NARACOORTE Town Hall supported about 300 forum attendees recently, all to listen and talk on the current feral deer culling policies.
Limestone Coast local Jack Nicholson organised the forum after gaining more than 8300 signatures on a petition to the government to change its position on eradicating the animal.
Last year, 4203 feral deer were removed through aerial culling with a further 1234 culled through private landholder culling operations reported to the Board and Conservation and Wildlife Management South Australia ground shoot operations.
It is estimated feral deer could cost primary producers in the region up to $242m within the next decade.
Within the Limestone Coast there is an estimated 24,000 feral deer with one red stag reducing a farm’s grazing capacity by 3.6 sheep.
According to an independent economic analysis by BDO EconSearch, in the 2021-2022 financial year feral deer cost South Australian agricultural industries an estimated $36m in productivity losses with the greatest impacts in the Limestone Coast, Northern and Yorke, and Hills and Fleurieu regions.
Mr Nicholson said overall the event was a success and was well supported by the community.
“We hosted a free barbeque to provide a positive social experience prior to the meeting which was run by the South East Branch of the Australian Deer Association,” Mr Nicholson said.
“There were hundreds of people on the footpath enjoying that which was really good.”
He said it was the number of signatures on the petition which was the turning point for him and prompted him to organise the forum.
“I thought it was no longer just my personal opinion and I have gotten big support from the community and there is a large amount of the community which is also concerned,” Mr Nicholson said.
“I thought it would be good to try and advocate for those people and have their concerns raised.
“I have shared some stuff on social media as well as meeting government bodies and sharing our opinions and then I thought a forum would be another good step in the process to let people share their experiences and concerns in a public forum.”
He said one of the main discussions was about the “significant detrimental flow on effect” from the deer eradication program onto the deer farming industry.
“That needs to be recognised in the future as a legitimate industry and there were a number of deer farmers there with a number of them being pushed out of the industry or doubting their future which is sad because it is a legitimate farming enterprise,” Mr Nicholson said.
“I am an avid hunter and it is a way for me to expose my family to the native environment as we go out bush, we go camping and it is a great way to educate my kids on the Australian flora and fauna.
“At the same time we shoot deer as a way to provide meat which is free range, organic and antibiotic free and comes at zero cost, it offers a positive conservation element to an Australian bush and is a good way to socialise with family and friends.”
He said he believed land owners and managers rights should be respected as in all other circumstances and that landowners should have the “right to choose” the appropriate pest control methods on their property.
“We obviously always need to take into consideration neighbours but the participation in the aerial culling should be optional and that gets back to land owners choice,” Mr Nicholson said.
“I am not against the use of aerial culling as a tool to maintain or control the numbers in the future but it needs to be one of many methods that is used.
“There are definitely more resourceful and humane ways which could be used or built on in the future to make sure it is done better.”
Limestone Coast deer farmer Jeff Varcoe also attended the forum stating he was amazed at the number of people attending.
“There was nobody there that was not passionately interested and I was amazed at the amount of people there and the commitment of the people who were there,” Mr Varcoe said.
“I breed deers and I think the less feral deer there are out there the better.
“We all bonded on the extreme draconian measures taken out by the landscape board and I do not think anyone could have ever possibly expected that something like this could happen in South Australia and totally destroy most or a lot of the environment financially and mentally.”
Growing up, Mr Varcoe said he was always interested in deer and it was often seen as a positive selling point for properties.
“I think deer culling has become a political thing and it would be very easy to control the deer to a situation where they were only on properties where people wanted them to be and there were no deer where people did not want them to be,” he said.
“Deer are very territorial, if you were to leave a gate open they would not get out unless they were hunted or hungry and we spent hours trying to get them out of the paddock to get them tagged.”
Mr Varcoe said it was easy for deer farmers to distinguish between commercial and feral deer due to their size and behaviour.
