After many years of neglect following their introduction and establishment in Australia during the mid-19th century, the country’s deer are under pressure like they have never been before; not from hunters but from a growing chorus of deer-haters and a largely gullible public. One thing we can learn from the recent political scene in Australia is that if you want to make dramatic changes that may be controversial, the first thing to do is to vilify the group or thing to be attacked – whether that is firearm owners, boat people, miners, the forest industry, duck hunters …. or deer and deer hunters.
‘Deer’ we now learn are the new giant hoofed cane toads of the country, that they will shortly colonise every bit of Australia, that they threaten mass destruction and extinction to our native flora and fauna, cause accelerated erosion that threatens our water supplies, spread weeds, transmit diseases to humans and livestock, compete with livestock for pasture and threaten road users.
As part of this crescendo of denigration the word ‘feral’ has universally adopted by the deer-haters and by their followers in the media and the community. Every deer is now ‘feral’ rather than ‘wild’.
Labelling deer as feral in my opinion is a deliberate move by those who want to denigrate them and to thereby further their agenda of having deer officially recognised as ‘pests’ in legislation (not that a simple change of name will make them go away!) and to force governments and land managers to reduce or eradicate them.
As with many words in the English language, feral has its origins in Latin, meaning ‘wild’. These days it seems that many in Australia attach the word to any introduced species so you end up with the slightly ludicrous situation of having feral goats and feral pigs ….. as well as feral rabbits, feral foxes and feral deer. But if we accept that ‘feral’ is just another word for ‘wild’ we could validly talk about feral kangaroos, feral koalas and feral platypuses!
What then is the most appropriate use of the word feral?
A definition, from the highly respected official body, the World Organization of Animal Health is:
Wild animals are those animals that do not live under human supervision or control and do not have their phenotype selected by humans.
Captive wild animals are those animals that live under human supervision or control but their phenotype is not selected by humans.
Feral animals are those animals that do not live under human supervision or control but their phenotype is (or has been) selected by humans.
Some of our readers might not be familiar with the word ‘phenotype’. In the Concise Oxford Dictionary it is defined as ‘A set of observable characteristics of an individual or group as determined by genotype and environment.’
Animals that have been domesticated have had their genetic makeup (genotype, and therefore their appearance and behaviour) manipulated and changed over hundreds or thousands of years by humans. Thus, we have or example, Shorthorn cattle that are very different to their wild ancestor, the auroch - they are smaller, less wild and therefore more manageable, they mature at a younger age and have characteristic coat colours. If a group of Shorthorn cattle has returned to the wild (as they have in northern Australia) they can validly be referred to as ‘feral’ – they are no-longer living under human supervision but their phenotype has been changed from that of their wild auroch ancestor.
By the above definition the vast majority of Australia’s free-ranging deer populations but particularly our sambar, rusa, chital and hog deer are ‘wild’ not ‘feral’. Perhaps the exception to this are some of the recently established fallow and red deer populations that have their origins on deer farms where they have had their genetic makeup manipulated to achieve such things as greater docility, faster growth, bigger bodies or larger antlers.
Australia’s hunters should never refer to our deer as ‘feral’ as this is playing right into the hands of those that would denigrate them to our disadvantage. They are almost without exception ‘wild deer’ and always will be! If you are discussing deer with anyone who labels them feral, pull them up and suggest that this word should not be used with respect to these animals.