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The protected pest: deer in Australia

Deer are arguably the most charismatic of Australia’s invasive species. Long considered a welcome addition to the Australian environment, primarily as a highly valued hunting resource, deer populations…

Fair game: Is the deer a pest or good hunting? black_lava/Flickr

Deer are arguably the most charismatic of Australia’s invasive species. Long considered a welcome addition to the Australian environment, primarily as a highly valued hunting resource, deer populations have flourished under legislation providing for their protection. However, perceptions are changing, and deer are now recognised as among Australia’s greatest pest threats.

Like rabbits and foxes, all six deer species with recognised wild populations (Fallow, Red, Sambar, Rusa, Hog, Chital) were released into Australia for aesthetic and recreational hunting purposes during the 19th century. In recent decades their populations and distributions have increased dramatically, in some cases due to natural population expansion, and in others through human agency.

Many individuals were released or escaped into the wild following the commercial rise and collapse of deer farms between the 1970s and 1990s. This period also coincided with an increase in hunters deliberately and illegally releasing them into “deer free” areas (especially Fallow, Red, Chital). Together, these activities are considered responsible for over 90% of current deer populations in Australia.

Feral populations are now scattered throughout all states and territories, particularly in south-eastern Australia, where there are few areas unoccupied by deer. Bioclimatic modelling suggests that all deer species currently occupy a fraction of their potential distribution in Australia and have great capacity to expand, especially into northern Australia.

Deer are among the least studied mammal species in Australia and our understanding of their ecology in the Australian environment is in its infancy (only two papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals during the 20th century).

Several more recent studies have been conducted, including the first investigations of ecological impacts of deer. Evidence is revealing that some native plant species and ecological communities are being seriously damaged, primarily by browsing/grazing and antler rubbing. In the worst cases deer are altering the structure and composition of vegetation communities and disrupting ecological processes (especially in rainforest).

Additional impacts of deer include:

  • facilitating access for introduced predators by creating paths in dense vegetation
  • maintaining elevated populations of wild dogs (which feed on carcases dumped by hunters)
  • competing with native herbivores
  • causing erosion, which affects water quality
  • trampling sensitive areas (such as alpine bogs, mossbeds, wetlands)
  • spreading weeds
  • hindering revegetation efforts
  • potentially spreading pathogens affecting agriculture (such as foot and mouth disease) and human health (including Leptospirosis and Cryptosporidium).

Early evidence suggests that deer are causing serious damage to native plant species and ecological communities. Tim Williams/Flickr

Deer also consume and damage agricultural and horticultural crops, consume stock feed (silage/hay), compete with livestock, damage fences and are known to kill and injure livestock (directly – stags with their antlers, and indirectly – by spooking).

Farmers are frustrated by deer, especially when control efforts are limited and illegal hunting is rampant (livestock shot and spooked at night, fences cut, trespassing). Some farmers are shooting up to 100 deer per year. Deer are increasingly a nuisance in urban areas, damaging gardens and causing road accidents.

Very little is being done to manage the abundance of deer and their environmental impacts. The main management option used, albeit rarely and patchily, is targeted shooting. Recreational hunting does not provide population regulation and only marginally reduces the rate of population increase. This is despite an estimated legal harvest of 41,000 deer - including 34,000 Sambar - in Victoria in 2011.

Another option is deer exclusion fencing, which has been erected around some populations of threatened plant species.

However effective control measures don’t exist on the scale warranted (especially in forests), which is concerning when ecological and agricultural impacts of deer continue to increase.

Despite the serious effects of deer in Australia, the legislation and management of these introduced species is highly inconsistent across the continent. Some states and territories consider feral deer to be pests (WA, SA, QLD, NT, ACT). But states with the largest deer populations (VIC, NSW, TAS) give deer full or partial protection status and manage deer primarily for recreational hunting. This is in spite of recognition under environmental legislation that “deer” and “Sambar” are threatening processes to biodiversity in NSW and Victorian jurisdictions, respectively.

These states require hunters to possess game hunting licences and impose various restrictions and regulations(such as bag limits, seasons, spotlighting bans), while farmers must obtain destruction permits to cull deer. These impediments to appropriate management of deer stem from the pressure of vocal hunting organisations that advocate for deer conservation and increased hunting opportunity.

Effectively, the three south-eastern state governments hold that the desire of some citizens to shoot deer on public land for sport is of greater value than the conservation of our natural heritage and the burden imposed by deer on farmers.

Maintaining deer as protected is a major hurdle preventing the implementation of effective control measures in the parts of Australia where these measures are most needed.

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14 Comments sorted by

  1. Sebastian Poeckes


    Well, what else would you expect from the current Victorian government. Their environmental credentials are non-existent. They have also pandered to the hunting lobby in much the same ways as the government of NSW. How about letting the CSIRO develop a readily communicable disease to really thin the deer out like myxomatosis did to rabbits? This should be something the current government refers and funds before it is replaced in September.

