Deer Behind Britain's Great Bird Decline?

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Wytham Wood in the county of Oxfordshire, England, has lost much of its bramble. In the early 1970s this thorny shrub covered 35 percent of the wood. Today the figure is six percent. The decline in bramble cover has been matched by many bird species. During the same period fallow deer numbers multiplied from a dozen or so to over 250.

Birds suffering the steepest falls include the blackbird, dunnock, song thrush, and four types of warbler. The nightingale and woodcock have completely disappeared. All these species nest in low vegetation like bramble.

Meanwhile, the chaffinch, great tit, and mistle thrush, which nest high up in trees, have shown no marked decline.

"Wytham Wood had a very high fallow deer density and it was almost a wipeout," said Hugh Rose of the British Deer Society. "There are very few species of woodland plant that aren't palatable to deer."

The British Deer Society was brought in a few years ago to help manage the fallow deer through controlled culling. Numbers have since been reduced from 75 per 100 hectares of woodland to a single figure density.

"The deer are now down to manageable levels and the wood is already showing some signs of regeneration," added Rose.

Under Fire

Conservation charities are now having to face up to the idea that deer need to be shot if other wildlife is to survive. This measure is unpopular with many of their members.

"It's a delicate matter but people have to realize that deer culling is a fact of life," said Rob Fuller. "We're not talking about elimination, just whether high deer densities are sustainable in terms of maintaining a diversity of wildlife."

The RSPB decided deer culling was the only way to help save the capercaillie at its Abernethy reserve in Scotland. The world's largest grouse, less than 1,000 are left in Britain, making it the country's most endangered bird.

Red deer were severely damaging the native Caledonian pinewood where the birds live. Wire fencing had been used to keep the deer out but this backfired when capercaillies killed themselves by flying into it. The fencing was removed and the resident deer herd cut from 900 to 300. The pinewood began to regenerate and the capercaillie are now coming back from the brink of extinction.

While low-level browsing can be beneficial, by maintaining woodland rides and glades for instance, Hugh Rose says the challenge for landowners and conservationists is to create the right balance between deer and other wildlife.

"It's good land management to control deer because there are no bears, wolves, or cougars to do it for you," he said.

"The British Deer Society is a humane animal welfare organization so it may sound a bit odd that we are advocating deer should be shot. I hear people say, 'This is a nature reserve and we don't like killing things'. I say, 'You won't have a nature reserve much longer if you don't get the deer managed,'" Rose said.

In future, warmer climatic conditions and spreading tree cover due to woodland creation schemes are set to fuel further deer increases. Britain faces a stark choice: Bambi or the birds.

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