Deer populations in south-east Australia are soaring with an estimated 1 million in Victoria alone, and the introduced animals are wreaking havoc on farms and in the environment.
When Tom Abbottsmith Youl’s grandparents cleared land near Glenburn, north of Melbourne, they left a wildlife corridor for native animals.
The corridor connects to the Toolangi state forest, but instead of giving cover to native animals, it has been taken over by deer.
“They use it as a safe haven to then move out into our primary agricultural areas at night and graze,” Mr Youl said.
“I’m seeing damage all over the entire 330-hectare property. They’re at it all the time.
“They physically eat trees and shrubs so they’re browsing for food as well, snapping branches off, running through fences, and actually grazing our pastures.”
Mr Youl has had to reduce his stocking rate by 5 per cent to accommodate the impact of deer on his property.
“It’s not a game. This is serious business. It’s affecting our small business here and it’s affecting our native bushland,” he said.
Game or pest?
In Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania deer are considered a game animal, but as the numbers spiral out of control there are increasing calls for them to be reclassified as a pest.
Victorian Farmers Federation livestock president Leonard Vallance said deer doing damage to fences and grazing on crops and pastures was a burden on farmers.
“We want deer to be transferred from being a game animal to a feral animal or an introduced species, invasive species, and that then allows different methods of control,” he said.
The Victorian Government this week released a draft of its deer management strategy, but it does not include reclassifying deer as pests.
Victorian Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio said in a statement farmers were already allowed to control deer on private property.
Changes needed to control deer
But Mr Vallance said the change in status would allow for incentives such as bounties and a wider range of controls.
“It does change the emphasis in the environmental management, particularly in the parks, as to whether they’re controlled adequately or not,” he said.
“So we have to weigh up what’s more important — is agriculture more important or recreational hunting to the economy of Victoria?”
Mr Youl said there was a responsibility to control deer.
The third-generation farmer has employed professional shooter Dave Rolland to kill deer on his property.
“Deer are a pest, but I think they have to reassess the whole situation because the deer problem is just getting worse and worse,” Mr Rolland said.
“I think the problem is most recreational hunters are looking to shoot a stag so they’re passing the does up, whereas we’re a bit different — we’re looking to make an impact on the numbers, so I’d rather shoot a doe over a stag every time.”
Hunters targeting stags can cause issues
Australian Deer Association deer management committee chairman Steve Garlick agreed the stag culture was a problem.
“There’s no argument from that. There is a heavy stag buck culture in deer hunting. That is generally why they were introduced into Victoria and Australia,” he said.
But Mr Garlick said hunters were part of the solution not the problem.
“In terms of deer management, hunters, hunting organisations in particular are actually getting people to go out and focus on doe harvest,” he said.
“Also hunters are taking over 100,000 deer a year. You take that 100,000 deer that we’ve been taking over the last three or four years and put them back into the environment and see what you’re actually going to get.”
But Mr Vallance said hunters were not doing enough to keep the deer population in check.
“Good luck to the hunters. They enjoy their hunting and they do reduce the number of deer, however quite clearly they’re not having a sustained impact on the deer populations,” he said.