Land of Plenty|
Austrias red deer feast on handouts and live half the year
in fenced enclosures. Can they still fend for themselves?
By Karoline T. Schmidt
My first encounter with a rare herd of red deer wintering in the Austrian Alps came after a four-hour ascent on skis through snowed-in forests and steep terrain. The reward for my exertion was a perfect view of 160 animals, whose dark-brown bodies stood out sharply against the snow-covered pasture that spread before me. They picked their way across the concave meadow, grazing on odd bits of weathered vegetation that poked through the windswept snow. The sun shone in a glorious blue sky, while an icy wind whistled through the gaps in a pile of boulders behind which I had sought refuge. From that vantage, I could see another large herd loitering in the wintry meadows that rose on the far side of the valley, a mile away.
My search for red deer had been prompted by the tales of elderly hunters. Herds of several hundred animals, the hunters told me, had once roamed the harsh, alpine environment year-round. Yet by the time I began my quest, it was widely assumed that the alpine pastures had become summer-only grazing grounds. Come autumn the herds all supposedly descended to lower elevations for the shorter winters and the more plentiful food. Even more at variance with prevailing opinion was that any herd still lived completely independent of human care. Under Austrias game-management program, red deer are supplied with hearty meals throughout the winteroften inside fenced enclosures. So entrenched was the belief in the necessity of that program to the deers survival that several experienced hunters had tried to convince me that what I was seeking was absurd. A large herd could not winter above timberline without supplemental food. And yet, there they were.
But twenty years have now passed since that day, still so vivid in my mind. In 1985 I was just beginning four seasons of fieldwork for my doctoral dissertation in biology, studying survival mechanisms in one of the last of the wild alpine herds. When I returned to the alpine meadows ten years later, my group of 160 had dwindled to a few scattered individuals. It wasnt the harsh winters that had overcome this remnant wild population, but the very management regimen intended to ensure the species survival and abundance.
High above tree line, this renegade group had survived nicely on a diet of heather, trailing azalea, tufted hair grass, and the leaves and stems of cowberries and blueberries. The wild herd had avoided the winter feeding stations that pepper the Austrian Alps, and the enclosures where most red deer spend more than half the year. For its insubordination, most of the wild herd was culled in the 1990sstandard practice for deer that decline to be civilized. Today only 5 percent of Austrias red-deer population survives without any supplemental feed.
The goal of Austrias red-deer-management schemeamong the worlds most intensiveis to keep deer populations large enough to guarantee hunting success without damaging commercial forests or farms. The objective is a worthy one, to be sure. But the programs sheer intensity has tamed the entire hunting endeavor; it now more closely resembles ranching than it does the primeval pursuit of prey. And in truth, it also threatens the long-term stability of red-deer populations.
The red deer (Cervus elaphus) has been the principal game animal in central Europe since the Bronze Age. Deer are abundant, gather in sizable herds, and are large enough to yield about 120 pounds of venison apiece. Hunters have long striven to influence the red-deer populations and the predictability of the animals movements. By the twelfth century A.D., landowners distributed salt licks to attract deer, a technique so effective that the emperors subsequently forbade it except on sovereign hunting grounds. By 1500, landowners were putting out hay to attract deer, augment their numbers, and lower their losses in severe winters. To this day, supplemental feeding remains the hunters most powerful management tool.
As firearms became increasingly available in the seventeenth century, noble hunters flaunted their marksmanship by shooting as many animals as possible. By the early twentieth century, hunters became interested in the qualityand particularly, the size of the antlersof their quarry. Game managers developed an enticing cake of sesame, with equal parts calcium and phosphorus, to promote antler growth. In 1910, at the First International Hunting Exhibition in Vienna, the term antler was replaced with trophy, a word that, until then, had been reserved for describing the spoils of war. Competitive trophy measurements were standardized in 1927, and a big, heavy, many-pointed rack mounted on a hunters wall became a status symbol. Thus began the craze for antler size that persists to this day.
When Austria became part of the German Reich in 1938, German hunting laws were imposed. Hunters were required to provide the deer with supplementary food in winter. The intent was to redirect some of the hunters energy from shooting game to caring for it, thereby preserving enough game to satisfy increasing numbers of hunters. Hunters have happily complied with those laws ever since. By the 1950s, as the Austrian economy was recovering from the Second World War, the duration, frequency, and abundance of winter feeding took off.
But the deer have not been universally adored. They have a relentless propensity to munch crops, strip bark, and browse new tree growth. Associations of exasperated farmers and foresters established zones from which the red deer were excluded through intensive hunting. These no-deer zones increasingly restricted the animals to forested, mountainous regions, where supplemental winter feed kept them from migrating to lower-elevation farmland.
In spite of their disagreements, Austrian farmers, foresters, hunters, and the public alike all seem to share the same erroneous belief about red deer: their survival depends on supplemental feeding. The main reasons cited are that deer have lost their winter habitat to human development, and that settlements and highways have disrupted their migration routes between the high altitudes of summer and the forested river valleys of autumn. That argument is certainly valid for some populations. By and large, though, feeding was as much the cause of the disruption of historic migration patterns as it was a response to it. Often feeding was done on the upper forested slopes expressly to break the cycle of migration and to keep deer on higher-elevation hunting grounds throughout the long hunting season.
