A powerful alliance of Scottish environmental groups has called for a radical rethink in the way deer are managed, which will mean making culls compulsory for landowners.
Legally-enforced targets for how many deer must be shot to protect trees would be highly controversial. But conservationists say they are essential to reduce severe damage caused by “unnaturally high” densities of deer and to meet wildlife, climate and environmental aims.
A new report from Scottish Environment Link, on behalf of 18 wildlife, woodland and outdoor groups representing over half a million members, proposes “statutory regulation” to cut deer numbers across Scotland. That would involve telling landowners how many they are allowed to keep and how many they must shoot – a move that would outrage estates that run traditional stalking businesses.
Many deer managers favour the current voluntary system. They say that those with the greatest knowledge of local conditions should set cull targets, overall numbers are roughly right, and more fencing will protect woodland.
In December Scottish Government ministers received a report on the future of Scotland’s deer herds from a working group set up in 2017. It was headed by the late Simon Pepper, a respected conservationist, and had a wide-ranging brief to look at deer management.
The working group was established after MSPs criticised efforts to curb the effects of deer on the environment. Its recommendations are likely to include measures to improve deer control, and the Scottish Government says its report will be published in the spring.
The Ferret is today releasing a podcast looking at the reality of deer stalking on the ground, and setting out the arguments for and against more stringent controls.
Environmental groups have told the working group deer numbers must be cut drastically. They say there are around 400,000 red deer in Scotland which eat young trees and prevent woodland regeneration.
High numbers of deer can strip out the understory – the shrubs and plants on the forest floor – and damage other important sites such as peatlands. Forests and peat are key carbon stores which can help mitigate climate pollution.
At present most of the red deer range – mainly in the Highlands – is covered by deer management groups, made up of local landholders, which set their voluntary target for culling each year after discussion with the government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).
But a policy document from the umbrella group, Scottish Environment Link, which includes the John Muir Trust (JMT), the National Trust for Scotland, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, has called for “statutory regulation to ensure deer densities are reduced to sustainable levels in every area.”
Any move to enforce rules on the numbers that landowners can keep or shoot is likely to be opposed by sporting estates. Large herds provide easy stalking and estates allegedly prefer them so they can keep wealthy customers satisfied. Conservation groups say this distorts the decisions of deer management groups.
The new report, intended to promote debate in the light of the working group report, also suggests a democratisation of stalking, with higher cull targets allowing many more ordinary citizens from local communities to hunt. It points out that in Norway, where cull numbers are set by the state, local people have priority use and venison is important in local cultures.
The report’s lead author is Mike Daniels, JMT’s head of land management and an expert on deer. “More and more people are looking at this and saying we can generate woodland without the cost of fencing just by reducing the population, but it needs to be encouraged with a stick as well as a carrot,” he said.
“At the moment the stick isn’t there, there’s no regulation and it’s left up to people to do what they want. The fundamental point is we need a much more regulatory system, (under which) – rather than just leaving it up to landowners to decide how many deer they want to shoot – it’s purely decided by the state as to how many deer should be culled.”
Daniels pointed out that a 1955 study by the famed ecologist, Frank Fraser Darling, suggested there should be around 60,000 red deer in the Highlands. Fifty years later the number stood at 400,000 plus. Deer densities elsewhere in Europe are ten or a hundred times less, and that is where he believes Scotland should be.
He pointed out that estates are valued on the number of stags they are likely to offer, and stalkers are incentivised by clients’ tips to provide a stag to shoot.
He added: “The real challenge of deer management in Scotland goes back to a cultural thing so you have to look across the world to see how deer are managed. We have a very unusual system of deer management here which is basically voluntary and it’s based on very high deer numbers.”
Fencing was not an answer as it was costly and eventually fell down, Daniels argued. Too many deer also created a welfare issue, he suggested, with large numbers dying off in the winter through starvation and lack of shelter.
Richard Cooke is chairman of the Association of Deer Management Groups. The groups’ members include stalking estates and those run primarily for conservation.
Cooke said the working group could recommend revolution or evolution. “My preference is for evolution,” he said.
“The deer sector has made huge progress over recent years but we already have a very high level of government intervention and if we increase that it falls little short of a fully regulated system, in which case the flexibility of the voluntary system would be lost.”
He added: “That’s really important because deer management is so different in different places … that flexibility is very much in the public interest … further intervention by SNH could well be counter-productive.”
Cooke believes red deer numbers have been cut and are currently “about where they should be” on the open range, but causing problems where they overflow onto forestry and farmland. He said it would be hard to impose a deeper cull because of a lack of stalkers.
SNH already has power to compel culls if it thinks land managers are not doing enough to protect the environment. But Cooke argued that good relations between SNH and estates meant “they don’t have to reach for their big sticks.”
He added: “We need encouragement, not more criticism.”
The establishment of the working group followed a report in 2016 from SNH on deer management. At that time the agency was criticised by MSPs for not taking a tough enough line against landowners who let numbers grow.
The group was chaired by Pepper until he died aged 70 in September 2018. The driving force behind establishing the environment group, WWF Scotland, he had campaigned for national parks and also helped set up Scottish Environment Link.
Farmer, forester and former deer commissioner for Scotland, Andrew Barbour, subsequently took over as acting chair. The other members of the group are Dr Jayne Glass, a land use policy researcher at Scotland’s Rural College, and Robin Callander, a land manager and government policy adviser.
A September 2019 update from SNH on deer management said progress had been made, but the agency admitted some key wildlife targets would be missed. SNH has previously come under fire for failing to take legal action against landowners for not culling deer.