Bane or Benefit?

From council logos to life sized sculptures, Deer are a familiar sight across Staffordshire. But are these magnificent land mammals of benefit or bane for our living landscapes? Scott Latham explores the ecological divide over our Deer populations.

The bellows ring around the coppice in front of me as the fog starts to rise off the landscape, releasing the chill from the air. Upon the horizon, some 100 yards ahead, I can see a herd of Red Deer. The dominate stag here is just 8 points, yet, just 4 or 5 years ago this hillside was dominated by a Monarch of 18 point antlers.

© Ian Procter

This farmed landscape is iconic of South Staffordshire. It’s the signature landscape of over-farmed ground, dominated by hundreds of thousands of acres of grazed grassland with a scattering of small coppice. Behind me lies George’s Hayes, undoubtedly, on the surface, spectacular, but look a little closer and each year the wild garlic and bluebells that grow along the forest floor here, is shrinking in its range. This whole area was once a traditional hunting forest, or more specifically, a deer hunting forest, owned by the Marquesses of Anglesey up until the 1930s.

Since the sale of the estate, much of the area around here has been cultivated for crop farming and with the hunting forest no longer used, along with wolves, lynx and bears long gone, the three species of deer that call the Cannock Chase region home – Red, Fallow and Muntjac, have had plenty of time to proliferate, creating herds upto ten times bigger than what would naturally occur.

In 2019 when the British Deer Society undertook the latest deer census on Cannock Chase ANOB, the survey showed over 600 Fallow Deer, with the largest herds centralled around Brocton. Although the overall number of recorded deer is slightly down on previous years, this has come at a human cost too. 

Each year, over 130 traffic accidents on Cannock Chase’s roads are attributed to deer and the increasing amount of fencing required and the new deterrent systems to manage their movements often comes out of the public purse.

Understandably, Such a high number of hungry mouths inevitably impacts not only on ground vegetation and emerging woodland, but also on the deer themselves and for many years, concern has been rising at the widespread and serious damage caused by deer to impact of over-grazing and as we better understand the ecological build up of landscapes, an ideological battle between those who like to see the deer and those who want to protect the landscapes in which they live has erupted.

“Heathlands are ancient, rare and sensitive landscapes and at Cannock Chase they are bitten and flattened.”

Firstly, we need to understand the habitat build up of Cannock Chase and each habitat found throughout the ANOB is completely unique, from the soil to the wildlife that lives there

and for that reason it’s important to be able to identify each landscape. Due to their differences, each location responds differently to how deer graze and use the area.

© Derek Lees

The area most commonly thought of, and the area most at risk is our heathlands. Unfortunately, that is also the favoured habitat for the most condensed population of Fallow Deer on Cannock Chase. Heathlands are ancient, rare and sensitive landscapes and at Cannock Chase they are bitten and flattened by 40 deer per sq km. And the way the landscape has changed partly due to such over-grazing for generations is plain to see. Infact, the heathland landscapes in this region used to be vast, stretching over twenty miles to Sutton Park in Birmingham. 

Another reflection of over-grazing deer on this landscape has meant that Heathlands cannot survive without habitat management. Another cost to the landowners and taxpayers within the area. Currently that is just about trying to save what is left of our heathlands. See heather takes a long-time to grow; small pioneering plants are 5 years old, However the majority of the heather on Cannock Chase is bitten by the large deer populations by the time it reaches its mature stage, at around 25 years of age.

The ecological cascade of losing our heathlands has already been recorded within the ANOB, with Grouse and Dartford Warbler already disappearing, whilst other bird populations such as Stonechat, Cuckoo and the wonderful and enigmatic bird Nightjar, seeing huge declines on the Cannock Chase. 

Then we have the plantation forests. Huge areas of Cannock Chase are owned, managed and cultivated for timber by the Forestry Commision. And although the dense canopies from the hand planted timber is not as natural as we once would have seen from the Scot’s pine and oak woodlands we would have originally seen upon the Caledonian glacier build up, deer in woodland graze differently, and for much better benefit for the species. They tend to be larger and in better overall health  than those in herd out on the heath.

