Around half of the UK’s growing deer population needs to be shot each year to stop devastation of woodlands and birdlife, a group of scientists says.
A study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management says this would keep numbers stable.
The deer population is currently estimated at around 1.5 million.
The researchers from the University of East Anglia suggest creating a venison market to make a cull ethically and economically acceptable.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) commented that any cull must be carried out in a humane and controlled way and be supported by “strong science”.
There are now more deer in the UK than at any time since the last Ice Age.
In the absence of natural predators deer populations are continuing to expand, threatening biodiversity and causing road traffic accidents and crop damage, say researchers.
Britain has a total of six deer species, four of which were introduced since Norman times. The most recent newcomer is the Chinese water deer, which became established in the wild in the 1920s.
Dr Paul Dolman, ecologist at the University of East Anglia and lead author, said: “We know deer are eating out the… vegetation of important woodlands, including ancient woodlands.
“Deer are implicated as the major cause of unfavourable conditions in terms of woodland structure and regeneration.
“There is evidence that deer reduce the number of woodland birds – especially some of our much loved migrant birds species like Blackcap and Nightingale, and resident species like Willow Tit. We have a problem.”
Dr Dolman led a census of roe and muntjac deer populations across 234 sq km (145mi) of woods and heathland in Breckland, East Anglia.
The researchers drove more than 1,140 miles at night using thermal imaging cameras to spot deer and provide an accurate estimate of their true numbers.
The results indicate that existing management strategies are failing. Although deer numbers appeared stable in the area, this was only because thousands of the animals were being pushed out into the surrounding countryside each year.
The new research suggested that only by killing 50% to 60% of deer can their numbers be kept under reasonable control.
Such a cull would be on a far greater scale than the 20% to 30% rates recommended previously.
With total deer numbers conservatively estimated at about 1.5 million, it could result in more than 750,000 animals being shot every year.
In a statement, the RSPCA said it was “opposed in principle to the killing or taking of all wild animals unless there is strong science to support it, or evidence that alternatives are not appropriate.
“Even if a cull is supported by science, it is very important that it is carried out in a humane and controlled way.
“Any decision to carry out a cull must be taken on a case by case basis based on the specific issues which impact a specific area. We don’t believe this should be rolled out in a uniform way across the whole country. It is certainly not a case of one size fits all.”
Dr Dolman said: “We are not killing something and then incinerating the carcass – what we are talking about is harvesting a wild animal to supply wild free-ranging venison for our tables – for farm shops, for gastro pubs.
“What we are advocating isn’t removing deer from the countryside – what we are advocating is trying to get on top of the deer population explosion and try to control the problems that are being caused.
“And in a way, [venison] provides a sustainable food source where you know where it comes from, you know it is ethically sourced, you know it is safe to eat, and that puts food on people’s tables. As much as I love deer, to be a meat eater but then to object to the culling and harvesting of deer seems to be inconsistent.”