Al Gabriel offers a glimpse into the dystopian future of deerstalking.

What will deerstalking as both a sport and a service look like three decades from now?
(© Getty Images)

The year is 2051. A deerstalker enters an open field on what used to be the edge of dense woodland in the south-west of England. He operates an unusual rifle with more electronics than you and I are used to. His electric truck is a collectable classic from the 2020s.

Drones with advanced artificial intelligence scout ahead, while insect-sized ground sensors feed in real-time data to a device on the stalker’s firearm, which fires something unusual—but not a bullet you and I would recognise. The drones flying ahead also seem to have the same capability.

I apologise for the prologue for what sounds like a Star Trek episode. We’re so focused on the current events surrounding deerstalking that we don’t often get to think about the future of deer management for decades ahead.

In order to imagine deer management in 2051 we first need to agree on some assumptions, the first being that deer continue to exist on the British Isles 30 years from now. I think this is all but certain—they have managed thousands of years so far. Would deer management still exist? That also seems certain, but the level and type of management is unclear.

Deer strongholds

So what might change significantly in the next three decades? My feeling is that the expansion of urbanisation and land use would almost certainly result in habitat loss for deer. It is very likely that the last strongholds would be in Scotland.

The outcome of such a change would be that the majority of the UK population may not fully understand nor appreciate deer culling—even more so than they don’t today. This could be the change that would fast accelerate restrictive laws, severe regulation, even a ban on stalking. 

One thing, however, is without doubt: conflict between deer and humans will fast accelerate in the next two decades. Large urban developments in the UK and habitat loss in rural areas will see more deer wandering into urban areas. Those more adapted to urban existence, such as muntjac, could potentially benefit from this. We may even see muntjac and Chinese water deer become the dominant species.

We next need to examine changes in ethical standards and morals of the future. Would our society still accept the culling of deer with a bullet? I fear this might be one contentious issue sure to rattle the mores of the day. Even venison, the most important by-product of deer culling, might face serious challenges.

Market share of artificial meat alternatives is expected to surpass $35billion (approximately £25billion) by 2030. Such alternatives would become the norm by 2051 and the real thing might fall out of fashion. Would a black market for real meat or even venison emerge?

We must next explore upcoming technologies that may make the traditional stalker all but redundant. Firearms technology and genetic engineering may allow us to have non-lethal intervention. Will the traditional stalker survive this level of onslaught on his livelihood and passion? I find this thought terrifying.

Will we still be using conventional rifles? I think so. I am not yet convinced the days of laser guns will be with us by then, although we might be closer. The military no doubt will be far ahead with it.  However, I am convinced that different classes of self-guiding or fire-and-forget projectiles might be in use with unique applications. 

The days of being a good Shot or those calibre arguments we all love may be confined to the history books, and hunting party conversations might be rather dull in the 2050s. Another possibility is that the stalker might stay at home and use a remotely controlled gun—which are in existence already—to shoot deer on a lease 250 miles away. That said, I don’t think the British legal system would allow such an exercise, not only from a safety perspective, but on ethical grounds as well.

Genetic controls

Alternative (non-lethal) deer management approaches such as contraceptive and even permanent genetic controls are interesting propositions. Scientists have been tinkering with contraceptives for population control of invasive species for nearly half a century.

It has never taken off in any meaningful way in large mammals but perhaps the next three decades will prove different. It is a tool we have never had in our toolbox. Will the future deer manager be part of a genetics team out in the field, working in concert with advanced AI and a national monitoring system? 

Perhaps the most interesting of future developments would be something called “gene drive”—a way of editing the genetics of an animal then releasing it into the wild so that the edited bit of the gene gets transmitted to the next generation, all the while slowly reducing breeding success.

Such a technology is already available, as it has been developed for controlling malaria. My view is that an advanced version of such an approach would be applied on deer but more to selectively reduce reproductive potential than eradicate deer completely. 

That rifle I imagined earlier with the futuristic stalker—might that be firing some sort of a vaccine aimed at changing the reproductive potential of the animal rather than deliver a terminal blow? It is possible that a dedicated squadron of drones could patrol future deer ranges, tagging and genetically disabling deer. In a world where deer numbers are monitored and genetically controlled 24/7, would there be any need for a rifle that spits bullets?

One aspect of stalking that will certainly change, and faster than most people anticipate, is that the recreational stalker will be slowly denied any stalking opportunities. 

Shrinking habitat, stricter regulation, as well as the rise of professional stalkers, will make it impossible to obtain land. This could well be the end of recreational stalking. I fear in the decades to come the amount of bureaucracy and regulation will only permit professional outfits, rendering the required skills sets hard to acquire for the recreational stalker. Perhaps this is the real blow to the sport: competition for stalking opportunities will increase lease prices. As my friend says, “they don’t make land any more”. 

What about the traditional guides, stalking estates, rifle manufacturers and game dealers? This has the potential to significantly change the deerstalking world. Will we get to a stage where deer numbers are so low that we may need to breed and release them to whatever land remains for sport?

I think this is very unlikely: the ethics of the day will most likely not permit such an endeavour. Perhaps this may keep the last remaining estates afloat, with clients paying over £50,000 of today’s money for a single animal.

Last haven

Compared with the rest of the world, the British Isles may harbour the last prominent deer population, which may preserve traditional stalking. I am very hopeful that our current efforts and strong tradition in deerstalking will persevere despite the immense changes on the horizon. What the next three decades hold is really open to debate, but my view is that recreational deer stalking may have already seen its golden years. 

I hope I would still be stalking deer in my 70s, when I get to look at the new generation of stalkers and their gizmos, and when I can start my sentence with, “back in my day…”


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