| Deer culling on massive scale backed by expert|
|Experts are urging all-out war on deer, which could see close to a million animals being shot each year in the UK.|
Culling on a massive scale is necessary just to keep the exploding deer population at its current level, they say.
The call to arms was made after new research showed that only by killing 50% to 60% of deer can their numbers be kept under reasonable control.
This is slaughter on a far greater scale than the 20% to 30% culling rates recommended before.
With total deer numbers conservatively estimated at about 1.5 million, it could result in more than 750,000 animals being shot every year.
Deer are said to be having a devastating effect on woodland, damaging farmers' crops, causing road accidents and threatening a danger to public safety in urban areas.
Shooting by trained and licensed hunters is the only practical way to keep their populations in check, according to Dr Paul Dolman, from the University of East Anglia.
"I don't think it's realistic to have wolves and brown bears in rural England," he said at a news briefing in London. "In the absence of natural predators, the only way to manage them is to shoot them."
Although they were kept on private land belonging to the nobility, native wild deer were virtually unknown in England for 1,000 years until their re-introduction by the Victorians.
Today, there are more deer in the UK than at any time since the ice age. Although it has been suggested that they could number more than 1.5 million, no one knows for certain how many there are.
Each year more than 14,000 vehicles are severely damaged and about 450 people injured or killed on British roads as a result of collisions with deer.
Deer strip woodland of wild flowers, brambles and shrubs, and disturb the ecology to the point that native birds are lost. The fact that nightingales are now so rare is largely blamed on deer.
Britain has a total of six deer species. Roe deer and red deer are the only two species native to the UK. Four others have been introduced from abroad since Norman times.
The most recent newcomers were the muntjac deer and the Chinese water deer, which became established in the wild in the 1920s.
Expanding areas of woodland surrounded by farms, together with the lack of natural predators, have provided perfect conditions in which deer can flourish.
Like foxes, deer are now starting to feel at home in urban environments, said Dolman.
"Studies have been done in Sheffield that show roe deer living in cemeteries," he said.
"Muntjac deer will move into private gardens and allotments. Fallow deer are wide ranging – they live in woodland but come in to feed. There are housing estates in London where they've been known to graze on lawns in the evening.
"There have been no accidents yet but it's only a matter of time. These are large animals with sharp antlers. If you had one cornered in a school playing field, it could be nasty."
Dolman led the first full-scale census of roe and muntjac deer populations across 234 square kilometres (145 miles) of woods and heathland in Breckland, East Anglia.
The researchers drove more than 1,140 miles at night using thermal imaging cameras to spot deer and provide an accurate estimate of their true numbers.
The results, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, indicate that existing management strategies are failing.
Although deer numbers appeared stable, this was only because thousands of the animals were being pushed out into the surrounding countryside each year.
Culling 53% of the muntjac and 60% of the roe deer each year would only be enough to stop their populations growing, said Dolman. Reducing deer numbers would require even more killing. The same culling levels were likely to be required in other parts of the country.
"Deer populations are going through the roof," he said. "We're calling for a very large increase in the magnitude of deer culling."
Darting deer with contraceptives to stop them reproducing was not a practical solution, he argued. It did not resolve the immediate problem and meant venison might be tainted with potentially harmful drugs.
It was up to landowners such as the National Trust to organise the culling with support from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Culling would have to be carefully regulated and only carried out by trained stalkers. The result could be a welcome supply of fresh, healthy meat, said Dolman.
"We're talking about putting venison steaks on your family table or eating venison at gastropubs," he added. "If we shifted part of our diet to deer it wouldn't be a bad thing."
Allowing deer numbers to expand unchecked until their populations crashed would have "consequences a lot crueller than culling", he maintained.