A population explosion among deer poses a serious threat to the British countryside and only a cull of half of the country's 1.5 million animals can save woodland and birdlife, say researchers at the University of East Anglia.
More than 50% of some deer species need to be killed and the public should stop seeing the animals as cuddly 'Bambis'. Their findings, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, have raised several questions:
Why are deer numbers increasing?
There are now more deer in Britain than at any time since the last ice age. Four of the six species found in the country are introduced and the most recent to arrive is the Chinese water deer that has established itself in the last 100 years. British deer no longer have any natural predators and a decline in hunting and trapping in recent years has seen the numbers of all six species rocket.
What damage do they do?
Deer are herbivores and are causing damage to Britain's ancient woodlands. Their diet of native plants and wild-flowers undermines the regeneration of woodland, threatens biodiversity and also affects other wildlife like birds. Species including the nightingale and willow tit are particularly at risk. As numbers increase, deer are forced out from woodlands and into other habitats including farmland where they cause still more damage. They can also pose a danger to humans. Sky News reported: "Each year about 450 people are injured or killed on the roads and more than 14,000 vehicles are severely damaged as a result of collisions with deer".
Why do so many need to be killed?
The scientists found that although previous deer management systems appeared to keep deer numbers at a stable level in the areas where they were in operation, thousands of deer were being pushed out to surrounding areas. "The new research suggested that only by killing 50 per cent to 60 per cent of deer can their numbers be kept under reasonable control," explains the BBC.
How should they be killed?
Ecologist Paul Dolman, who led the study, told The Independent "that shooting deer at night with thermal imaging equipment by trained stalkers would be the most efficient and humane way of dealing with the deer problem". The meat would be used to supply a thriving market in venison, he added.
What do wildlife groups think?
The RSPCA says it is "opposed in principle to the killing or taking of all wild animals unless there is strong science to support it". It says any cull should be "carried out in a humane and controlled way" and that culls should be carried out on a regional "case by case" basis. "We don't believe this should be rolled out in a uniform way across the whole country."
Are there similarities between this and the badger cull?
"There's a big, big difference between culling deer and culling badgers," the report's authors tell the Financial Times. Badgers are blamed for spreading bovine TB, while rising deer numbers pose a wider risk. Deer can also be eaten. Brian May, who has campaigned against the badger cull, has even admitted to having deer shot on his estate.