Wild deer control project pursues ‘hidden’ pests in South Africa with heat-seeking helicopter cameras

Helicopters fitted with thermal cameras will take off in south-east South Australia in the coming days to provide a more accurate record of wild deer populations.

Aerial monitoring is being undertaken by the Limestone Coast Landscape Board (LCLB), which would use the data to support its wild deer control program – including aerial photography.

Aiden Laslett, LCLB Feral Deer project manager, said this was the first survey in the area to use thermal imaging cameras.

“They can be particularly difficult to see, even from the air… [but] they will be easily identifiable on thermal cameras.”

The thermal cameras will be housed in helicopters.(Supplied: Limestone Coast landscape board)

Mr Laslett said monitoring would mainly focus on areas of native vegetation, where the animals were “hanging out and where we can see them quite easily with the thermal cameras”.

“We will cover a wider area…the localities of Keilira, Taratap, Tilley Swamp, Petherick, Bunbury, Deepwater, Salt Creek, Martin Washpool, Bunbury, Gum Lagoon and Hanson Scrub,” he said.

“This is only the first [survey] that we’ve done with technology that’s relatively new to us, so that’s pretty exciting.”

The next step

Mr Laslett said the LCLB would use the information to “make decisions about the testing programme”.

“We are really trying to stop them and eradicate them before they get completely out of control,” he said.

Mr Laslett said deer could damage fences, compete with cattle for grazing and potentially spread animal disease.

“The grazing pressure they exert on native vegetation can alter vegetation structures and impact native flora and fauna,” he said.

A bald man with a beard smiles at the camera with green bushes behind him
Aidan Laslett says deer have negative impacts on farms and the environment in general. (Supplied: Limestone Coast landscape board)

“We will speak to landowners where we have seen the wild deer, just to let them know what we have seen and to invite them to be part of our coordinated control programs.”

The last aerial cull program took place in September 2021 and removed over 600 wild deer from the area.

Pressure on pastures

Blackford landowner Brett McLaren said one problem was that the size of the deer herd was “unknown”.

“You know what your grazing rates are, you know what your stocks are,” he said.

“The least of those [deer] we have, the better our chances of maintaining livestock feed levels. »

A wild deer looks at the camera with grass behind
Mr McLaren says landowners use a range of measures to control wild animals.(Supplied: Limestone Coast landscape board)

Mr McLaren said pest control programs were important and that ‘600 buds per shoot…certainly validates the value of carrying out these programmes’.

“They have a passion for alfalfa, [so] anyone planting alfalfa right now is battling a record deer infestation,” he said.

“Over the years, the deer that miss each year, get a little smarter and [when] they hear those rotors coming, they start to hide.

“So with thermal imaging, of course, their body heat gives them away.”

“No quick fix”

Mr McLaren said it would be ‘scary’ to know how many wild deer would exist if they had not put culling programs in place.

“Shooting with a standard scope, shooting with a thermal scope, deer traps and other control methods are all part of a toolkit,” he said.

“Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet to control these damn things.

“[But] This is important for the environment as well as for production.”

The RSPCA and Humane Society International Australia have been contacted for comment.