Moreover, winter feeding is hardly necessary for the survival of the species: red deer are remarkably well adapted to wintertime food restrictions. Triggered by the shorter length of the day, various physiological systems cooperate to reduce the deers need to eat in winter. The rumen, or first division of the deers stomach, contracts. Less blood circulates to the digestive tract. The salivary glands shrink. As the animal takes in fewer calories, its body temperature falls, and its metabolism, heart rate, and activity slow to reduce the energy expenditure by more than 17 percent.
The feeding itself often makes feeding necessary. Feeding stations are typically situated for easy access by the manager, often in forested mountain valleys near roads. They draw the deer into a cold, moist, uncomfortable, and unsafe habitat that does not provide enough natural vegetation to sustain them through the winter. But the deer come for the smorgasbord, and they can come to depend on it. Food-supplemented red deer show less reduction in winter heart rate than wild deer do, and no decline in body temperature. With their engines running nearly full speed, they cannot slow down to winter pace on short notice. If, for instance, an avalanche blocks the roads, cutting off the feed supply for a few days, the deer simply go hungry. Ironically, then, food-supplemented red deer are at greater risk of starvation than naturally wintering herds.
Still, feeding stations are only half of the management picture. By the 1970s, more than twenty fat years of winter deer-feeding had left their mark on the forestsand upland commercial forests in particular.
Today a network of feeding stations and enclosures covers most of the red deers range. In some parts of Styria, Austrias most intensely managed province, there is one winter enclosure, on average, for every twenty square miles of territory, and one feeding station for every six square miles. In some areas the density of feeding stations is more than twice that high. Each enclosure encompasses some fifty to seventy-five acres, usually including a few small pastures and stands of trees.
Feeding inside the enclosures starts in late September or in October. The gates close in mid-winter, when most red deer are inside, and dont reopen until late June. Enclosing the deer has reduced the damage to adjacent forests, but only because red deer that do not enter are culled. Many a deer in the wild herds has paid with its life for this management measure.
Although deer feeding is common throughout Europe, by far the most intense feeding programs are in Austria, Germany, and Hungary. Only those three nations require deer feeding by law, andno coincidencethey also have the highest deer populations and densities in continental Europe. Between 1950 and 2004, Austrias red-deer population nearly quadrupled, from 40,000 to 150,000 individuals. Winter feeding has lowered mortality among calves and old malesthe herd members most vulnerable to harsh wintersand raised birth rates among yearling hinds (as the female deer are called). The feeding program has also been spectacularly successful in increasing the size of antlers.
All achievements come at a price, however. The most important consequence of the program is that red deer have abandoned seasonal migrations and lost traditional knowledge of their natural winter ranges, perhaps irretrievably. They have also become habituated to their feeding enclosures, an unsuitable habitat where they could not survive naturally in winter.
Austrias management program has other negative consequences, as well. Some evidence suggests that feeding sites, where deer gather in large numbers, may promote transmission of diseases and parasites. Furthermore, the competition for food at the feeding stations is paradoxically higher than it is in the wild. Normally, red deer spend November through September in segregated herds, the mature males in one herd, the hinds and youngsters in another. But at feeding stations the sexes mix, and the males inevitably dominate at the troughs, causing much social stress. Finally, when deer populations fluctuated more naturally, the native vegetation on which they fed may have had more time to regenerate before the herd passed by again.
For better or worse, the constant winter food supply also affects population dynamics by blunting the effects of natural selection. For naturally foraging red deer, winter and spring weather has a lasting effect on the weight, survival, and lifetime breeding success of all the animals born in a given year. Good weather provides pregnant mothers with abundant, high-quality food, and they bear strong, healthy calves. Bad weather has the opposite effect. For food-supplemented herds, however, the weather has little effect on calves and yearlings body weight. To take one example, consider what the data show about the annual variation in the average body weight of individuals of a given age. Because the quantity and quality of food remain roughly the same over time, the variation is less from year to year among the food-supplemented deer than it is among the deer that survive on their own.
Furthermore, because abundant food helps low-weight calves survive winters that would otherwise kill them, supplemental feeding also increases variation within the herd. In food-supplemented herds, red deer all born in the same year show 60 percent more variation in body weight than do the deer in nonsupplemented herds. Whether the dampening of natural selection affects other population dynamics is a question for further study.
And yet, Austrias management program has created a population of predictable red deer. The hunters romantic image of themselves as top predators in the wilderness has become a bit ridiculous. Such intensive management kills the wildness in wildlifeand slays the spirit of hunting.
The answer is not to eliminate the management regimen all at once. That would immediately result in heavy losses of deer to starvation and severe damage to forests. There are simply too many deer and too many human interests to return to a totally unmanaged state of affairs. In the long term, though, a gradual shift to forestry practices that promote stands more closely resembling native forests would ease the way to a more natural balance. Such forests have thriving understories that provide natural forage for deer, and trees ranging broadly in age, making the forest as a whole less vulnerable to browsing. Realizing that vision, however, would require hunters to accept fewer red deer and more challenge from their sport by reviving the main thrill of hunting: unpredictability.