A recent inquiry into the control of invasive animals on crown land came up with some sensible recommendations, says Phil Ingamells.

There are many alien beasts rampaging through the bush: cats, dogs, pigs, goats and horses are all making a mess of things in various ways.

But none of them are increasing their havoc as rapidly as feral deer.

Though the number of deer in Victoria is hard to quantify (they are secretive by nature) some estimates now put the population at around one million. There are several types of deer running feral through the state – sambar, rusa, hog, red, fallow and chital – and they all cause damage. But sambar deer remain the biggest problem.

For more than a decade now, sambar deer have been listed as a threatening process under Victoria’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act. A dozen ecological communities are seriously impacted by them, and many already threatened plants including buff hazelwood, Maiden’s wattle and prickly tree-fern are now suffering the added impact of deer.

Deer wallow in wetland areas, creating large mud pools where once there was a creek edge, a mossy area or a spongy sphagnum-covered peat bed. They also browse selectively on many plants, and they can actually ringbark trees by rubbing their antlers on them.

Many threatened plants and plant communities in the Alpine National Park are now affected, especially those highly sensitive areas above the tree-line, and the remarkable grassy plain and wetland areas dotted throughout the eastern alps.

Deer have even impacted two valuable long-term research plots on the high plains where protective fences which once excluded cattle have been removed (though those fences would have offered little protection from the more agile deer).

Sambar stags (but no females yet) have now been sighted in Wilsons Promontory National Park, potentially adding considerably to the existing impact of the park’s well-established hog deer. The Victorian Parliament’s Environment, Natural Resources and Regional Development Committee recently completed its Inquiry into the Control of Invasive Animals on Crown Land. The committee was strongly lobbied by recreational shooters, who claimed that increasing their access to areas of public land, especially national parks, could help solve the deer problem.

However the inquiry made it clear that though the number of deer reported to be harvested by amateur hunters was remarkable – 70,000 killed in 2015 – deer populations and territories continue to expand. The inquiry also found there were serious concerns with illegal hunting on private land, and noted that the claim by recreational hunters that they contributed around $440 million annually to the Victorian economy was questionable.

The inquiry did suggest that there might be options for opening further areas to hunting, but handballed that question to the Victorian Environmental assessment Council to resolve in the future, when further information might be available.

More importantly though, it firmly recognised the need to control deer populations, saying that professional pest control agencies should be employed in both the planning and implementation of control programs.

Parks Victoria has been running a number of trials in recent years, working with accredited amateurs in strategic hunting programs (quite different to recreational hunting) in places like the Dandenongs, Wilsons Promontory and the high plains of the Alpine National Park. These closely supervised exercises have been producing good initial results, but have not yet resulted in any full-scale implementation of a deer control strategy.

The trial on the Bogong High Plains is designed to compare the effectiveness of accredited amateurs with that of trained and well-equipped professionals. It’s ongoing, but has already shown a reduced population and subsequent reduced impact around the Jaithmathangs. The inquiry rightly supported the evidence-based approach of Parks Victoria. Parks Victoria has long been advocating an ‘adaptive management’ approach, whereby monitoring the effectiveness of management programs allows them to change management techniques and priorities. However with a pest problem as severe and widespread as deer, the agency should not have to wait several years for a trial to be completed before it initiates real management action. We need strong control programs now. Substantial action on deer will cost, of course, but the government is obligated by its own legislation to resource pest control. So perhaps the most important recommendation from the inquiry is number 28: “That … the Government guarantee long-term recurrent funding for invasive animal control”. The emphasis there is on ‘long-term’, with the inquiry recognising that short-term pest management programs are inevitably ineffective.

Among other recommendations:

  • The Victorian Government should seek urgent federal funding for research into new techniques for controlling deer.
  • Recreational hunters should be encouraged to target female deer as well as stags.
  • Pest management should be strategically planned across all public and private land boundaries.
  • Cats should be listed as ‘pest animals’, removing current obstructions to their control.
  • The government should educate Victorians about the problems caused by pest animals.
  • The government should publicly report on the effectiveness of pest control programs each year.

They also sensibly recommended that pest management programs should be coordinated by a single government agency, but declined to recommend one. In the past that responsibility has fallen to the agricultural sector, leaving environmental management a very poor cousin. Public land pest management should surely remain with DELWP.

The final report (available on the Victorian Parliament’s website) is a fairly comprehensive document. Some issues, like the control of feral horses, were not dealt with at length, perhaps because the control of horses in the Alpine and Barmah national parks is currently being exhaustively planned by Parks Victoria.

The extent of pest animal invasions is, in most instances, growing. It might be time to invest in the growing suite of new research areas, such as genetic controls. The inquiry didn’t go there, but it should have. It seems unlikely that the techniques of last century, such as shooting, trapping and baiting, will by themselves bring lasting relief to our great natural heritage

VNPA are calling on the Victorian Government to urgently come up with a well-funded, strategic control and containment plan to deal with deer invasions across the state.