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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Sasko Lazarov Deer in the Phoenix Park.
oh deer

Feeding wildlife like Phoenix Park deer 'could lead to them being more aggressive to get food'

Researchers from UCD studied the deer in order to see what the impact of feeding wild animals is.

NEW RESEARCH HAS found that feeding wild animals risks harming th well-being of people and wildlife as it could be driving the human-driven selection of harassment behaviour in some species. 

The study, published in the Journal of Animal Ecology, is based on the fallow deer population in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, the largest walled park in Europe which sees around 10 million visitors per year. 

Researchers from University College Dublin observed the deer from the start of May to the end of July in 2018 and 2019, a period when nutrition intake is important as the males are regrowing antlers and females are nursing offspring.

They measured 134 fawns from the same herds, across the same grazing areas who came from mothers who had the same opportunity to interact with people. 

They found that fawns from mothers who consistently begged for food were significantly heavier than those whose mothers rarely approached visitors. The research associates this begging behavioural trait with animals with bolder personality types.

Researchers classified the entire deer population in Phoenix Park into three categories: consistent beggars, occasional beggars, and rare beggars. Around 24% of the population consistently begged for food, compared to 68% classed as occasional beggars and 8% as rare beggars.

The study found that deer that begged more received the largest amount of human food, which included bread, crisps, carrots, apples and biscuits. This caused them to have a drastically different diet from rare and occasional beggars.

It also found that males beg proportionally more than females and tolerate human presence more than their female counterparts, though older deer beg more overall amongst females, whereas males show a decrease in begging behaviour later in life.

Laura Griffin, lead author and researcher with the UCD Laboratory of Wildlife Ecology and Behaviour, said the begging behavioural trait could potentially lead to some animals becoming more aggressive in order to obtain food.

“There is a high risk of this herd becoming highly habituated over time due to the artificial selection that we have highlighted here,” Griffin said.

In other words, in 10 years, if actions are not taken, you could end up with deer that consistently harass people, as the boldest individuals have been selected for, which clearly holds enormous risks for the people and animals involved.

Griffin added that if this is occurring in this population of deer, then it is “very likely” also the case across other populations and species. 

While feeding the deer at Phoenix Park is prohibited by the Office of Public Works, the Covid-19 pandemic saw an increase in the numbers visiting the park and interacting with the deer.

Health impacts

Griffin said there are many health and welfare implications for the animals as a result, with the behaviour raising concerns over changes in animals’ natural behaviours, increased stress and impacts on their health.

For example, people feeding rhesus monkeys in India has lead to animals attacking each other in a rush to obtain food, something that is not normally seen in the wild.

The increased boldness of the animals when trying to get food has also made it difficult to remove them from areas with a lot of human activity, as they refuse to leave until the food is given.

In 2019, over 200 people were injured by free-roaming, wild deer located in the Nara Park, a popular tourist attraction in the Japanese city of Nara, which lead to strict safety guidelines being issued to prevent further injuries.

Griffin said that hand-feeding wild animals has become increasingly popular in recent times. 

“[With] people often saying it allows them to feel a connection with these animals, that they believe they’re helping them in some way, and that it makes for good content on their social media accounts. In fact, videos and pictures of people feeding wildlife quite often go viral across different social media platforms,” she said.

“Nevertheless, it is of fundamental importance that we pause to explore how these interactions are affecting the wildlife involved, especially as these interactions are typically self-motivated, and work to test methods aimed at reducing their impact through public education, which can also be applied to other sites experiencing similar interactions.”

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