Suburban Deer in our midst

By 12 March 2024March 14th, 2024No Comments

Suburban deer in our midst

Graeme Daniels

It was only about a decade ago that seeing a Sambar deer in the middle or lower Birrarung (Yarra) Parklands was a novelty. Well, how things have changed!

Sambar deer became an increasing environmental problem in Victoria and beyond in the latter part of the 20th century. Some get-rich hopefuls thought deer were the best thing since olive trees and ostriches, but venison supply soon exceeded demand and some farmers simply released their deer into the local countryside. The required high fencing was also easily damaged by falling limbs allowing stock to escape.

A serious threat to the environment

These deer have now become a serious threat to the environment and its native wildlife. The extensive bushfires of 2009 may well have driven Sambar deer further down the Yarra Valley and they have been breeding up quickly since then. Yet In their Asian homeland, they are classified as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List. Excessive hunting. human population growth and predation have contributed to this. Despite their considerable environmental destruction in Victoria, our State Government still partially protects feral deer by classifying them as a hunting resource under the Game and Feral Animal Control Act.

Mature Sambar stags can weight over 400 kgs and are thus a hazard on our roads. These creatures are usually well aware of your presence and normally discretely disappear into the bush before you actually see them. Occasionally, if you are close to one in thicker bush, it may show its dissatisfaction with your presence by letting out a very loud spine chilling roar before scuttling off. Caution is recommended, as aggression is possible, particularly if they have young, feel threatened or are cornered.

Damage to the bank of a billabong

More damage to a billabong’s bank

Expansion in recent years into suburban areas

The pandemic lockdowns assisted their expansion into the Lower Yarra Parklands, as the deer sought peaceful sanctuary in the various deserted golf courses on both sides of the river. More recently, the disruption caused by the massive North East Link works in the Bulleen area has discouraged visitors, so the nearby bushland has become a relatively peaceful retreat for the deer.

Not only are they now occasionally seen along the river as far down as the Collingwood Children’s Farm, but their damage to the environment has also become increasingly evident. Some of the billabongs, as well as the river itself, have relatively steep banks which the deer use as escape routes, so several areas are now badly eroded by their hooves, potentially polluting the water. As the billabongs gradually dry out after flooding, the Sambars love wallowing in the muddy edges which are usually heavily pockmarked by their hooves. Dry wallows in some of the grassland areas are also quite evident where their activities are exposing the roots of trees and shrubs. One also comes across the occasional tree where the bark has been stripped by the stags’ antlers, potentially killing the tree.  (See photographs below showing damage to the banks of a billabong and a deer wallow.)

More recently, Parks Victoria rangers have used trail cameras to get an understanding of the actual populations in the parklands areas. One stag that had a broken antler was photographed on both sides of the Birrarung, indicating that they will cross the river when it suits them.

Management is needed to prevent irreparable damage

These deer need to be seriously managed before irreparable damage is done to these sensitive areas that are so culturally important to the Wurundjeri people. Away from populated areas, professional sharp shooters are employed for culling. They normally use a drone equipped with a thermal imaging camera to identify where the deer are located and to ensure there are no people in the vicinity. The image resolution is so good that the operator can actually tell whether it is a roo, a wallaby or a deer. Unfortunately, this culling option is not possible in suburbia.

Samples are often taken from culled deer for DNA analysis, so if you come across a dead deer, please report its location to Parks Victoria, as they may wish to take samples to allow scientists to get a fuller understanding of the animal’s lineage and movements. You can also help by reporting any deer sightings or evidence of their environmental damaged via the www.feralscan.org.au/ website to give government authorities an up-to-date record as to where these feral pests are spreading to.

A deer wallow in the receding billabong water


Photos credit Graeme Daniels

Featured image © Revati Sarnaik