10:09 Monday 17th October 2011
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
ANDY HARPER: To go back to the subject of deer, this caught my eye over the weekend, the fact that they cause huge numbers. thousands and thousands of accidents each year, and far too many are fatal. There are calls for a cull, particularly in certain parts of the country. This is all because their numbers have more than doubled in the past decade, to reach two million. People love to see deer, there’s no two ways about it. On Countryfile last night, Adam Henson was on his farm talking about one thing and he said, look at the deer! And you saw two deer just bounding across the field. And they are a wonderful sight. But, they are a problem. Because if you drive through parts of Cambridgeshire at night, you’re almost certain to see muntjac at the side of the road. These of course are not the native deer, and in some ways they barely look like deer. But they come under this umbrella, and they’re the ones that cause an awful lot of the problems. David Hooton is from the regional Deer Initiative in Bury St Edmunds, which works to see a sustainable population of deer in the UK. David, good morning to you.
DAVID HOOTON: Good morning Andy.
ANDY HARPER: Now as I said there, most people love to see deer. There was a time, when I was growing up, when they were quite rare, and you’d get really excited if you saw one. But their numbers have increased. The only time you don’t want to see them is when you’re driving on a country road on a dark night and they suddenly appear from nowhere.
DAVID HOOTON: I think that’s right. I certainly remember, twenty or thirty years ago, when I was growing up in the middle of Suffolk, we never saw deer in the countryside. And it’s this last 15 years we’ve seen a massive increase in number, and there’s also a massive increase in range of the current deer population. And that’s not just muntjac, it’s also roe, fallow and red deer, and more and more common, Chinese water deer in the Broadland area.
ANDY HARPER: Now why is this? Because like you, I grew up in rural Norfolk as opposed to Suffolk, but my father worked for the Forestry Commission. If we saw deer tracks, or we saw a deer, we got really excited. And yet you would have thought that maybe conditions in those days were more conducive to them than they are now.
DAVID HOOTON: i thinl it’s a matter of how we’ve changed our cropping rotations. We’re planting a lot more winter cereal crops now than we would have done thirty years ago. We’re planting cash crops such as carrots and potatoes in a lot more areas. Sugar beet’s very good for deer as well. And generally there’s been an undermanagement of the deer population, and a lack of awareness perhaps of the sheer number of deer that we had in the areas twenty or thirty years ago, and the population has gradually built up because the animals breed every year, and the population spreads out slowly. And suddenly you’ve got a lot of deer in a pretty urban environment really.
ANDY HARPER: You mentioned management, and it’s not something that people necessarily like to see is it? I live in an area with bits and pieces of woodland virtually outside my back door, and we go walking and we see the hides up a ladder, where obviously a person comes and culls the deer, and you rather hope he never hits any.
DAVID HOOTON: It is to do with sustainable management Andy. We’re looking at populations that are increasing, and they’re having quite a detrimental impact, not just on the welfare of the deer themselves, when they’re travelling around the countryside and being hit on the roads. Across the country we’re looking at maybe 80,000 deer a year being killed on the country’s roads. That’s a huge animal welfare issue. And out of those 80,000, there will be 15 or so human fatalities because people have either hit them and collided with other cars, or they’ve swerved to avoid the deer and gone off the road at the same time. So there’s a big human trauma aspect of it as well.
ANDY HARPER: Obviously they are more common in some areas than others. Unbelievably, the Home Counties in particular have a real problem, but also Cambridge and Norfolk, Suffolk. But does a cull work? Because as you say, these creatures have huge ranges. And even if you cull them, because you think, well they live near the busy A10, or the busy A1 or whatever, they can go somewhere else.
DAVID HOOTON: We’re not managing deer purely to prevent road accidents. We’re managing deer to protect the environment in which the deer live as well, to make sure they don’t starve themselves to death in a hard winter. Last winter we had six or seven weeks in January February when we had a lot of snow, a lot of cold weather, lots of frost. And the food supply in the woodlands was decreasing very rapidly, because the deer were eating it all. That has a big knock-on effect also on on the structure of our woodlands, and I expect you can remember in Norfolk, when thirty years ago you would have seen a large under-storey in the woodlands. You would have seen lots of woodland flowers in the summer, and regeneration of trees and shrub, which is ideal for nesting birds, such as nightingales, which are a declining species. And that’s partly to do with the structure of our woodlands.
ANDY HARPER: One of our listeners, Les, says he thought that deer were creatures of habit, so they had regular crossing places on main roads. Do we not just need more signs? Are they that much of a creature of habit? My perception is they’ll cross almost anywhere.
