"Drastic action" required to reverse deer damage on woodland understoreys

England's "extraordinarily high" numbers of deer are damaging woodland environments, so impacting on ground-nesting woodland bird populations, a leading ecologist has claimed.

Muntjac deer - image: Martin V Morris (CC BY SA 2.0)
Muntjac deer - image: Martin V Morris (CC BY SA 2.0)

Dr Markus Eichhorn of the University of Nottingham’s School of Life Sciences said: "If we want to encourage more woodland birds then we need to take action to restore the woodland structures they require - but in many areas it will need a drastic reduction in deer to have any real impact."

His remarks follow publication of a study in the Journal of Applied Ecology which he co-authored with researchers from Forest Research, the British Trust for Ornithology and Nottingham's faculty of engineering. 

"Deer populations are at extraordinarily high levels due to a combination of factors including the absence of large predators, a decline in hunting and the autumn sowing of crops that produce winter food for foraging animals," Eichhorn explained.

"If wild-caught deer appeared on our menus or in the local butchers it would encourage people to eat venison as readily as beef or lamb and would help conservation in our woodland areas."

In 2008, Defra launched a call for consortia to study the causes behind the decline of woodland birds such as the nightingale, marsh tit, willow tit and lesser spotted woodpecker in the UK. It, along with the Forestry Commission, funded the Nottingham study.

Using newly-developed laser technology, the study produced 3D images of of 40 woodland areas in England, allowing a detailed analysis of whole forest structures from the ground to the treetops, and so to quantify the impact of deer upon them.

In areas of dense deer populations, there was 68 per cent less foliage up to a height of 2m, the maximum height which deer can reach to feed, compared to other areas where none or just a few deer were living.

Curiously, the study also found that woodland trees were on average 5m taller in areas of high deer populations, which the researchers were unable to explain.

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