Feral deer could occupy nearly all of Australia

Feral Herald |

They have been labelled “ecosystem engineers” for their ability to modify ecosystem function at the landscape scale and are one of the world’s most successful invasive mammals.

And although most feral deer currently occupy south-eastern Australia a new report shows they could invade most of the continent, with four species well suited to the tropical and subtropical climates found in the north of the country.

Published in CSIRO’s journal Wildlife Research the report’s authors reviewed the management and impacts of feral deer in Australia, and used modelling to predict the possible expansion of the six wild deer species found here – fallow, chital, red, rusa, sambar and hog deer.

They found feral deer could potentially occupy most of the continent, including the interior, and that northern Australia could become the “next frontier” for deer invasion.

The mapping shows hog, sambar and chital deer have a very high potential distribution across northern Australia while red and fallow deer would favour southern Australia.

Current and potential distribution (greyscale) of the six deer species established in the wild in Australia. The potential distributions were estimated using the Climatch algorithm (Invasive Animals CRC 2011).
Current and potential distribution (greyscale) of the six deer species established in the wild in Australia. The current distribution was estimated using data available in 2011 (West 2011). The potential distribution was estimated using the Climatch algorithm (Invasive Animals CRC 2011).

Factors that could influence the expansion of feral deer populations include fire, which anecdotal evidence suggests causes home range shifts in deer as they flee fires to seek food and shelter in unburned areas.

The research notes that fire is suspected of contributing to the spread of sambar deer in Victoria. A recent ABC news report put the number of sambar deer in that state’s high country at anywhere between 750,000 and one million animals. The deer are causing significant damage in the Alpine National Park, trampling fragile alpine bogs, grazing on native vegetation and contributing to erosion.

Pest, game or protected species?

Across the country deer are classified differently, depending on which state they are found. In Queensland, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia they are classified as a pest species.

NSW continues to list deer as a ‘game’ species, baulking recently at declaring it a pest despite recommendations from the state’s natural resources commission. Tasmania lists them as partly protected wildlife, and in Victoria they are essentially treated as a protected game species for recreational hunters.

To add to the confusion, deer are listed as a key threat under NSW and Victorian threatened species legislation.

The report’s authors looked at how the impacts of deer are managed across Australia, and how they are treated – as a pest, game or protected species.

They found a number of examples that showed targeted, ground-based shooting can reduce feral deer densities at small scales, and can eradicate isolated populations. A highly successful program to eradicate fallow deer from Kangaroo Island has used this method.

Aerial surveys of deer in Queensland suggest helicopter-based shooting may be a promising technique for controlling feral deer in open habitat where visibility is high. The authors also point out that no study has quantified the efficacy of recreational hunting as a management strategy, although there is a trial underway in Victoria.

A mish mash of management

The report authors call Australia’s approach to managing feral deer “diverse and complex”, and warn that the implementation of cost-effective management strategies is hindered by a lack of knowledge of the nature, extent and severity of deer impacts.

They also point out that there has been little rigorous testing of the efficacy of deer management in Australia, and our understanding of the deer ecology required to guide deer management is limited.

They identified six priority research areas:

  1. Identify long-term changes in plant communities caused by deer.
  2. Understand interactions with other fauna.
  3. Measure impacts on water quality.
  4. Assess economic impacts on agriculture (including as disease vectors).
  5. Evaluate efficacy of management for mitigating deer impacts.
  6. Quantify changes in distribution and abundance.

Our worst emerging pest problem

Feral deer are probably Australia’s worst emerging pest problem, set to cause increasing damage to the natural environment and agricultural businesses. They also loom as a potential road safety threat.

Despite this the federal government and most state governments appear to be sitting back and watching the growing problem unfold. South eastern states wrongly fear acting will deny deer hunters their sport.

The Invasive Species Council is calling on NSW, Victoria and Tasmania to fall into line with Queensland, Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australia by removing the protected game status of deer and declaring them pests.

We also want to see concerted efforts made to eradicate small, isolated populations of feral deer and containment of other wild populations. These actions must be supported by measures to prevent deer farm escapes and the deliberate ‘seeding’ of new areas by hunters, the development of new control measures and a national research program on the impacts and future management of feral deer in Australia.

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Help protect NSW!

Our expert team has written a list of policy asks detailing exactly what the next NSW government needs to do to stamp out some of the worst invasive species impacts across the state. But they will only become a reality if every key political candidate at the 2023 NSW state election hears about it from you!

Dear National Deer Management Coordinator,

Please accept this as a submission to the National Feral Deer Action Plan.

