Simon Pepper is a former director of WWF Scotland (1985-2005) and Deer Commissioner (2005-10) keen to see deer management delivering a better outcome for all interests. The following summary was written to provide some historical context for the consideration of changes to the law in the current Land Reform Bill, including the recent amendments on deer management from Mike Russell MSP.
“only ignorance and the numbing effect of custom can excuse public apathy in regard to the state to which proprietors of deer forests and the army of shooting tenants and gamekeepers have reduced so large a proportion of Scotland ….It is a burden so irksome and oppressive as to be altogether intolerable”1
For many years, concern has been rising at the widespread and serious damage caused by deer to the ecological and productive potential of the land, with major implications for rural development and the wider public interest.2
The ‘deer problem’ is not new. It has been a running sore for at least 150 years.
Following the growth of 1.5mha of ‘deer forests’ (ie private hunting estates) in the 19th Century, seven government-appointed inquiries sought to address the damage caused to agriculture by marauding red deer. After WWII, when the population was about 100,0003 the last of these inquiries led to the creation of the Red Deer Commission in 1959, with powers to intervene to protect agriculture and forestry. The advice of its official adviser Dr Frank Fraser Darling, was that this population was too large and an optimum number might be 60,0004. Since then, red deer numbers have more than trebled, and with increasing roe, sika and fallow deer numbers, the total Scottish deer population is now well over half a million5.
The following extracts from the RDC’s annual reports show the Commission repeatedly pleading in vain to sporting estate owners to keep deer numbers under control. In a vivid commentary to its impotence in the face of landed interests, the RDC’s tone rises gradually through mild advice, to frustrated pleading, to warnings and finally direct threats of legislative change (which, when enacted, still fails to stem the population increase):
1959 …red deer population estimated at c150,000…widespread marauding throughout the year…a symptom of overstocking ….the root of all deer ‘trouble’ is lack of adequate management…..In many areas there appears to be only one stalker now employed where in pre-war days there were anything from two to half a dozen….We appeal to all owners of estates carrying deer to give urgent consideration to the question of their proper management
1961 we appealed in our last report to all concerned to do all they can to get marauding deer under control….Some signs of response…but so few and far between as only slightly to diminish the pattern of marauding…..not much awareness of the necessity of methodical management of deer stocks.
1962 ..owners must take more interest in hind-culling…a greatly increased annual selective killing of hinds.
1963 …deer forests have suffered from too much emphasis on sporting values to the detriment of good management
1964 …deer forest owners should recognise that it is in their own interests to cooperate with RDC….a new outlook is needed and new methods of management and conservation must be tried
1965 …(overall) the population appears to be in the region of 180,000…deer stocks could be greatly improved in quality if numbers were reduced, shelter created, and a real effort made to weed out inferior beasts….an expanding forestry programme will reduce the available wintering for deer….the use of land entirely or mainly for deer cannot be justified where only a proportion of the annual recruitment is culled and the balance left to die or spread onto adjacent land.
1969 …deer could be a most valuable asset in the highlands if properly managed on a national basis
1970 …emphasise once again that effective conservation and control of red deer must begin with efficient management of deer on their proper forest ground. Control should not be solely the province of those who suffer damage….proper place is in the deer forests and at the hands of the forest owners and their stalkers
1976.. once again we must impress on certain estates the folly of allowing stocks to escalate to such high levels as exist at present, thus increasing the risk of severe mortality, starvation and much suffering, in the event of a hard winter….hind cull not nearly adequate to control the population…need to drastically increase their annual culls.
1977 .. for a number of years we have tried to impress on estates in one way or another the dangers involved in keeping such large stocks of deer on the limited range available to them…our advice to them is to act positively now to take a proper crop from the natural resource which is at their disposal.
1978 …present estimated population of 270,000 is considered to be too great for the existing range to support. We see no value in allowing mature deer or calves to die on the hill in winter simply because there is too much pressure on the wintering grounds for them to survive.
