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Dear oh Deer: Scotland’s land use saga continues

Deer are our most populous large wild mammal – Are they also an icon of our feudal past, or a conservation whipping boy? David Lintern exhumes the bones of an ongoing debate.

The last two months have seen a flurry of reports from both conservation and hunting bodies that look at the costs and benefits to wildlife, the environment and the economy of proposals to reduce deer numbers. Most were launched ahead of the government commissioned Deer Working Group (DWG) Report, a weighty deconstruction of the ‘deer problem’ that has provoked strong reactions – both for and against – among various stakeholders. However, the issue of ‘marauding’ deer is not new. Between 1872 and the first Deer Act of 1959 there were no less than seven government enquiries.

Red deer stags in their natural environment – the pinewood

In the three years since last I wrote about the issue for Walkhighlands, what has changed? In some ways, not a great deal: Deer are still managed on a voluntary basis in parts of the country by deer management groups; their numbers not statutorily controlled. One of the recommendations of this new independent report is to change that, and institute more regulation. And we still have among the very lowest woodland densities and highest deer densities in Europe – lots of grazing herbivores and bare hills – this again is backed up by the new report, which recommends a significant reduction in the numbers of deer overall to try and redress the balance.

Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen, near where it was painted in Glen Feshie

Zoom out, though and there are at least two key changes. The way forestry is managed has had a radical shakeup… about which more in a while. And the government has announced a climate emergency, so there’s a growing policy focus on woodland cover and in mitigating the effects of global heating. Tree planting targets are increasing year on year, playing “a pivotal role in tackling the climate emergency and steering us towards becoming a low-carbon economy”, says Rural Economies Secretary Fergus Ewing. Peatland is in the spotlight too, it’s carbon released under cloven hooves. It’s taking a while, but everything is beginning to be viewed through these new climate change goggles. Should deer be managed for the national, even the global good – or should they continue to be managed for private interests, including sport?

Challenges to livelihoods are not easy or a laughing matter. Then again, neither is climate change. Rather than just repeat what the report says (see footer for more info), I want to try and address some of the concerns thrown up in its wake. Are there opportunities for growth and progress, or just threats to a way of life?

What about the Numbers?

Deer numbers remain contested. The DWG report recommends that numbers should be reduced to no more than 10 per square kilometer across the country, and that this should be reviewed regularly. Its critics say that deer numbers are the lowest they’ve been for several decades and the voluntary approach is working, quoting a number of around 9 per square kilometer already achieved.

Regeneration in Glen Feshie

Deer are incredibly difficult to count, even by helicopter and on open ground – they tend to move around a lot! But because shooting estates are valued on the numbers of stags, it’s in each estate’s best interest to under report, with the aim of a lower cull target. This is impossible to prove outright, but the DWG point to discrepancies between the cull return figures and the headcounts. Estate and game keeping groups have also quoted a figure of 1 million deer culled over ten years, and the cull records do show an uptick in the last year, but arguably this number is meaningless without context – it just shows how many deer there are to manage.

So exact figures are not currently available, and we’re at somewhere between 300,000 and 450,000 red deer. Add in Roe deer and the two non-natives – Fallow and Sika – and we end up somewhere between 700,000 and a million.

But whichever numbers we run with, what is absolutely clear is that there are too many deer for trees to regenerate. This has been proven beyond any doubt by experiments in Glen Feshie, Mar Lodge and land cared for by the Borders Forest Trust and the John Muir Trust, all of whom endeavour to keep deer numbers between 1-5 per square kilometer and have seen remarkable levels of regeneration in the last decade as a result. Even if we have arrived at that 9 per square kilometer figure, it’s still at least double what the land can support for an increase in woods and forests that all (including the Association of Deer Management Groups) seem to agree we need to combat climate change. This is perhaps why the new report suggests switching the focus from counting heads – very inaccurate and subject to bias – to ‘public interest’ impacts.

Heavily browsed Juniper in the Monadhliath. Often seed source is still available, and regeneration could happen naturally.

