All Flesh is Grass:

How many deer are out there in the bush? The study below looks at an area in the Upper Yarra (Dam) catchment (you may not – legally – hunt) where the author has performed transects and other measurements to estimate 200 sambar deer per square kilometer in this small area of good feed. That’s two per hectare or about 1 per acre. An acre is roughly 70 yards by 70 yards, so that if they were uniformly distributed, at any one time you ought always to be able to see at least one in thin to medium forest cover.

A sambar deer eats roughly twice what a sheep eats. On good pasture on the Hazelwood Flats (Gippsland) we ran 6 ewes per acre (with stored silage we were able to cut for out-of season rations) and raised on average 12 lambs. This represented nearly a tonne of quality meat produced annually per hectare! This is about as good as it gets in Australia – I don’t know whether anyone has ever done better without bought in feed or irrigation.

Some of the ewes we used to run at Hazelwood – mainly Finns and Finn-Texels. See:

Studies have found that an acre of good pasture will ‘carry’ a certain weight of ‘meat’. It does not matter a jot whether it is mice or elephants, the same quantity of pasture will sustain the same weight of meat. All flesh is grass: or sward anyway. Many other plants make up a nutritious pasture. The indication that it is nutritious is that it has been eaten down. You will notice that such grasses (or other plants) as for example Poa Tussock will not be eaten by anything – save a small moth.

One of the reasons that the white ant is the most common grazing animal in Australia is that so much vegetation is unpalatable to anything else – a result of thousands of year of burning reducing the Phosphorus and Potassium levels in the ‘soils’ to nearly zero. This is why so many Australian birds are insectivores, of course.

Our home farm where we are now ‘retired’ is not nearly such good country as the flats above (but we are steadily improving it) and does not lend itself to hay-making (too steep) so that we are limited to closer to 4 ewes per acre. The trees we are planting will help. For example the honey locust at 1 per 10-20 metres will produce the equivalent feed in high quality pods of an acre of cropped oats – and there are the leaves besides plus pasture under. Summer shady willows and poplars alone will nearly double stocking rates as more grass can grow under the trees during the summer because the ground does not dry out – besides their leaves are highly nutritious, and the willow particularly is also a vermifuge. They can easily be planted in situ autumn to spring as large cuttings (up to 10′ long).

That (4/acre) would represent approximately two sambar hinds per acre – if nearly all the stags were removed (Go for it fellas!) so that it could produce 2-4 poddies a year to harvest, probably in late Spring would be best.

Along many of the rivers and fertile valleys in Gippsland there is just as good feed as on our home farm – in some places considerably better. Where you see grassy areas eaten down (as if mown) the area is clearly supporting something like that 2 hinds per acre – but the deer disperse during the day to the poorer country on the ridges which would only support perhaps ¼ to 1/10th of what the good feed along the bottoms would feed.

Suppose you are walking through a kilometer of grassy well-mown flat say 50 metres wide (including grassy cover spreading up along the bottoms of the valley sides), a common enough experience, surely. You have a feed area of 5 hectares or about 10 acres. Somewhere adjacent to that there are 20 deer plus what the intervening ridge would support. If the deer walk back say 1 kilometre from the valley to camp (as is normal), that area of 1 square kilometer or 100 hectares could easily be supporting 50 deer, probably more. I arrive at that figure like this:

Once you get away from the better watered valley bottoms the soil usually gets worse and the vegetation is also often less palatable particularly on the dry north facing ridges – ;less so on the south-facing & etc. Dry, steep shaley or rocky sides with large trees frequently have little feed, being dominated by prickly or coarse vegetation with very little nutritional value. But not all slopes are like this and particularly after some disturbance such as logging or a bushfire when young succulent vegetation usually dominates for a few years. Clearly this will support more animals. The fires early this century provoked a veritable explosion in deer numbers.

If we assume that the 95 hectares of ridges can only support say 1 deer per three hectares, that is still 50 deer in that square kilometer. Some county is better than this and some far worse. Clearly though there are plenty of accessible areas which can support 50-100 deer per square kilometer – if there is little competition from other herbivores – which has frequently been the case since those disastrous fires of ten years or so ago.

Most of my hound hunting was done before those fires. Even so I sometimes found a small valley where the deer numbers were like this. You could return again and again to the same small area yet take a deer pretty much every weekend more or less forever (till someone else discovered it!) At the same time, when starting the dogs (or early in the hunt before the deer had scattered) it was quite normal to see groups of 10-20 deer camped together in an area smaller than a suburban house block! Mind you they took off pretty quickly!

There are no doubt areas where there are too many deer, large herbivores in general – here at Jeeralang Junction for example the wombats and grey kangaroos have bred up to the detriment of everything else. The antichinus, bush rats etc are now very thin on the ground. We are now seeing mobs of 100 roos on land adjacent to us. That and the plague of foxes is why we are building fences to keep them out – else there would be no feed at all for our sheep – or ourselves. Yet, though they have eaten out all the vegetation in the neighbouring bush so that the soil is completely exposed – and eroding thus critically endangering small marsupials, a cull is somehow impossible. The mindless cruelty of environmentalists and animal libbers…

This is just poor land management. There has to be room for everything. Where there are large numbers of deer there needs to be much more hunting pressure (and there will be, so long as the country is opened up to this splendid recreation) which means that your treasured dream of discovering that ‘Valley of the Deer’ which is your very own is largely fanciful – though the further you are willing to journey from your car the more likely you are to find substantially undisturbed hunting areas.

Here is one of mine (several days walk from the nearest road or track). Before others discovered it you could just about knock the deer out of your way with a stick. I may now have to explore bigger country farther East. I look forward to it. Even at seventy there are interesting adventures beckoning…You may find my bones moldering under some tree fern in a remote gully one day and wonder who it was who passed this way.

If you are not at present seeing deer somewhere in that square kilometre, you are walking too fast, too noisily, or you have not learned to keep a careful look-out through the trees. If you truly had it to yourself you could hunt that same spot all year and harvest perhaps 25 of them without having much impact on their numbers! Slow down and enjoy the hunt more – one of the advantages of being old! Happy hunting!

The impacts of sambar (Cervus unicolor) in the Yarra Ranges National Park:

Some recent hunting related posts:

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