From suburban yards to inner-city streets and even at a Bunnings Hardware store, wild deer sightings are increasing across Australia as surging feral population numbers spread across the country.
While they might remind you of Santa’s reindeer, deer are an invasive species causing widespread destruction and environmental damage.
Australia’s first ever national deer management coordinator, Dr Annelise Wiebkin, has been charged with tackling what she describes as one of Australia’s worst emerging pest animal problems.
“Deer are not native to Australia. They eat and destroy native trees. For primary production, they damage fences and eat crops," she said.
"They’re a biosecurity risk. They do a lot of damage to habitats recovering from bushfires. Road safety is a big one, they become a road hazard in high traffic areas.”
She said their impact on the environment, primary production and communities is getting worse.
“In the 90s there was a lot of deer farming but when these operations were not feasible anymore, the deer escaped or were released. In the last two to three decades they have been spreading quite quickly and don’t look like they are stopping,” she warned.
“One of the things they like is vegetable gardens and roses. They’re attracted to parks, ovals, anywhere they can graze. The problem when they get into suburbia is how to control them.”
The buck stops at Bunnings: Wild deer infiltrating suburban Australia
Earlier this month, a deer stunned shoppers at a Bunnings hardware store in Rockhampton, Central Queensland.
It crashed into a stack of trolleys, hit a glass door and ran back in the opposite direction.
Rockhampton resident Marelyn Barr said it was the closest she’s been to seeing one in the wild.
“I was so surprised to look up and see a deer running through the front foyer of Bunnings,” Ms Barr said.
“I had to look at the reaction of the others to confirm I was seeing what everyone else was seeing. It must have been so frightened all by itself in unfamiliar surroundings without the rest of the herd.
“He had an amazing set of antlers.”
That same day in suburban Rockhampton, a deer was seen galloping around businesses and properties in Kawana and Norman Gardens. It’s unclear if it was the same animal.
A deer was spotted running through the streets of Fitzroy, not far from the Melbourne CBD, during the city’s June lockdown. It follows a sighting in Sydney last October when two deer roamed through streets in the inner Sydney suburbs of Leichhardt, Balmain and Annandale.
Wollongong among the most deer-affected urban areas
Feral deer were front-page news last month after they startled two nude sunbathers at Otford, south of Sydney in the Royal National Park.
The men became lost in the surrounding bushland, sparking a rescue operation that ended with fines for breaching COVID-19 public health orders.
In 2019, it was the deer who needed rescuing after a pair wandered down to the shore at Wollongong Harbour and were washed into the ocean.
Feral deer are a common sight across Wollongong in NSW, where car collisions, near misses and damage to residential property are common occurrences.
In 2018, the Invasive Species Council named Helensburgh and Otford, on Wollongong's northern fringe, as the most dangerous suburbs in NSW when it comes to feral deer. The suburbs recorded the most major collisions between motorists and feral deer over 13 years, with one fatality in 2012.
Wollongong Regional Council has even declared between May and August to be “Deer Season”, as the stags move from the escarpment into urban areas to compete for herd and territorial dominance.
What is the solution to Australia’s feral deer problem?
Dr Wiebkin and her team are currently developing a national feral deer action plan to tackle deer problems across Australia.
She says there are a number of challenges to managing feral deer in Australia, but it is possible.
“Raising awareness is important, we need to contain the deer otherwise they will just keep spreading,” she said.
“The main tools we have is to shoot or trap them. Trapping is becoming a more commonly used tool in suburbia. But we should try to prevent them from getting to suburbia in the first place. We need to encourage eradication of pockets of deer in isolated areas so they don’t spread to suburbia.”
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