Switch the focus to observable grazing impacts on shrubs and trees, and numbers of car accidents involving deer, as two examples, and you do two things. Firstly, create a good deal of monitoring work – great for local economies (not to mention training and education) – and secondly, deer are only reduced where they are impacting on the thing we say we want to promote; more woodland, less accidents.

What about the Sheep?

Surely sheep do much more damage than deer, they are everywhere. Why pick on the deer?

Sheep are domesticated, and deer are wild. There’s a legal distinction around ownership here, and it’s very important – while hunting rights are held by the landowner, the deer themselves belong to no one until they are killed. In the meantime, they are considered a shared resource and have to be managed for the common good of all the people of Scotland, not only for private interests. Put another way, sheep are livestock and deer are quarry. Livestock are already subject to licensing and regulation, whereas deer are not formally controlled, especially when compared to other countries. We have only a ‘voluntary principle’ and best practice guidance. According to its supporters, the new report is only recommending the same kinds of oversight as anything else where there is a public interest component.

Secondly, the organisations who support the new report do their conservation work in the uplands. The vast majority of Red deer are concentrated in this Highland region, whereas the vast majority of sheep are concentrated in the Borders. One of the things the report does is to refocus the deer debate away from sporting interests and red deer, to consider the issues around all four species as a whole, and the massive growth in the Roe population especially… and it asks that Scottish Natural Heritage, as the regulating body, rebalance their efforts in this way too.

Regen marching up the slopes, photographed from Loch Morlich

I can also think of a few instances where upland conservation NGOs are involved in discussions on sheep, where they are being impacted… next to grouse moors (where sheep are sometimes used as tick mops), crofting leases, fencing for neighbours and so on. Those groups are talking to their neighbours, though – not finger pointing.

What about the fences?

Fences are a sticking point. Even at 2017 levels, they cost nearly £5million a year to the public purse. If we expand our woodland and don’t reduce deer numbers, then the costs of protecting that woodland will only rise. Deer are woodland creatures, and exclosing them from their natural habitat results in huge winter losses from starvation and shelter. They also funnel deer onto adjacent land and cause death to birds through ‘birdstrike’, as well as restricting access and the right to roam for humans. Are these compromises worth bearing to maintain higher numbers of deer?

Forest Land Scotland, the ‘landowner’ on behalf of the nation managing the Forest Estate, are not so sure. FLS covers 9% of all Scotland’s land, and carry out about 30% of the total cull. They won’t be drawn on whether they are discontinuing fencing on the land they look after for us (as I’ve heard from unofficial sources), but an official spokesperson said, “in response to the Deer Working Group report, as well as playing our part in the Scottish Government’s commitment to climate change and other biodiversity challenges – our use of deer fencing will be given careful consideration in a review of our Deer Management strategy during 2020.”

The Association of Deer Management Groups have said “We do not think it has to be a case of trees OR deer; it can be a matter of trees AND deer, but the way our national forests are managed has changed radically in the last two years, with some knock-on budget effects. It may be that if sporting interests want to maintain higher numbers of deer, they’ll need to pay to fence them in, rather than have the public bear the cost of fencing them out.

What about Animal Welfare?

Some details around cull methodology in the report have proved particularly contentious. It recommends the use of night sights is reviewed, with a view to extending their use. It also recommends that the close season for stags is repealed (to allow the culling of stags year-round, without the current process of seeking an exception), and a reduction in the close season for Hinds. This last one arouses some strong feeling due to the sensitivities of culling pregnant deer, despite the fact that it seems to have been based on consultations with the stalking community. It’s perhaps worth saying that within the new recommendations, there is still latitude for stalkers to choose which individual animals to cull, dependent upon meeting cull targets.

Dead fawn in May. Fenced birch wood just out of shot to the right

Animal welfare organisations have expressed concern that a democratisation of deer stalking on a Norwegian model would lead to many more maimed and injured animals. Again though, alarmist headlines hide important detail. Following Dunblane, control of firearms licenses was strengthened – thankfully, it’s not that easy to procure a weapon. And there are also positive examples in Scotland that could be used as models. Community owned North Harris Trust already runs a Stalking Club, which allows locals to participate in the cull in a controlled and well organised manner.

