Feral deer are emerging as one of Australia’s most serious environmental and agricultural threats and Victoria has possibly the largest deer population in Australia, estimated at more than a million animals.
The deer population is expanding rapidly and invading new areas. With a lack of predators, occurrence in vast and remote areas and great habitat flexibility, deer are set to become one of Victoria’s and ultimately Australia’s most damaging pest animal invaders.
Deer were introduced as a game animal in the mid 1880s and numbers remained relatively low for decades until significant population growth and range expansion became noticeable in the 1980s, exacerbated by the release of deer following the collapse of the deer farming industry.
There are now four wild species of deer in Victoria: sambar, red, fallow and hog deer. Of those, sambar is the by far the most populous and widespread, now occurring throughout most of eastern Victoria.
Social: Deer are having serious impacts on peri-urban areas such as outer eastern Melbourne and regional townships where their presence can be intimidating. They destroy fences and gardens and are becoming a serious road safety issue. Irresponsible deer hunting activity can be very distressing for peri-urban residents and recreational users of public land.
Cultural: Aboriginal cultural heritage values are at risk from the impacts of deer. Deer can compact soil and damage native plant species, leading to exposure and erosion of important Aboriginal cultural sites.
Economic: Deer graze and browse in cereal crops, orchards, vineyards, market gardens, pastures and plantations and destroy fences and nets. This is having a serious impact on the economic viability of agriculture and potentially forestry in places. Even more serious is the potential of deer to transfer disease to livestock and potentially humans and other animals.
Environmental: Feral deer are transforming the state’s native ecosystems. The impact of more than 1 million deer on the biodiversity of natural landscapes in Victoria is substantial. As well as competing with native animals, degrading waterways and spreading weeds, serious damage is being caused to very sensitive ecosystems such as alpine bogs, rainforest and coastal areas.
The legal status of deer in Victoria is curious.
Protected wildlife: Chital, fallow, hog, red, rusa, sambar, sika, sika-red hybrids and Wapiti are listed as Protected Wildlife under the Wildlife Act 1975 and it is an offence to hunt, take, or destroy these deer species unless authorised.
Game Species: Chital, fallow, hog, red, rusa and sambar deer are also Game Species under the Wildlife Act 1975 and can be hunted by licensed game hunters under conditions.
Threatening process: Sambar deer are listed as a potentially threatening process under Victoria’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 because they pose a significant threat to the survival and evolutionary development of numerous plant taxa and ecological communities.
Exotic fauna: The National Parks Act 1975 requires the extermination or control of exotic fauna (including deer) in national and state parks, wilderness parks and other reserves.
In 2020 the Victorian Deer Control Strategy was released after several years in development. During that process, there was significant pressure exerted by the community to change the legal status of deer from “protected wildlife” to that of a “pest animal”, to appropriately recognise the population explosion and serious impacts across Victoria.
While the final plan was an improvement to some extent on the hunting-orientated first draft, the Victorian Government chose to retain the protected status of deer. This is an indication of the influence the deer hunting lobby and Game Management Authority have on deer policy in Victoria.
The perplexing legal status of deer in Victoria makes it all the more difficult for the community to appreciate the serious impact of deer and to have in place effective deer eradication and control programs.
The Victorian Deer Control Strategy can be found on the Victorian Government website.
Clearly not. While random recreational hunting and organised volunteer shooter programs remove some deer, it is not strategic, has limited capacity and it is patently evident much more needs to be done.
To effectively reduce deer impacts we need the best research and experience to inform well-funded regional control plans, implemented through large, integrated cross-tenure programs utilising professional shooters and a variety of methods and new technologies.
The massive bushfires in 2020 have put the spotlight on deer. Vast areas of deer habitat in eastern Victoria were burnt and are at risk of serious impact of deer on biodiversity recovery.
As part of Victoria’s Bushfire Biodiversity Response and Recovery Program, Parks Victoria has engaged professional shooters for aerial and ground shooting of deer across the fire-effected area, reportedly shooting more than a thousand animals.
This is a great start to serious deer control but now needs a commitment to ongoing capacity and funding beyond fire recovery.
The recently announced $18 million in the Victorian State budget for deer control over the next four years finally gives some hope for a commitment to mitigating the impact of deer.
The Invasive Species Council is concerned there is not enough being done to curb the impact of deer in Victoria. As a result, we have appointed a Peter Jacobs as our deer project officer to seek to address the growing impacts from feral deer in Victoria.
This will be achieved through building networks and capacity, raising political and community awareness and seeking greater action on the ground. Peter has a solid background for this coming from an extensive career in protected area management on public and private land and Landcare.
We will continue to advocate for feral deer being re-classified as pest animals, but in the meantime we will focus on effective cross tenure control and where possible eradication, within the current framework.