As wild deer numbers soar to more than one million across Victoria, will new food safety regulations that allow the species to be harvested for human consumption be a game changer?
The new regulations came after wild deer was listed as a game meat earlier this year, in an attempt to manage rapidly growing populations in the State.
But industry groups and farmers believe it is not enough to tackle the issue, and are calling on the Victorian Government to do more.
The attention on pest control comes amid a Senate inquiry into the impact of feral deer, pigs and goats in Australia.
At a hearing in Melbourne last Thursday, Victorian Farmers Federation land management committee chair Gerald Leach said as well as putting grazing pressure on producers, the biggest threat from deer was to biosecurity, as they carried a large number of diseases which can affect commercial livestock.
Mr Leach said a lack of funding and resources had exacerbated the problem.
“Deer are in a different category in that they were a partly protected species at one stage, for whatever reason; we still struggle to understand that,” he said.
While this status had now changed, he said it was like “closing the door after the horse has bolted”.
“Their populations have now increased to such enormous levels that it wouldn’t matter what you classified them as,” he said.
He said research was required to understand the damage deer can do to the country’s biosecurity status and also into the method of control.
“I don't expect research to come up with a solution in terms of eradication, but it may be that there is a big chance of research being able to be conducted into better controlling the populations of those species,” he said.
Mr Leach said recent changes to the classification of deer as game was more suited to hunters than producers.
And he doubted whether the requirements of both parties were compatible.
“What land managers require is a significant culling, whereas my understanding is that the recreational hunters see it more as a game,” he said.
But Wild Game Resources Australia (WGRA) business development manager Brett Conibear said the changes had created a world of opportunities for Victorian landholders to control numbers and make an income from what was a hindrance to their farming operations.
WGRA has recently established a network of Victorian deer harvesters, approved by food safety regulator PrimeSafe, to work with landholders to cull populations on properties.
The harvesters must hold a certificate to prove game harvest skills, show evidence of shooting proficiency, and possess a licenced game meat harvester vehicle.
Under the model, landholders will be paid a per kilogram price for all deer harvested on their property.
The base rate for farmers is 25 cents a kilogram, with an introductory offer at double that price until the end of the year.
“We harvested one night in Tallangatta Valley, and we shot 2095kg between two shooters, so the landholder got $1045 for the night; they were wrapped,” he said.
On a standard night, he said a landholder would make between $500 and $1000.
“Farmers are getting a problem removed, and they're also getting paid for the privilege of having our shooters come on,” he said.
And Mansfield hunter Shawnti Coolahan agreed, saying culling to just leave dead animals in paddocks was inefficient.
“You wouldn’t go out and cull your cattle and just leave them lay, you’d try and salvage them as best you could,” Ms Coolahan said.
She said there were thousands of hunters culling deer, and this provided further incentive.
But prior to this, deer were already being culled at record levels.
In 2017, hunters killed more than 100,000 deer in Victoria for the first time in history.
It was estimated that 106,275 deer were shot by approximately 37,000 hunters.
This number surpassed the previous record of 97,776 deer killed in 2016.
Invasive Species Council chief executive Andrew Cox said such large numbers had been culled because large numbers existed.
Mr Cox estimated that about half of Victoria was covered by four species of deer, the sambar, fallow, red and hog.
Gippsland and the North-East were where these populations were most rampant.
“And the threat is growing,” he said.
He said it was urgent more was done to lessen the impact.
“The government are still treating deer as a protected species and not adopting a pest management approach that applies to other feral animals,” he said.
He recommended conducting more research into effective control tools, for example, detection, application of bait, and aerial shooting.
He also suggested the implementation of more professional-led control programs.
A heavy reliance on recreational hunting was not a solution, he said.
“It may even exacerbate the problem in some places, as it provides a financial incentive to have a high number of deer around,” he said.
He said deer should be classified as pests, rather than game, to eliminate some hunting restrictions.
But Ken and Mary Lang, Healesville, who run their own free-range deer farm, Yarra Valley Game Meats, say if deer become classified as pests, it would mean they were farming pests, and their operation would be shut down.
While deer farming is not as strong as it was 20 years ago, it was still a “substantial” industry, and Mr Lang said a classification change would end it.
They run 150 fallow deer, 60 red deer and 20 sambar deer, and have been supplying the local restaurant trade and food service area for the last 34 years, with deer processed through a licensed abattoir.
In the meantime, Victorian producers are suffering with high deer populations.
Corryong farmer Doug Paton said he can often see up to 40 deer in the one spot on his property.
Deer have ruined his fences and waterways, and eaten limited pasture that he had struggled to grow, and he was calling on the government to take more ownership.