At the other end of the spectrum, I was surprised to learn there is no legal requirement to be trained in culling, even for those professionally involved. The UK does have accredited deer stalking qualifications and the industry has encouraged the uptake of certification, but formal training is not mandatory. Across Europe, Scotland is almost the exception in this regard. The report draws on a good deal of research on deer wounding and shows it to be an ongoing welfare issue. It recommends that a new register of those ‘fit and competent’ be established and kept up to date, and that Scotland refine the existing certification system and move in the direction of a mandatory ‘trained hunter’ qualification.

There are other welfare issues to consider, too. Human health, as affected by deer related car accidents and a significant increase in Lymes disease. And wild salmon, whose numbers are in freefall. There’s a brand new, £6million pledge to plant 1 million trees on the river Dee – in order to promote better riverside health and improve habitat for the fish – yet this is an area identified as having some of the highest concentrations of hungry grazers. At their current levels, deer really are dear.

What about the Work?

Recently, the chair of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association had this to say;

“The difference between the rural working person and the urban working person is often very little, other than geography. They have the same worries, trying to bring up families and keep roofs over heads as the factory or shift workers of Glasgow or Dundee. A decent wage, decent conditions, good healthcare and schools for their kids. That is what most of us want. Whether we like it or not, most people work for a wealthy man or woman somewhere down the line, whether you are working for an estate owner, working on the rigs or working for Amazon.”

There’s nothing to disagree with here, and I’m delighted that we may be moving away from the caricature of an urban/rural divide that has coloured so much of the debate in the past. Hard figures on employment are – a bit like hard figures on deer numbers – hard to come by, but the Association of Deer Management Groups calculate that deer management supports around 845 FTE jobs (There’s more detail on this in that previous article).

Can we do better? Conservation organisations maintain that a bigger deer cull and fewer fences would necessitate a larger workforce. In Glen Feshie and on Mar Lodge Estate, lower numbers of deer have begun to regenerate otherwise geriatric woodland, and have created gainful, permanent employment. It’s not been without conflict, but they have done this without fencing, and it’s needed more people on the ground to do it. I live locally to Feshie, and am told there are more staff now than have existed there for a century.

Fresh faces and ideas in Glen Feshie – the Grants of Auchlean farm

Scottish Environment Link point out that in Norway, 10% of the general population are registered hunters, connecting them to the land and its wildlife as a resource as well as a pastime. These people all need training and guiding. I’ve seen legitimate concerns expressed about hunting with dogs in this context… but the report has recommendations on that too.

And if the ‘voluntary principle’ of the Deer Management Groups is felt by the Government to be unsatisfactory, there’s also the option to break away from that model altogether. The report suggests that Scotland should explore new, more flexible partnership models and manage the issue at a local level – a change of emphasis which should help us deal with the other species, in particular Roe. There’s an opportunity in that flexibility for local communities to engage in their own local woodland creation and maintenance, and a chance for new timber, tourism and hunting businesses to emerge.

Dear oh deer

For what it’s worth, I have some sympathy for the stalking community, some of whom are my neighbours and who are in the job by and large because they know and love the outdoors. Nobody likes being told what to do under an open sky, and change can be intimidating… but this is a job of work, and given that deer are legally a shared resource, the Scottish people also have a say in how that work is done. A climate emergency has been declared, and with it there’s a brand-new context for the age old ‘deer problem’. It remains to be seen whether the Scottish Government will follow through on that declaration, implement stronger regulation and finally give our poor Scottish icon some dignity back.

Red deer stags in their natural environment – the pinewood

A government response to the Deer Working Group report is expected in autumn 2020.

For the background and context on how deer are managed, and more ideas about transitioning to different ways of managing deer, see our earlier piece:

Some summary information on the Deer Working Group report:

Editor’s note: Since publication, area units have been corrected to square kilometers, and the statistic about involvement levels in hunting has been clarified.

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