Alarm at “devastating” Yarra deer

Experts are concerned that a growing population of deer along the Yarra River are destroying the environment and polluting the area. Isabella Pellegrino reports.

Rising deer populations are becoming a “devastating and rapidly worsening” issue along the Yarra River with no solutions in sight, according to a leading environmentalist.

Experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of deer are roaming wild along the environmentally sensitive Yarra River banks, competing with native animals and destroying native endangered flora.

Andrew Cox, Chief Executive Officer of the Invasive Species Council, said: “We should’ve done something about deer years ago.”

Deer destroy riverbanks and native plants because “nothing in the native environment … has that hard hoof impact,” added Barry Howlett, spokesperson for the Australian Deer Association (ADA).

The most commonly found Sambar species can reach heights of 130 cm at the shoulder and can weigh up to 230 kg.

Mr Howlett said male deer urinate and lay in muddy water along river banks and creeks, spreading disease and affecting the river’s water quality.

Warren Tomlinson, Waterways and Land Officer at Melbourne Water, said this impact will “increase over time as the populations increase, especially if it’s not something that’s managed”.

He also said that “grazing will impact native fauna through removal of understory habitat”, home to marsupial mice and other rodents, increasing their chances of being preyed on by other animals and reducing food sources.

Graeme Lorimer, president of the Indigenous Flora and Fauna Association, said deer rub against trees such as silver wattles to remove the itchy velvet covering their antlers, which is “killing quite a lot of trees”.

He said this damage causes him the “greatest concern”, particularly for the destruction of the “extremely rare” Shiny Nematolepis tree.

Only two patches of the native species remain in existence in the O’Shannassy catchment, after they were almost made extinct by the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009.

Mr Lorimer said deer favour trees that give off a scent from being rubbed, making the Shiny Nematolepis, a member of the citrus family, a prime target.

As seedlings are reachingmaturity or before they can get to two metres high, “they get thrashed by antlers”, while the larger ones are getting “completely ringbarked” and dying.

Although this is happening to more common species as well, Mr Lorimer said that “if you kill enough of them, it changes the structure of the vegetation and that’s a real problem.”

Mr Lorimer said: “They’re really causing huge losses of some rare plant species… and they are absolutely out of control because they have no method effectively controlling them.”

According to Manningham Council, deer have been sighted in Templestowe, Bulleen and other suburbs lining the Yarra River with nothing but recreational hunting in place to control growing populations.

David Harris, a recreational hunter with over 30 years’ experience, said the difficulty in culling the nocturnal animal is that “they’re very, very private, very elusive and very hard to catch”.

“They’ve got very good smell, hearing and sight,” Mr Harris said. “I’ve seen them jump over six foot fences like you and me jump over a coffee table.”

Introduced to Victoria in the 1860s by Europeans, settlers used deer as a game animal and left them to breed, resulting in unmanaged populations widespread throughout Victoria.

Deer are protected as game under the Wildlife Act and can be hunted throughout the year, but the lack of major management strategies to reduce feral populations means they are only increasing.

Mr Lorimer said: “The rate of breeding and the rate of spreading… indicates that no amount of shooting is going to overcome this problem.”

According to Manningham Council, the State Government has begun planning for a deer management strategy for Victoria but it will not be completed until June 2018.

A parliamentary inquiry into deer hunting on Crown Land is also underway.

“People are demanding action [and] we need a government response to that,” Mr Cox said.

He said: “There’s no program. What’s needed is research. There’s pretty strong evidence of why you need to act.”

“We want to stop their damage and the best way to do that is [with] a containment strategy to stop them getting into new areas.”

The Invasive Species Council has suggested that the solution lies in government classifying deer as a feral pest, which then “compels everyone to work towards lowering the numbers”.

When asked whether the ADA would agree, Mr Howlett said: there was “no value in doing that”.

Mr Howlett said the removal of the game status would end access to licensing, data and control over 32,000 deer hunters.