  2. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    Are governments not acting because the required investment would be too dear and they don't have the dough? Or are they just passing the buck?

    1. Luke Weston

      Physicist / electronic engineer

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      It's too deer and they don't have the doe. But maybe they are just passing the buck.

  3. Les McNamara


    If "effective control measures don’t exist on the scale warranted", then it isn't surprising (or bad) that very little is being done to manage abundance. Until there is an effective control measure, consistent legislation probably won't help much either, except perhaps to begin to change the public mindset.

    Research to identify an effective control method might be the first step? But do we need to rely on Australian research, or can we learn from others who've tackled similar problems - New Zealand for example?

    Another step towards better management of deer, especially in high profile places like Royal National Park, would be to convince the public that feral deer aren't so charismatic after all. That takes time. Untruths about the conservation benefits of recreational hunting emanating from government don't help.

  4. Barry Traill

    Director, Outback to Oceans Program, at Pew Environment Group

    Timely piece Rohan, In a couple of decades Sambar have gone from rare and restricted in my home country in Gippsland to widespread and in places abundant. They are very destructive. A public and government mindset needs to change to avoid and restrict further damage. Allowing legal systematic shooting by landowners year wide, and using basic techniques such as spotlighting, rather than just 'sporting' methods like stalking.will be a good start.

  5. Chris Owens


    I'm with Seb. The vampires are in charge of the blood bank in Victoria. Its a question of what will be left when they are thrown out of power at the next election.

    Aside from the issues listed in Rohan's article, my concern is the change in the vegetation composition due to selective browsing. At my bush block which is primarily mountain ash forest, deer remove all young or low growing silver wattle - Acacia dealbata and Victorian Christmas bush - Prostanthera lasianthos. I have caught deer on motion activated cameras at these plants. Silver wattle in particular are an important food plant for mountain brushtail possums and sugar gliders. Many of the old silver wattle trees are senescing and attempts to replace them have provide futile even with 1.5M high heavy wire guards. At home with 3 resident black wallabies, I see minimal browsing on either species.

  6. Mike Stevens

    Conservationist (land manager) - private comments, own views

    Regarding scale, things can be done and case studies do exist that we can learn from especially in NZ and Scotland.

    Here is a brilliant 5 part doco on the history of NZ's deer program that is worth a watch and highlights large-scale approaches...some OHS issues obviously.

    Scotland as a case study highlights that even with conflict between sporting and environmental interests, at a finer-scale in high priority conservation areas deer can be reduced with no impact to sporting opportunities.

    Although it was publicly contentious, two Scottish examples include Glenfeshie Estate and Forestry Commission of Scotland at Glenmore Forest$file/HIFFGlenmorerestorationJune2010.pdf

    Hopefully of interest to the readers.

  7. Daryl Panther

    Verabrate Pest Animal Controller at Victorian Wildlife Management

    The problem with deer becomming a pest animal started shortly after commercial deer farming commenced and the requirements to be licenced was dropped by the then government department. From that day forward there has been no control or management other than the introduction of the increase of hunting seasons and that in itself has proven to be only a short term fix with the problem now escalating in some areas. Being a deer minded person I have submitted many management plans involving contolling of deer to government departments over the past 25 years but without reply. I put this down to lack of resources both people and money or the fact the no one has been game enough to risk doing something different or upsetting a group or two.
    Deer are like all other species of animals both native and exotic here in Australia if managed there is room for all, if not they will become a problem.

  8. Pat OBrien


    Here we go again, we've got all these terrible feral animals, that do all this damage, and the only answer we have is to brutally and cruelly shoot them. What happened to the clever country? Cant we do better than this?

  9. Euan Moore


    The NZ experience is definitely relevant. Large herds of deer devestated mountain areas, creating muddy 'stockyards' where deer congregated and eating out the undergrowth to the extent where forest understory ceased to exist. Major impacts included severe erosion and almost zero forest regeneration. Most of the more palatable plants became restricted to cliff faces where the deer could not reach them.

    Introduced deer are a major pest species and must be treated as such in all environments where…

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  10. wilma western

    logged in via email

    Hear hear Sebastian . And I couldn't believe the irresponsibility of deer farmers who just released their stock to be a traffic hazard , a nuisance to other farmers and an environmental pest, when they couldn't find an abattoir to slaughter them and the market for breeding stock disappeared.

    And what about brumbies? Another charismatic environmental pest especially in Alpine areas.

    Politically impossible however to adopt the NZ solution for either ,I would guess.

  11. David John McDonald

    logged in via Facebook

    Gents and Ladies, sad to see that deer breeding and propogation has come to this in Australia. During the 1980's my company trapped, stabilised, and exported many 1,000's of head of live deer to SE Asia by airfreight (males for live harvesting of their antler velvet). We are proud that we never lost an animal from farm gate to quarantine in the destination countries, due to the quality of people husbandry we had involved with us throughout the supply chain, and no harm came to any of our animals…

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