DAIRY farmer Peter Henderson was just a few hundred metres away from the sand and water at Cape Conran, Victoria. It was dusk, and he was driving back to his Orbost dairy farm after working on another property making fodder.
He had just rounded a corner in his four-wheel-drive Toyota Hilux, and was on a long straight stretch of road when it happened.
"He just came straight out in front of me and there was nothing I could do," Mr Henderson recalled of the moment a mature Sambar deer ran in front of his vehicle.
Fortunately for Mr Henderson the car was equipped with a bulky bullbar, which bore the brunt of the collision with the stag. The vehicle was a write-off, and despite insurance Mr Henderson was left many thousands of dollars out of pocket after buying a replacement ute.
The dead animal was just one of the vast number of wild deer roaming the Victorian bush.
New research shows that hunters killed almost 60,000 deer in Victoria last financial year, a striking figure which illustrates the extent of the feral deer problem in Victoria. The estimated number killed in 2013-14 was 57,945, a jump of 15.6 per cent on the previous year.
Over the past six years hunters have shot more than 265,000 deer in Victoria, the Game Management Authority report shows. The number killed has risen for the past four consecutive years.
Deer have been blamed for damaging national parks, rainforest in East Gippsland, other bushland and private farmland. They have also caused car crashes, as well as near-misses, after wandering on to roads.
Conservationists are concerned that they trample through streams, eat native plants and wallow in the dirt/mud. Farmers are frustrated that they damage fences, graze pasture and disrupt livestock. High country farmers say that they damage dog-proof fences, allowing wild dogs to get into paddocks and attack livestock.
But deer hunting is also a popular recreational activity that generates spending in country areas. There are now about 29,000 licensed Victorian deer hunters, compared to just 10,500 in 2001. The increase in shooters, and in hunting days, is one reason why the total number of deer killed has surged. But many believe the deer population is also climbing.
Victoria's wild deer population is so large, and widespread, that some deer come close enough to Melbourne to see the city lights. Over recent years deer have caused significant damage to the Dandenong Ranges National Park, and have turned up on roads in Belgrave and Ferntree Gully. In response to the problem in the Dandenongs Parks Victoria implemented a culling program, which commenced in 2014.
The latest "Estimates of harvest for deer, duck and quail in Victoria" report, based on surveys of hunters, shows there was a decline in hunting activity in the hottest months.
But in the cooler months hunting activity surged. In July/August 2013, and May/June 2014, hunters killed an estimated 33,164 deer in total. This equates to an average of almost 8300 for each of these months.
Omeo sheep and cattle farmer Russell Foster said a hunter saw a group of about 30 deer in one of his paddocks last year. Deer have also come to town.
"Two mates of mine came home from the (footy) tribunal and they saw a stag standing outside the pub, in the middle of the road," he said.
"There was an excavator working across from the old butcher shop that was in the main street, and there was a stag there in the middle of the day watching the excavator working," he said, of another occasion.
"They're definitely breeding up, and they're spreading, they're going into new areas," he said.
Robyn Edwards from Trust for Nature said deer were damaging rainforest in East Gippsland and white box woodland in higher country. "They get their antlers and rub on the trees and ringbark them. And if that's kept up then the tree will eventually die. That's what happens with the yellow wood and the mutton wood," she said.
"They're increasing, our observation seems to indicate that they are increasing in numbers," she said.
Col Brumley, Victorian president of the Australian Deer Association, said the wild deer population was not known. "What we probably need with the deer in Victoria, and probably Australia-wide, is a proper scientific study of the numbers," he said.
"The Sambar are right throughout the bush, throughout the mountains. Any bush area north of the Princes Highway and even south of it now, and east of the Hume – all that bush right through the mountains – has got Sambar in it. Any given gully, provided there's feed, there's deer there," he said.
Mr Brumley said deer hunters did a good job at removing deer from the forest, and were happy to help landowners who were having trouble with deer. "Where they're a problem they need to be dealt with. But we see them as a great resource and a benefit to the society and the bush," he said.
Mr Brumley said deer were introduced to Victoria by the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria in the 1800s for hunting purposes.
For Mr Henderson the car crash was a frightening and expensive exercise. "I'm just lucky, when I hit him, that he stayed on the bullbar. If he flicked up over the bonnet I don't think it would have been a very pleasant story," he said. It could have in fact become a fatal accident, Mr Henderson believes.
"They're such a dangerous animal on the road. They're like hitting a fully grown cow," he said. "Ten years ago you never saw a deer, and now you can drive out and it's like seeing a kangaroo. They've definitely bred up a hell of a lot."
The collision, at dusk on a November evening last year, left the 50-year-old's vehicle, just four years old, a write-off. While the vehicle was covered by insurance, there was a substantial gap between the insurance payout and the cost of a replacement vehicle. "It was an expensive exercise," he said.
East Gippsland residents are not the only ones reporting crashes or near misses with deer. Such incidents are also happening in and near the Dandenongs, and in the Yarra Ranges. An adult Sambar deer can weigh as much as 350 kilograms.
The smash bent the chassis and damaged the front-end, bonnet, front doors and panels of the vehicle. It also caved in the radiator and busted numerous other parts.