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Gallery: Fallow deer take their toll on Sidney Island

Nov 09 2010
The Mediterranean fallow deer, introduced in the 1920s, run free on Sidney island grazing on the plants.  

The Mediterranean fallow deer, introduced in the 1920s, run free on Sidney island grazing on the plants.

Photograph by: Debra Brash, Timescolonist.com

Death comes as gently as possible to the fallow deer of Sidney Island.

"It's not about reducing the deer, it's about reducing the effect on the vegetation and trying to recover an ecosystem," said Todd Golumbia, a Parks Canada ecologist, looking at the elaborate corral system set up on the island east of the town of Sidney by the Sallas Forest Strata Corporation.

Sallas, a group of private landowners with property on the opposite side of the island from the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, completed their second fallow deer cull last month, using a mobile meat processor and specially designed dark rooms to keep the deer calm.

Now Parks Canada, which has already provided staff and in-kind support for the cull, is hoping to expand the corral and cull system to the park area.

The population of Mediterranean fallow deer was introduced in the 1920s and, despite 30 years of trying to check the population through First Nations hunting, commercial hunting and shipments to deer farms, the animals have continued to ravage underbrush and eat newly planted trees.

"They're very beautiful, but very damaging," said Golumbia, comparing lush vegetation like ocean spray, salal and honeysuckle in a fenced-off area with patchy short grass in the open area.

Peter Pearse, a University of B.C. forestry professor emeritus who owns property on the island, has been at the forefront of trying to restore its ecosystem — ranging from sand dunes to Garry oak and arbutus meadows — since 1981, when he was among a group who bought the private lands.

The aim was to preserve the forest, and replanting continues through the strata council.

But despite best efforts, with 11,000 animals taken since the 1980s, the deer continued to flourish until last year, when the new system was set up.

A complex series of paddocks and gates, stretching over about 16 hectares, leads to a dark shed, with walls covered in black plastic.

"We open the gates and put some hay inside and, in the middle of the night, we close the gates. The following morning we move the deer as gently as possible through a series of runways and paddocks into the shute that guides them into the barn. There's no light and they quieten down," Pearse said.

"We are very much concerned about humane treatment, so we do everything possible to minimize the excitement among the animals."

The process is overseen by veterinarians and government wildlife officers.

Finally, one animal at a time heads toward the light, which takes them to a "squeeze," and they are killed with a captive bolt gun.

Immediately, they are moved to the mobile, government-inspected abattoir, eviscerated and cooled. The meat is sold to high-end restaurants, said Pearse, showing a Vancouver restaurant menu advertising "Sidney Island venison and apples" as the December special.

This year, 254 deer were culled, down from more than 500 in 2009, and hunters took almost as many.

Hooves, hides and antlers from the cull are given to First Nations for artistic and cultural uses.

Parks Canada has been doing deer "poop counts" to estimate the number remaining on the 1,000-hectare island and believes there are between 1,100 and 1,200 animals, Golumbia said.

But studies show an island of that size can sustain only between 95 to 100 deer, meaning a massive cull would be needed.

As fallow deer are territorial, some are not likely to meander into corrals on the private lands — which is why Parks Canada wants to corral deer on parkland.

"It's a big challenge for national parks because our mandate is to manage for ecological integrity, and fallow deer are an introduced species," said Golumbia, adding that culls are already conducted in some national parks.

Deer caught in satellite corrals in the park could be processed by the mobile abattoir or given to First Nations, said Golumbia, who would like to see the system in place next year.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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