Fair game on feral deer 

Published: August 2018  | Edited by Joanna Webber

Why should feral deer be protected for recreational game if “hunters aren’t carrying any of the risk”, asks Cooma farmer Craig Mitchell.

"People need to understand the ramifications of wild, migrating deer. Like sheep and cattle, deer spread foot-and-mouth disease."
PEOPLE can get funny ideas about what is the right thing and what’s the wrong thing to do on the land. Take the hunting lobby, for example. 

My wife Susan and I live on a property east of Cooma [in the NSW South East] where we run 7,000 Merino sheep. I also spend a couple of days a week helping to manage a family enterprise at Bombala where we run 50,000 dry sheep equivalents. 

I am a great believer in the need for NSW Farmers. They’re like a local bushfire service but in the political arena. They are forever putting out political spot fires. I don’t have a lot of free time, so I sit on just the Association’s Conservation and Resource Management Committee, where I’ve been given the job of pest animals, including feral deer. 

Our farm shares a long boundary with a national park and state forest, so it is exposed to biosecurity and grazing risks due to migrating animals. Pest animals are a subject matter close to my heart. 
 
*Read more on the environmental ramifications and economic impact of European carp, in our feature: “Herpes virus to solve carp problem”.  

Currently, the hunting lobby is applying growing pressure to keep deer in a special category for recreational hunting purposes. But people need to understand the ramifications of wild, migrating deer. Like sheep and cattle, deer spread foot-and-mouth disease.

According to the Department of Primary Industries, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Australia would cost $50 billion over a decade. That’s a lot of money and the majority of the cost would fall on government and landholders. A foot-and-mouth disease outbreak would be extremely detrimental to Australian agriculture and to the country’s economy. So, what can we do to reduce the risk?

The idea that hunters and shooters want deer protected for game hunting simply defies belief. They’re wanting people to run deer on their properties or on public land, so they can hunt them, but they’re not willing to pay the price.

One fallow deer eats approximately one-and-a-half times as much as a dry, or non-breeding, sheep. This year, that sheep will produce about $100 worth of wool on my farm. So, each deer costs me $150 as a farmer. Yet the hunting lobby is not offering to pay land managers anything at all to run all these wild deer.

There’s no doubt deer populations have been allowed to flourish under legislation providing their protection. There are great swathes of national parkland up the eastern side of Australia that are full of deer. Out the back of Jindabyne and Thredbo they’ve shot 1,600 in the past 12 months. Sadly, it hasn’t made even the slightest dent on their population.

I have not seen deer on my property yet, but I’ve seen them in the vicinity, so I know they are here. I don’t believe hunters will see them either, not until they reach plague proportions, and that’s when they would become a huge problem for me and for the country.
 

Craig Mitchell on his sheep property, near Cooma, South East NSW. 

“Hunters are not carrying any of the risk. It’s just their recreation, not their livelihood. If foot-and-mouth disease were to strike, they would just ‘go off to the footy’ leaving farmers holding the can.” 

“Hunters are not carrying any of the risk. It’s just their recreation, not their livelihood. If foot-and-mouth disease were to strike, they would just ‘go off to the footy’ leaving farmers holding the can.”

Game hunting has done little as far as controlling pest animals is concerned. You just have to look at what’s happened with foxes and rabbits, both of which were introduced into Australia as a highly valued hunting resource, along with several species of deer. 

In recent years, deer populations and distributions have also increased dramatically. According to the Invasive Species Council, their numbers soared by more than 60% between 2009 and 2016. Deer already pose a threat to native plant species and, if the hunting lobby continues to have its way, their capacity to expand is enormous. 

In this area, at great cost, land managers are putting in miles and miles of containment fences. If electric fencing stops the migration of unwanted animals, then farmers have some control over what’s grazing on their land.
 
*Read our environment feature on fourth generation Bourke grazier, Phillip Ridge who plans to reduce grazing pressures and increase pest management with 100kms of exclusion fence
 
In NSW, hunters pay for a licence to shoot deer and will continue to do so if deer remain in this special category for recreational hunting. As you’d expect, the deer are getting wise about how to avoid being shot, so putting up containment fences may be the only solution.

I have spent 30 years breeding Merino sheep. The wool is getting finer and finer and I’m proud of my animals, but if foot-and-mouth disease happened here, they would all be shot and end up in a pit.

Hunters are not carrying any of this risk. It’s just their recreation, not their livelihood. If foot-and-mouth disease were to strike, they would just ‘go off to the footy’ leaving farmers holding the can. They wouldn’t lose a thing whereas I would be ruined. 
 
FAST FACTS: DEER IN AUSTRALIA

Deer were introduced in the 19th century from Europe and Asia as game animals by European settlers.

Australia is now home to six species – fallow, red, chital, hog, rusa and sambar.

In 1995, only four populations of red deer were known in Australia. By 2007, 65 populations were identified.

Their preferred food is grass, but they also eat leaves, bark and some fruit.

As hoofed mammals, deer can act as carriers of disease that affect cattle and horses. 

They also contribute to erosion and spread of weeds. Saplings are commonly destroyed by deer as they rub against them.
Source: Federal Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

*These are Craig’s personal views. If you would like to be ‘On my soapbox’ in a future issue of The Farmer, email: thefarmer mediumrarecontent.com or write to: The Farmer, Suite 53/26-32 Pirrama Rd, Pyrmont, NSW 2009. If your topic is chosen, a journalist will be in touch.
*READ ‘My Soapbox’: Moree farmer Oscar Pearse, “Putting a price 
on conservation” and Sonia O’Keefe’s experiences of, “Living in a mobile blackspot”. 
 
*READ ‘My Soapbox’: Moree farmer Oscar Pearse, “Putting a price 
on conservation” and Sonia O’Keefe’s experiences of, “Living in a mobile blackspot”. 

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