“One of the problems with the current policy is that it shifts the deer around into different areas and the method of killing the deer and chasing them in a helicopter and shooting them with shotguns is probably the most abhorrent act of cruelty you could imagine,” he said.
“I do not know whether you would overlook cruelty because they are a pest but I would think kangaroo shooters were liable to shoot the kangaroos in the most humane way possible.”
Limestone Coast Landscape Board general manager Steve Bourne said the community was “at a point” where it needed to choose between “having vibrant and productive primary industries” with “healthy natural bushland” or allow “ever-increasing populations” of feral deer to degrade the environment or erode the profits of primary producers.
“The Limestone Coast Landscape Board Feral Deer Eradication Program takes an integrated approach to pest control,” Mr Bourne said.
“The program includes aerial and ground shooting operations, monitoring, community and stakeholder engagement, compliance and where necessary enforcement.
“It is free to join and helps landholders to meet their responsibilities to destroy all feral deer on their property under the Act.”
Mr Bourne said it was a coordinated effort between landholders, primary producers, community, Primary Industries Regional South Australia, the Department of Environment and Water and the Limestone Coast Landscape Board.
It aimed to “reduce the impact of feral deer on the region’s primary production” bottom line and environment and supplements landholder’s own feral deer control efforts.
“Landholders across the Limestone Coast are invited to sign up their properties
to be included in the program,” Mr Bourne said.
“Alternatively, landholders can choose to undertake their own program of feral deer removal, ensuring that all feral deer are eradicated, as per the legal requirements.
“Property owners and neighbouring landholders are then notified of any upcoming shoot operations and are advised to inform any staff, tenants, or visitors to their properties of the aerial shooting operations.”
He said aerial shooting was an “effective and efficient technique” which could be used across a variety of habitats such as heavily vegetated, inaccessible areas.
“Aerial shooting allows us to cull feral deer in large numbers in a short timeframe and can remove feral deer missed by other control programs such as ground shooting,” he said.
“The thermal assisted aerial culling technique is used where appropriate.”
He said “enforcing compliance” on any landholder was a “very serious matter” which the landscape board “does not take lightly”.
“It is used where it is clear a landholder’s plan is not adequate to meet their obligation to eradicate all feral deer from the property, and the landholder has repeatedly failed to meet their obligations under the Act,” Mr Bourne said.
“Some landholders wish to retain a population in the landscape which does not meet the requirements of the Landscape SA Act.”
He said by eradicating the population of feral deer it would then support the Limestone Coast forestry with the damage feral deer cause to forestry was “significant”.
“By removing feral deer from the landscape, primary producers will be able to run extra livestock, germinate and grow healthy and productive crops and eliminate damage to young forestry plantations,” Mr Bourne said.
“By removing feral deer from the landscape, native plants, including ground orchids, and native wildlife such as the vulnerable Malleefowl, can flourish in the Limestone Coast.
Minister for Primary Industries Clare Scriven said the eradication program had a strategic plan which outlined the “goals, actions and control tools” required for the eradication of feral deer.
“Eradication refers to effective eradication, where the state-wide population is stable or decreasing and numbers less than 1,000 feral deer,” Ms Scriven said.
“At that level, feral deer populations can be supressed by farmers, public land managers and recreational hunters.
“Over the last 10 years, thousands of feral deer have been removed by professional shooters working in collaboration with the relevant government agencies.”
She said even so, the removal of such numbers of feral deer was “not enough to exceed the numbers of feral deer” born each year.
“With about 40,000 feral deer in South Australia, a total of almost 14,000 feral deer needs to be removed each year by recreational and professional hunters to reduce deer numbers,” she said.
“Ground-based shooting is not nearly sufficient to achieve that number”.
The Limestone Coast Landscape Board has undertaken aerial culling on 202 properties and 80 forest reserves and National Parks all with the approval of the land managers.
Where land managers were not meeting their obligations to destroy feral deer, the Landscape Board is then able to issue an order requiring the landholder to do so or the board can take measures to destroy the deer.