Wild deer will become Australia’s ‘next rabbit plague’ without a containment zone, experts say

Wild deer populations have increased tenfold over the past two decades, with their numbers now too high to be managed by recreational hunting or other recent control measures.

The number of invasive species is now so large in parts of the east coast that a new national strategy by the federal and state governments proposes establishing a “containment zone” to stop the spread of animals westward to across the country.

Environmental groups and some land managers say the plan is needed to suppress a species emerging as ‘the next rabbit plague’ and to prevent ‘wall-to-wall deer across the continent’.

“Deer plague has already invaded most natural areas on the east coast,” said Invasive Species Council chief executive Andrew Cox.

“Scientists now predict that without action wild deer will inhabit all habitats in all parts of Australia.”

Wild deer were introduced to Australia for hunting and farming. Over time, especially with the decline of the venison industry in the 1990s, deer have escaped, been released or moved for hunting.

Their numbers have exploded due to the failure of governments to control small populations. In 1980 there were around 50,000 deer in Australia. By 2022, the number is estimated at 1–2 million, and the range inhabited by wild deer has nearly doubled.

Although they have not caught the attention of other invasive species such as feral cats, their effect on vulnerable ecosystems is also destructive: they overgraze, trample vegetation, damage cultural sites, cause erosion and degrade water quality.

They also pose a threat to biosecurity as potential disease carriers and, together with large deer weighing over 200 kilograms, pose a major road safety risk.

“A few years ago when I spoke to the panel beater in Jindabyne, he said he now fixes more cars against deer than against kangaroos,” said Ted Rowley, a beef cattle farmer .

Rowley was the chairman of the National Wild Deer Task Force. He said in south-east New South Wales the deer problem had reduced the stocking rate on farms, especially in dry years. He said land managers spend tens of thousands of dollars a year just to manage deer populations.

“A lot of farmers and other land managers I work with see them as the next rabbit plague,” he said.

Under the draft strategy, released on Wednesday, large deer populations along the east coast that are already too large to eradicate would be controlled through measures such as aerial culling to keep their numbers at manageable levels.

A national “containment buffer zone” would be mapped to prevent the establishment of significant new populations in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria and to prevent populations in South Australia and eastern Tasmania from spread westward. The objective is to eradicate deer entering the buffer zone. Small wild deer populations beyond the containment zone would also be eradicated.

As a third measure, governments would develop – or re-evaluate – specific plans to reduce deer at important environmental and cultural sites, such as wetlands and Ramsar heritage sites.

Rowley said that for the national strategy to succeed, it would require the cooperation of all land managers.

Cox said this includes the state governments of Victoria and Tasmania, “where deer are still legally protected as game for hunters, reflecting an outdated and early colonial attitude towards this pest”.

New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT all recognize deer as a wild pest.

“Implementing this national plan is our best chance of avoiding wall-to-wall deer across the continent,” Cox said.

The plan is open for public consultation until March 20.

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