Deer may look cute, but they are one of the biggest challenges facing woodland conservation. Whether nibbling at new tree shoots, bark stripping with their teeth or bucks rubbing their antlers on bark to mark territory ahead of the rut period, a deer herd can devastate woodlands to the extent that a wood’s very structure can come under threat.

The “Bambi effect” has such a strong hold over public consciousness that it is a restraint on an urgently needed cull of the national deer herd. If we are serious about regenerating and supporting our local woodlands as they struggle against drought and the growth in disease and pests, it is essential to reduce our local deer population and bring it under control.

Some native woodland insect species are endangered

Irrational anthropomorphism and hardline attitudes towards killing wild animals risk leading to the destruction of habitats of creatures that may not tug the heart strings. Moths, beetles and other bugs that are at the bottom of the food chain that supports most mammal and bird species and they depend on a diverse and thriving woodland. The woodland undergrowth that deer browse is a crucial habitat for small mammals. We should not discriminate between species based on their cuteness; we need to think about their ecological role.

Traditional deciduous woodland management involves coppicing, a form of tree pruning that brings light to the woodland floor and helps biodiversity. All woodland conservation groups practice some form of coppicing, under the advice of the Forestry Commission. Unless protected, deer will nibble the regrowth from coppice stools, leading to their destruction. They will also eat all tree shoots and leaves within reach as well as rubbing off bark with their antlers.

Bluebell woods are often lauded for their beauty, but they often indicate a serious deer problem. Deer do not eat bluebells which carry toxins, but munch their way through more important flora that is vital to woodland biodiversity. Such woodlands will also have evidence of rampant deer damage. The beautiful image of deer ambling through bluebells is a woodland conservationist’s nightmare!

Deer can devastate diverse ground flora that our insects rely on, leaving only bluebells

Protecting coppiced trees from deer browsing is time-consuming and expensive and not totally reliable against a determined muntjac – a non-native deer species that was imported from China to Woburn Park just a century ago and is now a major problem for woodlands across the UK. Muntjac do not rut, they have no breeding season. They can breed throughout the year and can conceive just days after giving birth. Ideally, they should be wiped out from the British countryside.

If we are serious about preserving, managing and extending our tree cover in a landscape that is largely denuded of forests, then we need to assume the role of the top predator that we wiped out – the wolf. We have to kill and eat deer to help our woodlands. Professional deer stalking will ensure that deer herds are contained in number and will actually improve animal health through selection.

Eating wild deer meat – venison – is not only good for woodland conservation, it is good for the overall environment. When locally sourced, there are very few food miles. The animals are free range and raised on organic food. You would be benefiting the environment. In contrast, your vegetarian favourites could be hugely harmful – commercial production of quinoa, avocado and soya have all contributed towards soil erosion, deforestation and destruction of traditional livelihoods. In contrast, sustainable and responsible management of our national deer herd could enhance the environment and provide rural jobs.

Venison also has a lot going for it health-wise. It has a higher protein content than any other red meat, which means it keeps you feeling fuller for longer. Protein is essential for muscle growth, good brain function and hormone production. Venison is relatively low in saturated fat due to the wild diet and lifestyle. It is rich in iron and B vitamins, which boost energy levels and help with the function of the brain and nervous system.

Compared to beef, venison is:

  • 45 per cent lower in calories
  • 60 per cent lower in cholesterol
  • 80 per cent lower in fat
  • 13 per cent higher in protein
  • 57 per cent higher in iron (a 115g portion will provide 40 per cent of recommended daily iron intake for a man and women over 50 and 18 per cent for women aged up to 50)
  • Equivalent in levels of B vitamins (a 115g portion will provide 37 per cent of the recommended daily allowance of niacin, 24 per cent of riboflavin and 15 per cent of thiamin)
  • Venison is naturally low in sodium, so it’s better for your heart than other red meats.

Venison deserves the mantle of superfood. Meat is on sale at Hatfield Forest, where a the National Trust has carried out a sustainable deer cull for many years.

The one main danger of promoting wild venison is that it could become too popular, prompting over-hunting and fuelling intensive farming of domesticated deer. As in the case of vegetarian and vegan food substitutes for meat such as soya and quinoa, capitalist consumerism takes a good thing and transforms it into something bad. Venison should only ever be seen as a by-product of sustainable management of our countryside and not be overwhelmed by the profit motive that is doing so much harm to our environment through over-exploitation.