[Your personalised message will appear here] 

I am very concerned about the spread of deer and am pleased that a national plan has finally been developed. Without urgent action, funding and commitment from all levels of government it is clear that feral deer will continue to spread and damage our environment.

The feral deer population in Australia is growing rapidly and spreading across the country, damaging our natural environment, causing havoc for farmers and foresters and threatening public safety. Unlike much of the world where deer are native, our plants and wildlife haven’t evolved to deal with these heavy hard hooved animals with a voracious appetite.
With no natural predators and an ability to adapt to almost all environments, they could occupy almost all of Australia unless stopped. Despite this, state and territory governments have been slow to respond and in Victoria and Tasmania they are still protected by law for the enjoyment of hunters.

This plan should be adopted by all governments but must also be underpinned by dedicated funding and clear responsibilities. A plan without funding or accountability is a plan that will fail and Australia cannot afford for this to fail.

In order to prevent the spread of feral deer and reduce their impact on our native wildlife, ecosystems and agriculture, I ask that the following recommendations be adopted for the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

1. All federal, state and territory governments should adopt the National Feral Deer Action Plan and declare feral deer to be a priority pest animal species.

2. All federal, state and territory governments should commit to:

  • Contain deer to the existing large population areas.
  • Reduce and eradicate smaller and isolated populations.
  • Protect important environmental assets such as world and national heritage areas.
  • Develop and fund regional plans and strategies to manage deer populations which involve land managers across all tenures.

3. In order to drive action and the success of this plan, there should be dedicated Commonwealth funding and support for:

  • A permanent national feral deer coordinator position.
  • A permanent federal feral deer action committee with representatives from the commonwealth and state and territory governments and the environmental and agricultural sectors.
  • An ongoing public education campaign on feral deer.
  • A network of regional feral deer coordinators to drive local action across tenures.

4. The expected outcomes for the plan need to be more ambitious, with clear interim targets including:

  • Within one year, all States and Territories should have in place arrangements to implement the National Feral Deer Action Plan, including allocating dedicated funding for implementation.
  • Within one year, feral deer management plans should be developed for key environmental assets of national significance, including the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, the Greater Blue Mountains, the Australian Alps, the Gondwana Rainforests and the Wet Tropics of Queensland.
  • Within five years coordinated landscape scale management should be in place where land owners, land managers, government and community are demonstrably working together.

5. A national feral deer containment map with three zones should be adopted. It should be more ambitious than the zone map in the current draft plan and there should be greater clarity in the naming of the zones. Improvements that should be adopted include:

  • Renaming the zones to better reflect the management intention to ‘Containment Zone 1’ (the current large population zone), ‘Containment Buffer Zone 2’ (the current buffer zone) and ‘Eradication and prevention Zone 3’ (the current small isolated population zone).
  • The NSW northern rivers area should be in the eradication and prevention zone as there are few feral deer currently in this region and eradicating isolated populations and preventing spread into this area is still possible.
  • The whole of South Australia should be in the eradication and prevention zone as eradication is the goal of the SA Government.
  • The Tasmanian region in the containment zone should be smaller to reflect greater ambition and potential for eradication of deer populations.
  • In eastern Victoria areas such as Wilson’s Promontory, Westernport islands and the Mornington Peninsula should be in the eradication and prevention zone.

6. There should be consistent laws and regulations across all states and territories that:

  • Recognise feral deer as a pest animal and treat them as such.
  • Establish a clear responsibility for all landholders and managers to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • Set clear penalties to stop the wilful or negligent release of feral deer.
  • Prevent new deer farms in areas where no feral deer are present and phase out all deer farms in the eradication and prevention zone.
  • Enable enforcement of compliance, including on government land.

I support the follow principles being adopted in the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

  • Feral deer are a pest and should be treated as such on all tenures, except on approved deer farms.
  • Federal, state and territory governments have a responsibility to fund the outcomes under this plan.
  • All land managers in areas where feral deer are present have a responsibility to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • The focus of management efforts should be on eradication of isolated, satellite populations, protection of key environmental assets currently impacted and stopping the spread to new regions.
  • Feral deer control should be undertaken humanely, safely and professionally according to agreed protocols and all tools which meet this criteria should be adopted, including aerial control.
  • Funding for coordination, regional planning and community engagement is necessary for effective feral deer management.
  • Ongoing management and follow up control efforts are required to achieve long lasting results.
  • Rules and regulations should be consistent across jurisdictions and land tenures.
  • Recreational hunting is not an effective strategy for feral deer control and should not be relied upon.
[Your name]
[Your email address]
[Your suburb], [Your state]