Suffolk deer creating damage and delight

A red deer stag bellows at the rut at RSPB Minsmere. Picture: JON EVANS

A red deer stag bellows at the rut at RSPB Minsmere. Picture: JON EVANS - Credit: Archant

The recent Suffolk Mammal Conference was told of efforts to find sustainable solutions to problems caused by rising deer populations

A roe deer amid poppies in a Suffolk field. Picture: KEVIN SAWFORD

A roe deer amid poppies in a Suffolk field. Picture: KEVIN SAWFORD - Credit: Archant

A century ago, deer were relatively few and far between in eastern England. Now the region’s five species have undergone such dramatic population explosions that they cause millions of pounds’ worth of crop damage and create serious headaches for many woodland managers.

That is not to say an encounter with any of Suffolk’s deer species – red, roe, fallow, muntjac or Chinese water deer – can’t be a delight. It often is, and with relatively low deer mortality rates, an abundance of food and no natural deer predators prowling our modern, often less-than-wild, landscapes, such encounters are perhaps easier to experience today than ever before.

The potential for deer-versus-land-management conflict is clear - it can be quite a dilemma - and some of the ways to resolve it were outlined at the Suffolk Naturalists’ Society’s and the Suffolk Mammal Group’s recent Wherstead Park, Ipswich, conference by David Hooton, a liaison officer with the Deer Initiative. The initiative is a broad partnership of statutory, voluntary and private interests dedicated to ensuring delivery of a sustainable, well-managed deer population in England and Wales, with Mr Hooton covering the east of England.

Annual losses attributable to damage caused by deer in the region had been estimated to be £10million, said Mr Hooton. “And, of course, it is not getting any better because deer populations have expanded, but now there is much greater awareness of the true impact of deer and the true nature of how we can control deer,” he said.

A Chinese water deer - the rarest of Suffolk's deer species. Picture: ROBERT McKENNA

A Chinese water deer - the rarest of Suffolk's deer species. Picture: ROBERT McKENNA - Credit: robert mckenna

Individual red deer could eat up to 7kg a day and fallow deer could eat 5kg. Crops were browsed and flattened – he knew of one Lincolnshire farmer who had lost £100,000 in a year due to such damage. In addition, woodland browsing could have serious impacts on bird populations and floristic diversity.

“If we cannot control deer populations we will have to do more and more fencing, and fencing disrupts the wildlife within the fenced area so fencing is not the answer,” said Mr Hooton.

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Well-crafted deer management plans that met the land management objectives of an area, either agricultural, commercial woodland or areas such as nature reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) were vital but should not “just be left to sit on the shelf and gather dust.” Deer management should be a “continual process” with population monitoring, trends being identified and action being evaluated, he said.

A fallow deer buck in Suffolk. Picture: BRIAN SMITH

A fallow deer buck in Suffolk. Picture: BRIAN SMITH - Credit:

Culls of up to 35% or 40% of a population may be needed just to keep numbers static.

“Deer are part of our natural environment and they are here to stay,” said Mr Hooton. “We need to learn to live with them, ensuring we manage deer populations in balance with the land management objectives of an area.

“We can win. We can reduce the negative impacts of deer to the level of neutral impacts and get SSSIs, for example, into favourable condition. I often say that getting people to work together on this is the difficult part. It’s not the deer, it’s getting people to talk to each other and work with each other and then we can get what people want out of their environment,” said Mr Hooton.

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A muntjac deer takes a drink. Picture: ROBIN STANBRIDGE

A muntjac deer takes a drink. Picture: ROBIN STANBRIDGE - Credit: contributed

In her book The Mammals of Suffolk, Dr Simone Bullion traces the history of the county’s five deer species. She reports:

Red deer - Formerly native to Britain but probably hunted to extinction in England by the Middle Ages/Tudor period. More recent protected deer park populations in Suffolk were likely to have been supplemented by introduced stock, but by the 1930s naturalist Claud Ticehurst wrote that there were no contemporary records in the county. A population established in Thetford Forest for hunting led to more recent dispersal. The east Suffolk population also probably stems from introductions due to hunting and escapees from deer parks.

Fallow deer - A native species that became extinct in Britain during the last glaciation, fallow deer were reintroduced by the Normans in the 11th Century when they were released for hunting purposes. In Suffolk, the main populations are in the vicinity of former deer parks. There has been a gradual range expansion but they have now been ousted from their former position as the most widespread deer in Suffolk by roe and muntjac.

Roe deer - A native species that became extinct in much of Britain by the 18th Century, modern populations probably derive from introductions. Now it is the most widely distributed deer in Suffolk, although individuals did not appear in the east of the county until the early 1980s.

Muntjac - Chinese and Indian muntjac were released in Britain in 1901 but the latter is thought to have died out. Further releases of the Chinese species followed in the 1930s and 1940s. Subsequent releases and escapes have aided its current widespread distribution, with momentum gathering from the 1970s onwards, and it is now the second-most widely distributed of Suffolk’s deer.

Chinese water deer - The least numerous and widespread of Suffolk’s deer, records from the west of the county commenced in 1987 and from the east of the county in 1989. The species was introduced into Britain at Woburn Park, Bedfordshire, in 1896, with other releases or escapes taking place elsewhere.

More information about the work of the Deer Initiative can be found at

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