The German countryside is being overrun with deer who disrupt biodiversity in forests by eating young trees, environmentalists say. And hunters are only making the problem worse, they argue.
Germany is being overrun with deer, or so environmentalists say, and the problem is ... the deer hunters. This odd paradox is down to hunters' habit of keeping deer populations artificially high, disrupting the natural balances and biodiversity in the forests.
Many privately owned hunting grounds in Germany have gamekeepers whose actions are almost impossible to monitor. However, some environmentalists suspect that the gamekeepers are feeding wild animals and even providing protein-rich feed so that the antlers of male deer grow extra large and make for better trophies.
"With the current hunting methods, it's not about hunting out the worst animals, but the ones with the most beautiful antlers," said Eick von Ruschkowski, head of the environmental policy unit at the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU). "And, if the alpha animals are always being shot out of the herds, that increases the rate of reproduction and leads to higher populations than if it were a natural balance."
The problem with this marauding deer population is that it becomes a scourge for the forest. Deer go out in spring and eat young trees, pulling out shoots, eating the delicate leaves of young beech or oak, causing them to stunt at bush height. All this disrupts the biodiversity of the forest.
None of this is helped by the fact that deer have virtually no natural predators remaining in Germany - nor by the farms that provide a surfeit of food. Magnus Wessel, head of the nature conservation policy unit at BUND, the German branch of the multinational environmentalist group Friends of the Earth, believes that the problem has been around for many years. "Many predators have become extinct - wolves only returned to Germany in the '90s, bears haven't existed for a long time, the lynx is still there, but only in very small populations," he told DW. "At the same time, agriculture and newly planted forests offer a lot of food for deer - that has led over time to a very large population, and in some places represents a danger for biodiversity and for forestry."
This all sounds like nonsense to Anna Martinsohn, spokeswomen for the German hunting association DJV. She is not even sure how BUND and NABU could possibly know that there are too many deer in Germany. "There are hunting grounds all over Germany, and if you want to realistically estimate which wild animals appear where, the hunters are the people you should ask," she told DW. "NABU and BUND certainly have a lot of members, but they sit in the cities and want nature to be sound. That isn't active protection of the environment, if you ask me."
Environmental organizations claim that hunting laws in Germany are outdated and allow hunters to have too much influence on nature. In general, they want hunting rights and laws to be altered to take into account a more modern understanding of biodiversity.
For instance, they would like to see a ban on all trap hunting because it inevitably kills animals indiscriminately, and trophy hunting that does not use the meat. BUND has also called for more data to be collected on "game bite," or the effect that deer and wild boar have on trees and plants.
"The lobby influence of hunters is very big, and changes are very slow," Wessel said. "But it is possible and necessary to have a constructive dialogue with the hunters because, if you talk to individual hunters, there are people who share our positions. But it's a very tough discussion because they always have this fear that any change to the law will lead to a hunting ban - but that isn't BUND's position."
The DJV's Martinsohn insists that BUND's understanding of the problem represents a complete misreading of the environmental conditions in Germany. "Wild deer live in both field and forests - they eat protein-rich young shoots, which they find in the fields, and then withdraw into the cover of the forest at night to sleep," she said. The problem, if there is one, is limited to border areas between forests and fields. "So, if you have pure field-hunting grounds, which is almost two-thirds of the German surface area, you won't have a deer problem."
BUND and NABU argue that the forests have not evolved to cope with such high deer populations. Meanwhile, Martinsohn believes that it is perfectly possible create a natural balance without destroying the countryside. "But your main interest is to make sure there is a sensible balance, because you don't want to build thousands of fences - and I'm assuming you don't want to diminish the deer population completely so you only have trees," she said. "You want a forest and animals. In a lot of private forests, deer are surprisingly not a problem."
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