Hunting of sika deer over six decades does not restore forest regeneration.

Published online
27 Apr 2024
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Husheer, S. W. & Tanentzap, A. J.
Contact email(s)

Publication language
New Zealand


High densities of native and introduced deer hamper the regeneration of temperate forests worldwide. Sport hunting is often the sole means of deer control, but whether it can restore forest regeneration remains uncertain. We assessed the potential to restore forest regeneration using unrestricted sport hunting alongside commercial harvesting and government-funded culling of introduced sika deer (Cervus nippon) across a 594 km2 landscape in North Island, New Zealand. We used six decades of repeated measurements of forest regeneration and deer presence, alongside monitoring of tagged stems in a 20-year paired exclosure experiment, to determine whether deer control restored regeneration. In our exclosure experiment, mountain beech (Fuscospora cliffortioides) seedling and sapling density, growth and survival were variable but consistently higher when deer were excluded by fencing. Sapling counts in unfenced plots were ≈3-10 times lower after 60 years of deer control compared with unfenced plots, before sika colonisation and other mountain beech forests without sika deer. This result suggests canopy replacement remains at risk despite government-funded culling and encouragement of sport hunting. Individual-based demographic models show that mountain beech is unlikely to regenerate following canopy gap formation in our study landscape unless deer impacts are reduced from current levels. These demographic models predicted present-day forest regeneration far better than two widely used proxies of deer impact: plot-based counts of saplings and estimates of deer densities from faecal pellet counts. Synthesis and applications. Here, we show that intensive culling beyond that achievable by sport hunting is needed to reduce deer densities enough to assure canopy regeneration. These interventions will be necessary in the many places worldwide where sport hunting is being relied upon to protect forests but appears to be failing. Given the controversy associated with deer culling, and the need for clear evidence to justify its implementation, we suggest managers could strengthen the evidence base for their interventions by collecting data to build demographic models.

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