UK deer cull – Sensibility vs. Science.

Science Politics | Public attittudes to science

Kate Whittington, kate.whittington@bgci.org | 14/03/13 | London

A recent study by scientists at the University of East Anglia recommends that a more than 50% cull in deer populations would be necessary in order to control further population growth.

The study assessed the numbers, sex ratio and fertility of roe and muntjac deer in the Breckland area, identifying a necessary cull of 53% of the muntjac and 60% of the roe deer each year in order to stop their populations growing. To reduce their numbers would mean an even higher percentage cull.

Today, there are more deer in the UK than at any time since the ice age. If the study’s recommendations were carried out UK-wide this would mean a cull of over 750,000 deer.

Culling already takes place legally across the UK, but on a much smaller scale. The research leader, Dr Paul Dolman advises that “shooting by trained and licensed hunters is the only practical way to keep [deer] populations in check” due to their lack of other natural predators.

Interestingly, one of the reasons that deer no longer have any remaining natural predators (other than humans) is that we hunted wolves, lynx and bears to extinction in the UK ourselves. Which begs the question – why did we consider it acceptable to entirely eradicate those species, but we don’t want to cull deer?

Emotions always run high in relation to animals, and issues such as this inevitably become more of a philosophical argument than a scientific one.

Deer are understandably appealing creatures. For centuries now they have been embedded in folklore and popular culture – from Disney’s adorable wide-eyed Bambi, to Landseer’s noble “Monarch of the Glen” - they are viewed as gentle and graceful animals. But do these perceptions now do more harm than good for British wildlife?

The UK deer population is rising rapidly and is one of the most serious threats to our woodlands. Over-grazing by deer has a devastating effect on plant and tree populations, particularly saplings, which they nibble up before they’ve barely grown a foot. This in turn reduces essential cover for nesting birds and other small animals. Culling the deer populations would allow the regeneration of trees and plants in many areas, thereby boosting biodiversity by increasing the variety of plant species and the many animals which rely upon them for food and shelter.

The recent backlash against government proposals to sell-off UK woodlands shows that we care a lot about our forests, so why are some people now choosing deer over a thriving woodland ecosystem?

According to novelist and short-story writer Sara Maitland in The Guardian “Too much of our ecological thinking is moral rather than scientific, sentimental rather than well-informed, but above all it’s species driven rather than habitat driven”. So perhaps if we came at the deer cull from another perspective – for example the plight of the beautiful nightingale being under threat from habitat loss due over-grazing deer populations - we might get different reactions?

This issue clearly opens up some fascinating topics for debate using IBSE – including how our perceptions of different species are shaped, why we consider it ok to cull some species (such as rats) and not others (such as deer and badgers), and how we can promote the prioritisation of habitat preservation over individual species.

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