DAVID HOOTON: It depends on the species you’re dealing with. If you’re dealing with fallow deer, in Hertfordshire on the A10, you will have regular crossing areas. And those areas will be quite well defined, because there’s large numbers of deer in that area. You can put warning signs up. There are certain times of year when you’re more likely to hit a deer. The peaks are this period of time, into the autumn, when the fallow deer in particular are rutting. The nights are drawing in. We’re travelling around at that dusk period and dawn periods when the deer are also moving to go and feed. But signs in themselves, if they’re up the whole time, people habituate to them, they get used to seeing them, and we ignore them.
ANDY HARPER: What about muntjac? They are the prime cause of these accidents, aren’t they, and they are so common now? I just drive through quite built-up villages on my way to work, and I see them on the side of the road as if it was a dog, really. We know that they aren’t native to this country, but they have proliferated, and they are a pest. What can be done about them? Can they be singled out?
DAVID HOOTON: I don’t think we can single out any particular species. We target management where there is a particular demand to target that management. And we look at, if you’re looking at the peri-urban environment as we call it, where the housing is moving into the countryside, that’s going to conflict with the deer’s natural range. And deer will come into the urban gardens, because we’re planting nice flowers that they like to eat. Muntjac are browsing animals. They like the plants that we like to plant in the garden. They like the pansies, and those sorts of plants.
ANDY HARPER: Yes you’re right.
DAVID HOOTON: That would draw them into an area where they will come into contflict not just with cars, but also people with dogs.
ANDY HARPER: Are landowners allowed to shoot deer, or do they have to get in licensed people to do it? If you’re a farmer with a gun licence, can you shoot one?
DAVID HOOTON: Provided you’ver got a rifle licence, yes you can. There’s legislation and regulation which protects the deer at certain times of the year, and restricts what calibres of rifle you can use. So the controlled management of the deer is controlled by regulation and legislation. So the landowner has the absolute sporting rights on that land.
ANDY HARPER: You mentioned that this is a time of the year when they are common, because of the rut. And it is a spectacular sight, isn’t it? Is it .. are we likely to see .. much chance of seeing it in this region? Or do you really have to go looking?
DAVID HOOTON: Particularly in Hertfordsshire, and into areas of rural Suffolk and into Norfolk, you can have the opportunity of standing near woodlands and hear the grunting and groaning of rutting stags and bucks. Muntjac obviousdly, the smaller deer, they can rut all year round. And their rut is very much more secluded and secretive. But the big deer, the fallow deer and the red deer, they do rut at a large area, and very actively.
ANDY HARPER: I mentioned that you are f rom the regional Deer Initiative. What initiatives are you going to take? Is there anything else that can be done?
DAVID HOOTON: We’ve been working with the Highways Agency on a deer-collisions project now for the past seven years, looking at collating data on where the accidents are occurring on the roads. We still have the website, deercollisions.co.uk, and that collates its data, and we analyse that data, to look at where the absolute hotspots are. We then work with the road safety teams from the county councils, and look at how we can help mitigate against roadside accidents.
ANDY HARPER: And just very finally, because I keep getting points from our listeners, what about the use of wolf-eye reflectors to stop deer crossing roads? Is that possible? Wolf-eye this is decsribed as, but is there anything that can be done to stop them crossing roads, where they might do?
DAVID HOOTON: One of the things about roadside habitats is historically places likeThetford Forest would have had the roadside cut right back to the tree edge. So you would have had a nice wide verge on which, yes, the deer can graze, because there’s fresh grass they can graze on, but it also gives the deer and the drivers the opportunity of seeing each other. And one of the things that has changed over the last five or ten years is that the roadside habitat has started to encroach on the road itself. And we’re left with that one metre verge which county councils do maintain as open ground. But that brings the deer very close, in particular the muntjac, very close to the highway. So what we’re looking at in certain areas is trying to push that habitat back, so you get a wider verge, so there’s more opportunity of deer and drivers seeing each other to prevent the accident. The reflectors seem to work where you maintain the habitat at the side of the road. But if you’ve got areas where you’ve got these refclectors, and the vegitation is growing up around them, the light will not reflect back into the side, which is what it’s meant to do, to prevent the deer coming out.
ANDY HARPER: David, it’s been really good to talk to you. Thanks very much for joining us. That’s David Hooton, from the regional Deer Initiative, based in Bury St Edmunds.