Background briefing: Australia’s deer plague

Feral Herald |

With no natural predators and an ability to adapt to almost all environments, feral deer already occupy every state and territory. They have so far been concentrated in the eastern and southern parts of Australia, including Tasmania, but climate and habitat suitability modelling predicts they could inhabit virtually every habitat in every corner of Australia if we don’t control their spread now.

How many feral deer are there?

The spread of feral deer through Australian landscapes has been explosive. They have doubled their range since 2002 when they numbered about 200,000. Today, their numbers are estimated to be between 1-2 million, but in the absence of a comprehensive survey we don’t precisely know.

Uncontrolled, feral deer populations can grow by 34 to 50% every year. So far, they have been concentrated in the eastern and southern parts of Australia.

In Victoria, feral deer inhabit nearly 40% of the state. In New South Wales, they cover about 22% and are expanding their range by about 1 million hectares every year – that’s roughly the size of four ACTs!

Tasmania’s feral deer population is reported to have surpassed 100,000. Estimates suggest that tally will soar to 1 million and cover half the island state by 2050 if the Tasmanian government fails to respond to the scale of the problem.

How did we get here?

Feral deer were introduced into Australia in the mid 1800s amidst a wave of efforts to create England in Australia. Initially brought here so that recreational hunters could continue to enjoy their English sports, a series of deliberate releases by hunters and uncontrolled releases from deer farms in the 1990s has made feral deer Australia’s worst emerging pest problem. More than six species of feral deer are currently trampling our bushland. Like a rabbit, they are broad eaters and will eat almost anything, including vegetation in bushfire affected areas.

Deer don’t belong in the Australian bush. Unlike much of the world where deer are native, our ecosystems haven’t evolved to cope with their hard hoofs, heavy weight and voracious appetite. They overgraze native grasslands and shrublands, ringbark native shrubs and trees and cause erosion and pollution by wallowing in wetlands and trampling the banks of streams.

Further, they browse on and kill trees planted by landcare groups, foresters, farmers and local councils. Of great concern in an era of increasing bushfire frequency and severity, deer hinder post-fire recovery by eating new growth, potentially inflicting permanent changes on native ecosystems.

The distribution of feral deer across Australia in 2011. Feral deer are now entrenched in a rapidly growing proportion of eastern Australia, from the heights of Mount Kosciuszko in NSW, to the rainforests of Tasmania’s treasured Wilderness World Heritage Area, to the beaches of Queensland.

Feral deer have also proven extremely problematic for the agriculture industry. They eat fruit trees, grapevines, crops and pastures and destroy fences, costing farmers millions of dollars every year. Then there is the serious risk of feral deer becoming major vectors that could spread devastating diseases like foot and mouth disease from farm to farm should it ever arrive in the country.

As feral deer spread into urban areas, including Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane, they are destroying gardens, contaminating critical water catchments, damaging the few patches of urban bushland that remain and causing serious accidents on our roads. In the most extreme cases, vehicle collisions with feral deer have even resulted in cases of injury and death.

Take action

Australia needs the National Feral Deer Action Plan, and the plan needs your support. This plan is our one big chance to stop feral deer from being added to the list of Australia’s most devastating invasive species.

To make it as simple as possible, we have set up a form you can complete that instantly sends a submission to the national deer management coordinator, with the option to add your own message detailing your personal concerns or experience with feral deer.

Send your feedback today.

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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]