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Marauding muntjac deer are stripping bluebell woods as culls reduce during lockdown

PUBLISHED: 18:09 05 May 2020 | UPDATED: 18:09 05 May 2020

Muntjac deer are causing increasing damage to Norfolk's bluebell woods this year during the lockdown, said conservationists. Picture: Frances Crickmore / Ian Burt

Muntjac deer are causing increasing damage to Norfolk's bluebell woods this year during the lockdown, said conservationists. Picture: Frances Crickmore / Ian Burt

Frances Crickmore / Ian Burt

Marauding muntjac deer are damaging Norfolk’s precious bluebell woods while the lockdown hampers culls aimed at keeping their numbers in check, conservationists warned.

A muntjac deer in the woods at Minsmere. Picture: Frances Crickmore / iWitness24A muntjac deer in the woods at Minsmere. Picture: Frances Crickmore / iWitness24

Controlled culling of the rapidly-breeding deer species is usually carried out in spring when the vegetation is too thin to hide the creatures. But some farmers and countryside groups have reported that shooting has been limited during the lockdown.

As a result, muntjac have been browsing on plants which characterise ancient forests and bluebell woods at a time when they should be blooming into life.

Forestry officials said any short-term reduction in culls as a result of coronavirus is “unlikely to have significant effects on overall deer population size or landscape density” if control levels have been at sufficient levels during the winter season.

But conservationists fear any increase in the animals’ numbers could do long-term damage to ancient woodlands.

A blanket of bluebells in full flower at Foxley Wood, managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Picture: Ian BurtA blanket of bluebells in full flower at Foxley Wood, managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Picture: Ian Burt

Steve Collin, a nature conservation manager for the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said he had seen an increase in deer damage this year, prompting the trust to put up electric fencing around the most sensitive parts of its woodland reserves, such as newly-coppiced areas which are often the first to be stripped of buds and seedlings.

“In all woods we are looking at an increase in deer activities,” he said. “I would also say the fact there are fewer visitors to the woods means the deer are getting bolder. Because they are undisturbed they are allowed to dwell in habitats longer that they usually would if there were visitors here. It gives them the opportunity to do more localised damage.

“They rub bark on the trees and they eat the buds and seedlings, but the browse on the flora is going to be the main damage.

“Bluebells are not the most affected ground flora. They are pungent, semi-toxic plant, so while they do get affected a lot of other species will get eaten first, things like early purple orchid, herb-paris and yellow archangel.

A blanket of bluebells in full flower at Foxley Wood, managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Picture: Ian BurtA blanket of bluebells in full flower at Foxley Wood, managed by Norfolk Wildlife Trust. Picture: Ian Burt

“We refer to a bluebell wood, but generally it [the flower] is an indicator of a very old ancient woodland. In these, you have a whole host of species you would not get in younger woodland. But the effect on that ecosystem goes further than that.

“There are species like bramble which a lot of people don’t like, but they are a really good nectar source for butterflies and bees and the fruit becomes a good source of food for smaller animals and birds, so it also affects the predators that feed on them. So a bramble is a keystone species in a woodland and it is one that gets hit particularly hard by deer browse, and it can take several years to recover.”

READ MORE: Wildlife is thriving as lockdown leaves countryside deserted

Muntjac were brought from China to Woburn Park in Bedfordshire in the early 20th century. They are now widespread and increasing in number in East Anglia.

“Across the countryside the deer population, if left to its own devices, will rise by a third per annum,” added Mr Collin. “So 100 deer one year will become 130 the next year. That will very quickly snowball into very high numbers if left unchecked.”

The Forestry Commission, which works with landowners and farmers across East Anglia on deer management, said the regional impacts of any decision to reduce deer culling in recent weeks due to coronavirus “should be low, provided deer management has been ongoing during the winter open season”.

A spokesman said: “We continue to work with landowners and farmers across the country, including in Suffolk and Norfolk, to support them during this challenging time. Our team of dedicated deer officers are providing advice that makes a real difference in reducing the negative impact of deer on woodlands

“Wild deer continue to be part of sustainable forestry in England – it is important to manage deer to ensure a healthy and sustainable population in balance with the environment.

“However, high densities of wild deer can have negative impacts on woodland biodiversity, condition and establishment, as they prevent young trees from establishing by eating growing shoots and damage older trees by stripping and fraying bark.”


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