wild deer management plan. This shocking statistic highlights the lack of priority, and wild deer management knowledge. This situation has continuously deteriorated since 2008 due to a recruitment freeze, lack of resources, and poor succession planning in NPWS. On a positive and hopeful note, a recruitment campaign is currently underway within NPWS, and this should support wild deer management going forward.
Renowned wild deer management academic and international advisor Professor Rory Putman recently stated regarding the current wild deer management position in Ireland, “it is crucial the management decisions are well-founded, not simply arbitrary, seat-of-the pants as a result of political and landowner pressure” such interference has become the norm in recent years.
The illegal killing of wild deer/ Deer Poaching –
The illegal killing of wild deer, or deer poaching is a significant problem in Ireland. Although wild deer are a protected species under our Wildlife Acts and an important part of our natural heritage criminals are increasingly exploiting wild deer for financial gain, creating animal welfare issues and a risk to human health. After drug importation, firearms and human trafficking, wildlife crime generates the highest illegal income for criminals across Europe.
Deer poaching is a rural crime that puts rural communities and livestock at risk of death or serious injury. Deer poachers are criminals, and no friend of law abiding hunters, deer stalkers, nor do they play any part in the conservation of our wild deer and have no regard for animal welfare.
In 2019, following a successful meeting between the IDC and senior members of An Garda Siochana, dedicated wildlife liaison officers of Inspector rank were appointed in each of the Garda divisions nationally, these individuals act as a dedicated liaison for investigating suspected deer poaching incidents.
TB and Wild Deer –
It is important to fully acknowledge that TB is a devastating disease for farming, the farming community, and rural Ireland.
TB including bovine TB can occur in many of our wildlife species such as foxes, hedgehogs, badgers, deer, and even domestic pets. Except for the badger, which spreads TB in a unique manner through its urine, TB in deer and other wildlife is normally at very low levels with no evidence of ability to transmit to cattle. The Oireachtas Agriculture committee heard recently that only three wild deer in Ireland tested positive for TB in 2020 versus over 23,000 plus cattle testing positive for TB, however this has not stopped the recent unwarranted vilification of wild deer as a source of TB in cattle.
It has been reported recently by the Department of Agriculture that the increase in TB levels is linked to the significant expansion in dairy herds. Despite claims to the contrary, there is no conclusive scientific evidence available that demonstrates wild deer can spread TB to cattle. Several areas with high levels of TB in cattle, and where landowners believed wild deer are the cause were tested by the Department of Agriculture with no wild deer testing positive for TB.
Scotland with an estimated deer population of 700,000 plus deer has been TB free since 2009 highlighting the lack of corelation between TB in cattle and the presence of wild deer. The findings of a 2014 Department of Agriculture report where 103 deer were tested for TB in Co Wicklow is often used to point the finger at wild deer, however it is important to note while the findings were substantially different to all other testing of wild deer in Ireland and believed to be once off exceptional case, there were a number of unique circumstances that contributed to the outcome, firstly wild deer were taken exclusively from farms where TB was already present in livestock which is akin to testing for the flu in a doctors waiting room in the middle of winter. Secondly the testing methodology was unique and eight times more detailed than that used for livestock so any comparison to TB levels in cattle created a false headline. Finally, the results were reported as a percentage of the total number of deer tested (103), whereas livestock are reported as a percentage of the total county population, or per thousand animals tested, all these factors give a different and misleading outcome. While wild deer can contract several strains of TB no evidence was shown that wild deer are vectors of the disease.
A Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine publication on the Wicklow wild deer TB and TB strain type findings states “these data relate to a sample of deer removed from farms in 4 DEDs that had serious TB problems in cattle in the recent past.” These deer, therefore, represent part of a localised animal population within which there were relatively high numbers of other animals infected with TB (cattle and badgers).” “The results of this sample describe what was found in the 103 animals from the 4DEDs concerned and can’t be used to infer prevalence estimates of TB in deer in this or in any other area because the sample was collected from specific farms within the 4DEDs only and is therefore not representative of all the land in the locality.” “The necropsy and culturing methodology were unique in that a single person collected all the samples and a wide range of samples were collected for culture. These results are therefore not directly comparable to other studies carried out on deer.” “Confirmed that there is no evidence to link Bovine TB incidence in deer in Ireland or the UK to Bovine TB outbreaks or persistence in cattle herds.” “The Forum considers however that if deer and cattle share feeders for example the potential for transfer exists and this should be avoided.”
The unintended consequences of flawed publications and the media headlines that follow, can lead to increased wildlife crime against wild deer, the spread of wild deer due to increased disturbance, reduced deer culls return due to disturbance and behaviour change, and misinforming the farming community.
The wolf and contraception –
As mentioned, managing wildlife can be an emotive topic and in recent times we have heard a lot of passionate views about reintroducing predators such as the wolf, or even contraception for wild deer! While the wolf is an iconic predator that brings out passion in people, its introduction would do very little to manage wild deer. Wild deer have evolved over thousands of years and are a flight animal when threatened. Deer are excellent at evading predators, for example new-born deer are born without scent to avoid detection by predators, whereas our 5.2 million sheep hold no such predator instincts. In general, Ireland has no habitat that is not managed for farming or large enough for the introduction and expansion of a large carnivore such as the wolf.
Contraception has recently been suggested as an alternative to culling wild deer. There were several trials in the United States, and all failed for several reasons, firstly it is cost prohibitive with costs of up to $10,000- $14,000 per deer, secondly every female deer must be captured or darted at close quarters, since deer are wild animals living in mountainous or forested areas this approach is not realistic and results in a high mortality levels from stress of capture. Other factors include such animals cannot enter the food chain as venison, and the ecology of wild deer mean they are transit animals travelling over large areas, or areas where no contraception has taken place.
Re-wilding and the exclusion of wild deer in favour of trees has also become a popular topic in recent times. Re-wilding means different things to different people, some see it as the reintroduction of species that once existed in Ireland, some see it as increased native tree cover, some have perceived view of the ideal habitat, or an ecosystem that excludes herbivores such as wild deer. Our views are mixed on this subject, while improving or having a balanced ecosystem is certainly a positive, but at the expense of one species over another, remember wild deer are eco-engineers and positive for the ecosystem when their numbers are maintained at a sustainable level. We are not so sure, nor do we see some forms of re-wilding working. For example, if we kill all the wild deer in one area, and fence deer out, ultimately you are creating the perfect habitat for the deer outside the fence to access once the fence is not maintained or someone leaves a gate open. A balanced approach that respects all land use objectives and species gets our vote.
*This text should not be copied, or quoted without the permission of the Irish Deer Commission