RISING numbers of deer are causing widespread problems to the environment and the economy across South Lakeland.

A big increase has been recorded over the past 15 years and it has been estimated that 25 per cent of the population needs to be culled every year to keep numbers at current levels.

Conservationists say they are having a harmful effect on the area’s ecology by eating the plants that make up the forest floor in Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) across the area.

This has a knock-on effect to sub species like insects which are left without food or shelter.

They are also damaging crops and causing a hazard to cars when they run out on to the road.

What is happening in the Lake District is being mirrored nationally with deer numbers returning to levels not seen in Britain since the Norman Conquest.

Warmer winters, year-round crops, a lack of predators and a decline in hunting are being blamed for the rise in numbers.

Alastair Boston, north west project officer with the Deer Initiative, a partnership between the government, the private sector and charities, said fallow and roe deerwere the main problem in the Arnside and Silverdale area. He said red deer were causing issues around Long-sleddale and in the Duddon and Rusland Valleys.

“They have no natural predators so deer are top of the food chain,” said Mr Boston. “We’re trying to work with landowners and stalkers and the communities to reduce deer numbers to a sustainable level so the landscape can improve.

“They are an iconic species and they have to be treated as an asset because they’re beautiful animals. But there are far too many and the balance is too much in their favour rather than our premier woodland.”

Deer are a protected species under the 1991 Deer Act, making it illegal to kill them unless it is done to prevent the animal suffering or to stop damage to crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, or any other property of land. They can only be killed by an authorised person who has the landowner’s consent.

Mr Boston added that despite the rising numbers, he did not want to encourage illegal poachers because they do not always kill deer in a humane way.

He also questioned the cleanliness of venison entering the food chain through the illegal killing of deer.