Tens of thousands of wild deer are to be culled across the country after biologists warned that the animals are invading city parks, destroying woods and risking road safety.
English Nature, the Government's conservation agency, is discussing plans with agriculture ministers, the Forestry Commission and a small government-backed group called the Deer Initiative for a national programme to curb an explosion in numbers of wild fallow, roe, and muntjac deer by shooting them.
Although no total population figure exists, deer numbers in some counties have leapt tenfold since the early 1970s and experts expect their numbers to double again by 2012.
Herds are now spreading into city suburbs, urban parks and green belt areas – severely damaging woods and gardens, and undermining attempts to restore the country's forests.
Government agencies have run shy of admitting publicly that widespread culling is required, because of an expected outcry from animal lovers.
But later this week, English Nature officials will, for the first time, confirm that a national culling programme is needed because of the "dramatic" damage they are causing to woodland. And, at the same conference, experts will warn that deer also pose a growing risk to road safety.
A startling but unpublished survey by the Highways Agency estimated that, during the 1990s, incidents involving deer darting into roads, particularly at night, caused up to 40,000 accidents each year and lead to the deaths of about a dozen people.
These accidents, which cost the insurance industry about £40m a year, are most often in heavily forested blackspots where deer are most numerous, such as Cannock Chase and the New Forest. Roads in new towns such as Milton Keynes, where wooded areas were a major part of the town plan, or in urban sprawls such as Sheffield and Rotherham in South Yorkshire where woods and housing estates are close together, are likely to be the most affected.
"We expect the number of deer will double in the next 10 years, so we will see a massive increase in road accidents," said Simon Booth, director of the Deer Initiative, which is funded by English Nature and the Forestry Commission. "It's a sensitive and emotive issue. Everyone loves to see Bambi, but more deer need to be culled. We already have considerable damage to a whole range of habitats, agricultural damage and road accidents as a consequence of deer."
English Nature is trying to persuade Elliot Morley, the Agriculture minister, to pay for the culling programme, but his officials have not decided who will meet the large bill for hiring, training and equipping thousands of stalkers. But Mr Morley will hear this week that inmany woods, deer are devastating flowers such as oxlips and bluebells, rare woodland birds, and bramble bushes that provide valuable cover for animals such as the dormouse. "These deer populations need to be managed," said Keith Kirby, English Nature's forestry officer. "We need to reduce them quite substantially."