Scotland’s annual deer cull target for 2020-21 has been cut by 10 per cent as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, government agency NatureScot has announced.
But this year the total cull will be around 10 per cent lower because of factors including Covid-19 restrictions and the falling price of venison.
The same factors also mean that some estates may not shoot enough deer to achieve even this, lower, target.
As a result NatureScot says there could be increased damage to trees from too many deer, prompting fresh calls by conservationists to overhaul the system for deer management to ensure the environment is properly protected.
Charities The John Muir Trust and Trees for Life have suggested a range of measures to ensure trees and peatland are properly protected from deer damage – from legally enforceable cull targets to a subsidy for the price of venison.
The UK’s deer population is believed to be at its highest level for 1,000 years, with some two million deer in the countryside and semi-urban areas.
A report this year estimated that up to one million wild deer could be roaming Scotland
Farmers and conservationists are ever-more concerned at the impact deer have on crops and wildlife, and scientists now argue that an increase in culling levels is essential.
Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) – which used to be the Forestry Commission – said the cull on the land it manages, eight per cent of Scotland, will be down by 25 per cent, from 40,000 animals to 30,000, as a result of coronavirus challenges.
The plunging price of venison and the lack of guests paying to be taken stalking are among reasons for both the lower overall cull figure and missed targets by individual estates.
Donald Fraser, NatureScot’s deer management chief, said culls for areas where deer numbers need to be cut most were set higher than others this year to ensure they were protected. But he estimated the average reduction in planned targets as “roughly 10 per cent.”
While upland areas and large estates had generally met targets, some smaller estates and woodland areas, outside the large Deer Management Group alliances covering most of the Highlands, had struggled. Cull targets are not legally enforceable.
“The more concerning thing is … to make sure the woodland cull is taken, and a reduction in that will have an impact,” Fraser said.
He said the cut on FLS land will have an impact, and added: “If that is replicated on the [woodland] private-sector interest, that will be a concern.”
Cull targets were set in October before the start of the hind-shooting season: hinds (female deer) are the crucial factor in controlling deer numbers. Most shooting should be finished by now – 15 February is the end of the hind season – although some culling with special licences goes on until the end of March.
Fraser said factors behind the target reductions included concerns about working in teams under coronavirus regulations and fears from estates the venison might not sell because of lack of demand.
A lack of paying guests because of tourism restrictions and uncertainty over what Covid-19 rules might be and a reluctance to “over-commit” were other factors, he said.
The wholesale price of venison has tumbled from £2.30 a kilo to £1 as the restaurant market has dried up.
Fraser said cull numbers would not fall below 100,000. The most recent complete annual cull figures show around 115,000 deer of all species – red, roe, sika and fallow – were shot in 2018-19, down from a high of 135,000 the year before.
He added that the shortfall in culling this season could be made up next season: “If the cull is reduced overall we need to make sure we can accommodate that next year in the planning, in the hope that restrictions are eased,” he said.
Next month the Scottish Government is expected to respond to last year’s critical report by the Deer Working Group on deer management, which suggests compulsory cull targets set by NatureScot to achieve environmental improvements such as expanding woodlands, which are key to fighting climate change.
Most land managers fiercely oppose compulsory cull targets, which they fear could cut deer numbers on individual estates to the point that there are too few animals for their sporting clients.
But Mike Daniels from the John Muir Trust says the reduced cull shows the need for legally enforced targets and a move away from the commercial stalking model.
“This highlights the difficulty of the voluntary system – there’s no mechanism to step in if people fail to meet their targets. The failure of the market in stalking tourism exposes the flaw in the system.”
He said the venison market could be changed if more hunting was carried out by local communities, with the meat sold and used locally.
Doug Gilbert from the Scottish woodland charity Trees for Life suggested a subsidy for venison prices: “That might be a cheaper and more effective way of doing things, although it is another subsidy.”
But Richard Cooke, chairman of the Association of Deer Management Groups said: “I think it is fairly remarkable that [deer] managers have mainly stuck to their targets, despite a 60% cut in value, ie despite market forces.”
In Scotland, the annual cull of deer is carried out by shooting or by “live capture”. The meat is sold for consumption.
According to the Deer Working Group, more than 100,000 deer are shot each year, but only a small number are captured live.
Some campaigners have called for deer numbers to be controlled by contraceptive darts rather than shooting.
Photo thanks to iStock/Dgwildlife.