Cultural Dissonance and Invasive Deer in Victoria

By Mike Flattley
CEO, The Royal Society of Victoria

Red Deer Grazing, Hall’s Gap, Victoria. Photograph: Rexness via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED).

Our European cultural roots are powerfully maintained by ancestral symbols of ‘fertility and plenty’ amid the seasonal impacts of ice and snow, where game animals kept our ancestors fed, clothed, and alive for thousands of years.

Rabbits and painted eggs at Easter. Deer, holly, ivy and pine trees at Christmas. Long before St Nicholas made his merry way into Christianised European cultures, red-robed Woden/Odin was the Yule Father, flying around each December at the head of the Wild Hunt to punish the wicked and reward the good. Meanwhile, in early Celtic traditions, the mysterious Cernunnos appears as an antlered god of nature, animals and fertility.

The pseudo-totems and symbols of peoples Indigenous to Northern Europe remain fiercely potent in a colonised Australia. A point of persistent personal frustration to me is the regularity with which Australians from all cultural backgrounds mistake introduced mammal species, like deer, pigs, foxes, rabbits, cats, and many others, as ‘native.’ These species are exotic to Australia, and have become invasive, destructive pests across Australian landscapes and ecosystems..

Others recognise these animals are exotic, but argue that they should be here – and not just because many seek ‘game’ to legitimately hunt on a continent full of protected species, but for the same reasons the Acclimatisation Societies of the 19th and 20th centuries felt they had a licence to unleash so much damage on Australia’s unique ecosystems: we are all a part of nature, and the plants and animals of ‘home’ are potent symbols of the cultural landscapes to which we ‘belong,’ differentiating each ethnic collective from other groups of humans. They are the source material upon which successive migrant generations reconstruct and perpetuate both individual and broader cultural identities.1,2 

They remind us of who we are, and we colonise accordingly.

During the 2023 Christmas period I was confronted, once again, by the extreme dissonance of a dominant Australian culture heavily influenced by Europe – from lands and waters on the opposite side of the planet – with the continent we have occupied. An advertisement for Telstra featured an image of a child on a call in a roadside public telephone booth at sunset, overlooking a generic slice of forested Australian suburbia. The child was looking back, wide-eyed with wonder at an enormous reindeer that had appeared, lost, on the path beside the booth. “Hello Christmas.”

Effective advertising holds up a mirror to our culture – it seeks to show us to ourselves in a form we can both recognise and embrace. This campaign by creative agency The Monkeys was released amid Melbourne’s growing disruption from the invasive pests colonising suburbia’s green corridors from the forests and farmlands beyond the city fringe; media have reported deer in multiple inner-city suburbs, joining a dense, growing urban population of foxes, rabbits, and feral cats across the metropolitan region.3 Yet the presence of a deer in our Australian lives remains something ‘magical,’ a spirit from a lost world that still somehow belongs to us.

It’s understandable, but jarring how slowly the favouring of European over local species is shifting in our culture. Despite campaigning for many decades by those committed to conservation, many appear oblivious or unmoved by the threat posed by invasive species to native plants and animals. Australia’s unique native species evolved on this vast, geographically remote part of the world over millions of years, and sustained the Indigenous peoples of this continent for at least 65 millennia.

Another Telstra advertisement from November 2023 featured a reindeer walking alongside its closest Australian native equivalent (in terms of fertility symbolism and function as an ancestral game animal): a herd of kangaroos.4 For Peter Jacobs, this is where comparisons between deer and native Australian herbivores end. “There’s no other native animal like deer, a huge, hard-hooved, heavy animal, in the bush,” he says. “The Australian environment just hasn’t evolved with that sort of impact and has never been able to deal with it. It’s a direct threat to 13 threatened flora species in 12 ecological communities just in East Gippsland.”

Mr Peter Jacobs, Executive Officer, Victoria Deer Community Control Network, Invasive Species Council, presenting at the RSV. Photograph: RSV.

Peter chairs the Mountains Specialist Group for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s World Commission on Protected Areas (IUCN WCPA),5 bringing long experience as a senior manager of conservation programs with Parks Victoria, Trust for Nature and, currently, as Executive Officer of the Victorian Deer Community Control Network for Australia’s Invasive Species Council. For Peter, the concern for invasive species is less about the disruption of suburban Melbourne, and more about tackling the real damage to the ecological communities of the forests and mountains in the Victorian Alps, one of the most biodiverse regions of our state.

“There’s a real history of people introducing things into our eastern forests for various reasons that have now become absolute, serious pests,” Peter confirms. “Hunting and Acclimatisation Societies were very much responsible for introducing many of these pests that we now have in the Alps.” Feral deer, foxes, hares, and feral horses are a serious problem in the Eastern forests and parks, largely the descendants of escapees from early settlers. “But also, worryingly, there are some deliberate releases as well for hunting and preservation of game species.”

