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Oh deer! Why we need to leave the Phoenix Park deer herd alone

Humans have been flocking to get in touch with nature during the pandemic. But from stunted antlers to aching bellies via a lot of stress, there are plenty of reasons that visitors, however well intentioned, should leave those deer alone.

Phoenix Park is more than just your ordinary park: it is one of the largest enclosed public parks in Europe and also known for being the home to a large herd of fallow deer. The deer have been living in the park since the 17th century and have become a popular attraction over the past few years.

Visitors often come to this park to spot the wild animals in their natural habitat or to interact with them. While it might seem fun to feed the deer or take pictures with them, most people don’t realise that their behaviour can have negative impacts on the animals.

Although feeding the deer in Phoenix Park is prohibited by the Office of Public Works (OPW), it is still a common practice amongst visitors.

A herd of fallow deer in Phoenix Park, Image: Luna Laufer

According to Laura Griffin, a wildlife ecologist who spoke to RTÉ in 2021, there are several negative effects that feeding can have on the deer: on the one hand, it can result in physiological effects such as a smaller antler size which puts them at disadvantage during the rut. As the size of the antlers plays an important role in sexual competition, a smaller antler size decreases a deer’s mating opportunities.

It can impact the deer’s digestive system when unnatural foods are being fed to them. Visitors often believe that they are giving them a treat, when in fact they are hurting the deer’s gastrointestinal tract.

The feeding can also cause stress for the deer if people behave inappropriately. The OPW recommend to keep at least 50 meters distance to ensure safety for both the deer and the human interacting with them. As wild animals, they are unpredictable and can also pose a risk to visitors.

They are wild animals at the end of the day and a lot of people are accustomed to interacting with domestic animals.

Laura Griffin, Wildlife expert
Visitor feeding the deer although it is prohibited by the OPW, Image/ Luna Laufer

Laura Griffin focusses on human-wildlife interactions at the UCD Lab of Wildlife and Ecology. She is currently in the final year of her PhD, researching the complex interactions between fallow deer and humans in Phoenix Park.  As someone who is curious about the impact of the increasing level of urbanisation on wildlife populations, Laura Griffin was delighted to get the opportunity to study the feeding interactions in Phoenix Park.

Since 2018, she has been working closely with the OPW trying to introduce new management controls to inform visitors about why they shouldn’t feed the deer. When the OPW noticed that the feeding issue in the park was getting worse, they wanted to bring researchers on board and to fund the study Griffin is still working on today. The OPW aims to reduce the amount of people feeding the deer.

The park aims to spread information and raise awareness about the issue. Instead of bringing in fines, the park strives to provide education and discourage visitors from feeding the deer.

The OWP has also published a FAQ for further information on the deer in Phoenix Park.

Griffin, however, thinks fines could be considered in the future if the issue doesn’t resolve – but for now she supports the parks educational approach, and stresses the importance of maintaining a positive relationship with visitors.

Signage to inform the visitors that feeding the deer is prohibited, Image/ Luna Laufer

Griffin’s current research focusses on tracking the number of people feeding the deer, particularly during the pandemic.

In 2019, the researcher noticed some success after the introduction of new management controls: after placing new signage and rangers in the park a significant decrease of the feeding interactions could be found.

However, due to Covid-19 there was a huge influx of visitors into the park as people had more time on their hands and felt the need to utilise green space in the city. The number of people feeding the deer significantly increased again.

The signage for the pandemic and the signs about the deer in the park are of a similar colour, perhaps leading people to ignore the feeding signs, Griffin said.

Having spoken to several visitors, Griffin found many people are surprised when they learn that they shouldn’t feed the deer. From experience, she thinks that the interactions usually come from a benign, maybe even well-intentioned place. Due to this lack of knowledge on part of the visitors, the wildlife expert stresses the importance of public education.

To deal with this problem, the research group at UCD Wildlife Ecology & Behaviour ran a media campaign in 2021 to lower the numbers of people feeding in the park and raise further awareness about the issue. Following the successful campaign, the number of feeding interactions decreased, but it hasn’t alleviated entirely.

With the Covid restrictions being lifted and the world opening up again, the wildlife expert is concerned about a potential increase of feeding interactions in the future. More tourists coming to Dublin leads to more visitors in the Phoenix Park, which usually results in a higher number of people feeding the deer.

“They are wild animals at the end of the day and a lot of people are accustomed to interacting with domestic animals,” Griffin said.

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