Stopping the “next rabbit”: Australia needs a National Feral Deer Action Plan

Feral Herald |

The feral deer population has exploded so much in recent years that people have referred to them as the next rabbit plague. Australia now has millions of feral deer and, without action, scientists predict they could soon inhabit nearly every ecosystem across every part of the continent.

The good news is a draft National Feral Deer Action Plan has been developed and is open for consultation. Make a submission before the deadline at 5pm on 20 March 2023 or read on to learn more about why a plan is needed and how a national approach can be a game changer.

The rise and rise of feral deer

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.

The combined potential range of the six species of feral deer currency spreading through Australia. The Climatch algorithm used to generate this map predicts which habitat and climate will be suitable to one or more species of feral deer (dark red indicating most suitable, dark green indicating least suitable). Map from the National Feral Deer Action Plan.

For many communities, deer have become an inescapable pest. You can learn more about their impacts on our bushland, environment and community by reading our background briefing on feral deer.

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.

Time for urgent action

For too long, some state governments have relied on recreational deer hunting to control feral deer numbers. While there can be a role for recreational hunters in management, exploding feral deer numbers mean we must invest in coordinated, science-based, systematic efforts to deal with the problem effectively and without delay. We can’t lay the responsibility of widespread feral deer control on recreational hunters alone, and governments must back intensive and targeted professional operations to lead feral deer control programs.

We also need a wake up call for the Victorian and Tasmanian governments. Both states still legally protect feral deer as a game animal for hunters, rather than declare them as a pest like every other state. This reflects an outdated colonial attitude to feral deer, but has serious implications for landholders in those states who have to wade through excessive bureaucratic permitting processes and pay shooters out of their own pocket to control feral deer on their properties.

We need change. All of our federal, state and territory governments must come together to revoke these legal protections of feral deer and work together to stop their continued spread. The Invasive Species Council is working with local communities and advocating with governments to help bring about this change.

The Plan

The good news for Australian bushland, farmers and the community is that a draft National Feral Deer Action Plan has been developed by a working group that included representatives from state and federal governments, farmers, shooters and the Invasive Species Council. This is the first time we have ever had a nationally coordinated response to dealing with this serious invasive species.

Implementing this national plan is our best shot at avoiding wall to wall deer across the continent.

The Plan sets out what is needed to stop the westward spread of deer and protect our precious places and wildlife in areas where deer are already established.

It seeks to create a containment buffer zone that stretches from western Victoria, through the central west of NSW, to Rockhampton in Queensland. The aim is for surveillance and removal efforts to eradicate feral deer populations to the west of the containment zone and hold back the tide of feral deer spreading from the east.

This containment zone is welcomed by the Invasive Species Council, although it could be more ambitious, and better aligned to plans already adopted by the South Australian and Tasmanian governments.

The three zones outlined in the draft National Feral Deer Action Plan.

There will also be a focus on reducing feral deer populations around sensitive ecosystems, including those in the Australian Alps and in World Heritage-listed areas like the Tasmanian Wilderness and the Blue Mountains.

While we wish specific sections were more ambitious, the Invasive Species Council fully supports the thrust of the Plan. Now is the time for unity and action to stop feral deer from becoming Australia’s next rabbit plague.

We must ensure that the plan is adopted and properly funded by the federal government and all state and territory governments early next year. This is where you come in.

Without significant resources from the federal government and a commitment to action from state governments, the plan is just a plan. You can register your support for the draft plan during the public consultation period that is open until 5pm, 20 March 2023.

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.

This plan is our chance to stop feral deer from being added to the list of Australia’s most devastating invasive species.

If we fail to check the proliferation of feral deer now, Australia will be overrun. Our World Heritage and National Heritage areas will lose understories, lose trees, lose waterways and lose out-competed native herbivores. Suburban households will see parks and gardens ruined. Farmers will lose hundreds of millions in damage to crops and lost pasture while having to spend more to shoulder growing management costs. And more motorists may lose their lives.

Australia needs the National Feral Deer Action Plan, and the plan needs your support. 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]