At least two books have been written entitled "Deer Wars". Over 25 years ago the highly respected population ecologist Graeme Caughley wrote "Deer Wars: the history of deer in New Zealand" and more recently American Robert Frye has written of the conflict in "Deer Wars: Science, Tradition and the Battle over managing Whitetails in Pennsylvania".
Someone in Australia may have to write an account of deer conflict in this country. Deer are rapidly becoming one of the more controversial invasive species. At almost every talk I've given recently, someone brings up the topic during question time, whether I've covered deer in the presentation or not.
The most iconic example of the dysfunctionality of bringing six colonies together to form Australia is the railway gauge. Developed separately, Australia's railway network famously consisted of three different gauges: New South Wales adopted the European standard gauge of 1435 mm, Victoria and South Australia built with the broad Irish gauge of 1600 mm, and Tasmania, Queensland, Western Australia and parts of South Australia used the narrow 1067 mm gauge. Apparently early in the century if you traveled from Perth to Brisbane you needed to change trains six times.
Deer are the equivalent of the railway system in terms of wildlife management in Australia. Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia regard deer as "pests" whereas New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania regard them as "game". It's more complex than that: "game" management varies considerably between the three resource-management States, and "deer" refers to six species (Sambar, Red, Fallow, Chital, Rusa and Hog) whose management can also vary considerably.
The spat between the New South Wales Game Council and the Invasive Species Council is one example of the issue flaring tempers. But the real on-the-ground "battle" is getting even tougher, as witnessed by the following account from a woolgrower who wrote to me after the issue had received an airing on ABC Radio National's Background Briefing:
...(where I live)... deer are protected, a challenging concept on which I will refrain from comment. The regulations under which deer hunting and culling are conducted is administered with a bias that favours recreational shooters and has seen significant growth in the deer population with few realising or willing to acknowledge the cost. Within this framework and due to a very conscientious effort ... I have had deer numbers on my property reduced as much as possible. It is really heartening to see the beneficial impact this is starting to have in terms of native flora regeneration. However there is still the need for further reduction in the deer population and the need to educate some of those in authority that this must be sustained control.....
When I asked if I could use the woolgrower's comments, the reply gave witness to some of the angst involved in the issue:
Feel free to use what I wrote but please do not use my name... There is a very anti-social side to deer which we are forced to live with and this includes retribution for taking an anti-deer stance or confronting "hunters" even if they are acting illegally on private land. Land owners and those who work for them are vulnerable in this regard. A match in the hay storage or just a match dropped in the right place at the wrong time of year, gates left open, animals (domestic) shot or poisoned ...........
It seems we are a long way from resolution. Anti-social groups exist within many communities, and hunters are no different - it would be a pity to tar all hunters with the same brush because they can be a very important part of the control solution for large herbivore pests. Nor is the solution simply to use a regulation or legislative model of labeling all deer as pests - Robert Frye's book shows that deer can be the source of considerable problems even where they are native and with a hunting tradition. The deer presumably don't know their legal status. I also don't see any technological solution on the immediate horizon. It's terrific that the US Department of Agriculture has succeeded in their registration of the product Gonacon for long-term contraception of whitetail deer, but this is a very niche product because it still requires capture of the animals to be treated.
When we discussed this issue on radio last week, a caller told of her problem with deer browsing on trees she had nursed carefully to get above rabbit browsing height. In the wind-swept slow-growing areas around Canberra, that's a heart breaking problem. From a practical point of view, for this farmer, it doesn't make much difference if the deer browsing her trees are "game" or "pest" deer (they are game, incidentally) - she just wants them gone. The New South Wales Game Council contacted the radio station to offer immediate assistance, so maybe the issue is one of local solutions to local problems?
Posted by Tony Peacock, founder of 'Feral Thoughts'