Rare woodland plants and more familiar species such as bluebells have thrived in our local woods as a result of their management and productive use over the centuries. This management took the form of thinning and coppicing to produce timber and smaller material for hedging and hurdles. More recently, this traditional management has been replaced by targeted management, exclusively for conservation purposes.
Since the 1970s, a new influence on woodland plants has been the spread of alien muntjac deer which eat them. Muntjac were introduced into southeast England in the 1880s and are now widespread across the country and often numerous.
Research recently conducted in local woods by the Allerton Project reveals that there is more variation in grazing of bluebells within woods than there is between them. No woods are significantly affected more than others, but there are influences within woods which affect damage to woodland plants. This boils down to the occurrence of shrubby cover in the base of the wood. This is a natural development following thinning of woodland, whether for production of woodland products or for conservation purposes, but it seems the shrubby vegetation provides excellent cover for muntjac which then graze adjacent plants. This is something of a conservation dilemma.
The implication is also that, as this is a widespread problem, it is not one that can be tackled within individual woods in isolation. Widespread control of muntjac may be the most realistic option, but the motivation for carrying out this control may not be sufficient. Our questionnaire survey of local farmers revealed that (as muntjac do not graze crops) fewer than one in five farmers considered this species to be a pest or took any steps to control it.