Invasive deer species are comparatively late European inclusions, but already one of Australia’s most serious environmental and agricultural threats. Victoria has the largest population of deer in Australia, estimated by the Invasive Species Council (based on work from the Arthur Rylah Institute) to be about a million as of 2023 – and expanding quickly to invade new areas, particularly in eastern Victoria.6 “Feral deer are capable of increasing 35 to 50 percent each year in population, so 30 deer become 500 in 10 years,” explains Peter. A study published in 2016 found that four species of deer are well suited to the tropical and subtropical climates of northern Australia, meaning they could soon occupy most of the continent, including the arid, fragile rangelands of the interior.7

It’s impossible to talk about a major herbivore without discussing the plant communities they predate on, and the flow-on impacts to the entire ecosystem. In Victoria, multiple human activities are driving a more frequent bushfire regime, which opens up forests to allow the rapid spread of invasive deer, which also consume shooting regrowth, trample scorched soils and wallow in ancient alpine peatlands to frustrate recovery.

Deer numbers have exploded in Victoria since the 1970s. Image: Peter Jacobs.

Fallow (“Bambi”) and large sambar deer are the most prevalent in Victoria’s eastern forests, and in addition to driving hundreds of indigenous plant species (and their native animal dependents) closer to extinction, their impacts have been estimated to cost our community between $1.5 to $2.2 billion from agricultural management costs, vehicle accidents, impacts on agroforestry and loss of amenity and environmental values for users of Victoria’s national and state parks over the next 30 years.8

Peter is grimly realistic. “There is no short-term fix to mitigate deer impacts now that the population has been allowed to grow to over a million animals spread across the state.” But there are still urgent actions required that will make an enormous difference to how effectively we can manage the problem of invasive deer species in our state by preventing further spread and starting to eliminate the smaller populations.


Remove the listing of introduced invasive deer species in Victoria’s Wildlife Act.

Perversely, yet clearly flowing from the cultural issues identified earlier in this article, feral deer are recognised as protected wildlife in an Act created in 1975 when the population was small and largely confined to commercial farming operations. Deer are also proclaimed as ‘game’ by Governor-in-Council (the Victorian Premier and Cabinet with the Governor), which creates laborious, costly and, ultimately, ineffectual workarounds for agencies and communities trying to deal with the impacts of deer in our state.

“The Wildlife Act is there to protect a native species in their native environments, not to protect species such as deer, particularly when we see the sort of impacts that are occurring,” Peter argues.

“There is no longer any justification for continuing to classify feral deer as protected wildlife in Victoria. The Victorian Government must, as a matter of priority, remove this protection so feral deer can be rightly classed as an established pest animal as recommended by the 2021 Senate inquiry.”9


Put knowledgeable people on the ground.

Peter highlights the importance of prevention and eradication, getting in early to deal with pests before they become major problems. For that, we need people who have the knowledge to care for the land, on the land. This is particularly pertinent in the context of the current, expedited exit of the forest industry from Victoria’s state forests in the east. 

While logging has now ceased, Peter considers a professional land management regime should remain in place to care for Victoria’s forest estate as biosecurity professionals. This is achieved by activating “people that have been there before, through forestry operations, who know the country, can really do something about managing this country properly, and not just leaving it”. 


Join up landscapes.

Connections to other plant and animal communities help species to sustain a healthy genetic diversity, and corridors offer a means of migration, adaptation and survival during periods of change and disruption. “We’ve got a lot of fragmented parks that have got gaps between them. Let’s try and join them up a bit and create some really serious protected areas in eastern Victoria.”

Peter sees an opportunity from the cessation of logging in Victoria’s state forests: “The Alpine Walking Track should come into a protected area linking up Baw Baw to the Alps. The Carey Forest is an area inside the Wonnangatta-Moroka area that’s always been set aside for logging. The link between Mount Buffalo and the Alps is a really important bit of connectivity there. The Tea Tree Range, the Dargo High Plains, Cobungra State Forests, it sort of goes on. But these are areas that I think strategically can be looked at seriously in terms of how they can be added to our protected area and of course, the linkages over there into eastern Victoria.”

Mr Peter Jacobs recently presented his work to the Royal Society of Victoria in a presentation titled “The Major Invasive Species of Victoria’s Eastern Forests” during a two-day public symposium on “The Future of Victoria’s Native Forests” convened on October 26, 2023. You can view his talk at


  1. Gallacher, L., et al. (2022, November 4). This historic group thought they were “fixing” nature. Instead, they were causing irrevocable damage. ABC News.
  2. Acclimatisation society. Wikipedia.
  3. Preiss, B. (2023, August 4). Foxes and rabbits and deer, oh my! Invasive pests on the march in Melbourne. The Age.
  4. Electric Art. (2023). Telstra, ‘Hello Christmas’. Retrieved Feb, 2024, from Electric Art:
  5. IUCN WCPA Mountains Specialist Group. IUCN.
  6. Watch the shocking spread of feral deer across Victoria. (2022, September 2). Invasive Species Council.
  7. Davis, N. E., et al. (2016). A systematic review of the impacts and management of introduced deer (family Cervidae) in Australia. Wildlife Research, 43(6), 515–532.
  8. Counting the doe; feral deer could cost Victoria over $2 billion. (2022, June 10). Invasive Species Council.
  9. Impact of feral deer, pigs and goats in Australia. (2021, May). Senate Standing Committees on Environment & Communications.; Commonwealth of Australia.