Is it better to kill an orphaned fawn, or is it better to leave it alive, left to try to survive alone in a menacing world?
That unpalatable question is not a hypothetical one in Scotland, where some 60,000 red deer are culled every year — part of an effort to keep populations down to protect crops and woodlands from the hungry grazers.
And Scottish policy is clear on what the answer should be after a hunter orphans a fawn: Kill the baby.
“Shoot both female and juvenile where-ever possible,” the guidelines state. “Where possible target calves first and maintain vigilance for orphaned calves. ”
Josephine Pemberton, a professor at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology, University of Edinburgh, wanted to know whether that policy was scientifically wise. Using funding from the U.K. National Environmental Research Council, Pemberton and five other scientists analyzed data from censuses of a red deer population on Scotland’s Isle of Rum dating back to the 1970s.
What they found was that depriving a deer of its mother’s care and protection before its second birthday triggered resounding impacts. Orphaned males and females were more likely to grow haggard and die young. Males were hit particularly hard — and male orphans had trouble growing antlers as they matured, reducing their chances of winning mates and reproducing. As for female fecundity? “Although we failed to find evidence that female orphans paid a reproductive cost,” the scientists wrote in their paper, which was published in August in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, ”we cannot discount an effect on female physical condition.”
Pemberton said the results show that young deer should be killed if they are orphaned by a hunter — even if they are old enough to not seem helpless.
“If anything, our results suggest that if a young animal is still going around with its mother in its second year — and they often do — you should try and shoot it then, too,” Pemberton said.
But that’s easier said than done. And not just because shooting a fawn must surely be a heartrending task for even a hardened stalker. (In parts of Europe, a deer hunter is called a stalker.)
“Although culling calves with their mothers is in the best practice guidance, stalking is a tough job done largely alone,” Pemberton said. “Stalkers are often under pressure to shoot a lot of hinds. Shooting the pair takes time and effort and we know they don’t always manage to do it.”