ON the way back home the other night, I nearly hit a deer.

I’m currently living just outside Salisbury, on the Wiltshire/Hampshire border and it’s not unusual for the journey back to be, well, staggered. In the nearby woods, I’ve got used to driving with one foot poised over the brake pedal in anticipation. On one occasion, as I slowed down, I watched as a whole herd leapt across the road 10 metres ahead. This time, it was a single roe that stepped out. The deer, as deer do, didn’t move, but just stood there, giving the full ‘in the headlights’ look.

Observing deer up close is one of the beautiful sights our local countryside has to offer. But it’s an appreciation of nature that is beset with difficulty and increasingly becoming a problem that can’t be ignored.

Once upon a time, the number of deer in the UK was kept in check by the island’s predators. But since the last wolves were killed at the end of the 17th century, that natural balance has disappeared. Today, there are more deer in the UK than at any time in the last thousand years. Numbers have grown from 400,000 in the early 1990s to an estimated two million today. It is a growth that has been exacerbated by the pandemic: around 80 per cent of deer eaten in the UK is in restaurants but with that demand collapsing so did the numbers killed.

Too many deer create all sorts of issues. For botanists, there is the problem that deer strip the forest floor of all sorts of wildflowers. For ornithologists, there is the effect on birds: the destruction of the dry scrub habitat that is the nesting ground for nightingales, for example. Dormice and woodland butterflies, meanwhile, need the brambles that herds are now working their way through. And then there’s the damage to the saplings planted to combat climate change (150 million trees are considered at risk in Scotland alone). It is a brave environmentalist, however, who will publicly call for the culling of deer at the level probably needed.

Attitudes, possibly, are changing. This week, Forestry England announced that it is selling the animals it culls on its land to the public for the first time. ‘Encouraging more people to eat wild venison is better for biodiversity and helps protect our future forests,’ a spokesperson explained. At the same time, the NHS is trialling serving venison in hospitals: with its low fat and high levels of zinc, it’s a far healthier meat option than beef or lamb.

Culling is a subject we’ve long been frozen in the headlights about. The cost of doing nothing, however, is increasingly becoming too dear.