“How many deer are where they should be and to who’s benefit, is not so much an argument over deer, but over different visions for the future of Cannock Chase.”

To understand this more we need to look at research backed examples, and there’s no better location to explore than in the Scottish Highlands.

When the Red Deer Commission in Scotland was created in 1959, primarily to address damage to agriculture and forestry, red deer numbers were estimated at around 150,000. Yet, acclaimed ecologist Frank Fraser Darling, advised the Red Deer Commission that 60,000 might be an optimum population in Scotland. However, Thirty years later, informed population estimates hover around 400,000.

But how many deer is too many? There is a sizeable body of research that can now answer that question from an ecological perspective. It is generally accepted that to allow ground flora and woodland to regenerate naturally, or planted trees to survive, deer densities need to be no higher than 5 per sq.km. Whilst on Cannock Chase, eight times that amount, with 40 animals per sq.km, is common place.

In some areas on the Highlands, such as Glenfeshie, fencing was widely used to keep deer away from commercial forestry plantations but on the floor of the Glen, heathlands and remnant ageing Scots pines retained a toehold in the shallow soils. In the 1960s, Conservationist, Dick Balharry MBE, recognised the imminent loss of these veteran trees, and openly condemned the effect of high deer numbers, pointing to a complete absence of young trees. It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium, when the estate ownership was under Wildland’s control that change in Glenfeshie appeared with a significant, yet contentious, deer cull taking place on the estate.  

“The change on the ground happened very quickly and with a ready-made seed source from the ageing trees, a young forest quickly started to grow. People talk about the trees creeping up the hill but I would suggest that if you relieve them of grazing pressure, they actually sprint up the hill.”

Thomas MacDonell – Wildland Ltd

So does it all come down to numbers?  Deer are browsing animals and at high densities, they will overwhelm the vegetation and eat all regenerating saplings, leaving just older trees and heather to die off one by one over time and as we learnt earlier, heather takes 25 years to fully mature! In the absence of natural predators, deer populations therefore need managing if Cannock Chase’s heathlands and forests are to reach their full ecological potential. But this puts extra pressure on the Forestry Commission and other stakeholders of the land. A large scale deer cull will not only take up resources, but also be a costly exercise. 

Enter the expertise and experience of professional deerstalkers. In Scotland, we’ve seen that the deer stalking industry has huge benefits to regeneration of the land, along with the economic benefit of local residents. With lower deer numbers the heathland and forests are starting to thrive again, bird species are returning to the area to nest in larger numbers than ever before, and the hospitality industry is blossoming. So much so that Deer Stalking generates over £70m per year for the Scottish Highlands economy.

Yet, for deer stalking to be viable on Cannock Chase, the philosophy behind deer stalking will need to move away from the emphasis on the trophy, to a more rounded hunting experience in an increasingly natural setting. However, planned correctly, deer management by paying guests, who also support the local economy, and in the company of a well-paid professional guide, could be the perfect solution to protecting and regenerating the landscape of Cannock Chase.

However, with a reduction in deer numbers we could see our heathland flourish once again, our economy grow through eco-tourism and an over all healthier deer population.

“We need to act now. Before it’s gone forever!”

The fog has now risen, burning away in the Autumn sunrise, and with the Imperial Red Deer stag and his hinds moving away from the open grasslands into the more dense landscape of the coppice, it’s time for me to move on too. This landscape on the surface is seductive. However, it hides a history of ecological bruises that few people see, simply because they’re not conditioned to look. Decades of man made timber forests, human footfall, developments and over-grazing from deer has led to over twenty miles of threadbare heathlands and concrete jungle. 

Deer can be a great benefit for our ecosystems, but in current populations, somehow we have arrived at a point where we celebrate, cherish and even actively conserve these ecological diminished landscapes that support fewer species than they once did. If we act quickly and in a way which will benefit both the ecosystem of Cannock Chase and the people who depend on it economically, we can see change for the better, before it’s gone forever.

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