1979 …estate owners must realise that the same number of deer cannot be sustained when substantial areas of ground are sold or converted to forestry.
1980 …we are convinced that the population for the deer range available is still too high
1981 …to hold off culling in the hope that the present deflated price of venison is only a temporary setback …would inevitably lead to more marauding and out-of-season killing
1984 …at a time when winter range is being reduced, largely by afforestation, it is disturbing to see an increase in overall red deer numbers….even more disturbing that the total cull has reduced considerably. Estates are advised that the total cull, especially for hinds, must show a significant increase in 1985
1985 …the tendency for estates to reduce their hind cull has continued….the increase in open ground deer populations has continued….if this trend is not halted deer forest owners will leave themselves open to criticism from other land users. Deer of other species are certainly not declining in numbers. Roe and sika deer are capable of causing serious damage to commercial woodlands, agriculture and natural regeneration in areas that are particularly vulnerable. Owners and occupiers must be prepared to co-operate in the control and management of deer.
1986 Deer managers in the past two years have tended to compensate for a scarcity of mature stags by reducing the hind cull. This has contributed to the increase in the total red deer population. At a time when deer stocks of all species are increasing in number, the potential for damage to agriculture and forestry cannot be exaggerated. Unless managers cooperate in achieving an acceptable balance … the Commission is concerned that future relations between deer interests and the forestry and agriculture industries may deteriorate.
1987 …deer managers must be prepared to accept more responsibility for controlling deer on their ground in order to avoid pressure on their neighbours. With few notable exceptions, the passage of another year has seen little success in reducing the populations of red deer on the open hill, and of red, sika and roe deer in woodland. ..The impact of unacceptable deer pressure on neighbouring livelihoods dissipates the natural sympathy that most people have towards deer. Unless managers can be convinced that a greater effort is required to reduce deer numbers, the RDC will have no option but to recommend the introduction of a more radical statutory resolution of the problem.. [RDC’s emphasis]
1988 When we have reported in the past that stocks are too great…we have been accused of generalisation… we have always stated that there are estates and groups who are managing their deer in a satisfactory manner. The fact remains that …at a time when we exhorted managers to intensify the cull, an increase of 2,279 was the sum total of the response…. It is not surprising that the population continues to rise…we implore the better managers and groups to direct their displeasure and resentment to those who bring the deer industry into disrepute. …a rising number of complaints (from other land users) reflects the problems of inept and careless deer management.
1989 “Thirty years on and no improvement” – a Statement by the Chairman: …the single over-riding factor during the thirty years of our existence has been the steady increase in red deer numbers (to 300,000 )…the success of well managed estates and groups has been more than cancelled out by the performance of others who have failed to appreciate the problems that over-population brings to neighbours and the deer themselves…If we cannot get the required cooperation from deer managers the Commission will have no alternative but to seek a statutory solution to the problems.
1990 …disappointing to have to continue to exhort the need for further action. Estate, forestry and woodland owners have a responsibility to manage the deer populations on ground which they own or control. Failure to demonstrate positive action in that direction could result in the Government being convinced that there is a lack of will on the part of owners. Changes in legislation might therefore be proposed which removes the freedom of owners to determine deer management policy on their estates.
1991 the demand continues for a reduction in deer numbers. …The early introduction of revised legislation which incorporates a measure of flexibility would enable the RDC to adopt a more positive role in relation to population trends and their control.
1993 ..for the first time (since 1959), the cull figures exceeded recruitment. The pressure must continue in areas where numbers are still too high.
1994/5 [NB estates relieved of sporting rates. Minister: “..should go to better management of deer”] …deer managers will have to face the need for still more dedication to raiser the hind cull.
[SNH supports the RDC’s proposal to reduce the overall red deer population by 100,000 as a first step towards integrated management6]
1995/6 ..unless deer managers can gain control of areas where there are still too many hinds, the commission will be urged on all sides to introduce compulsory powers….a (greater) cull needed to maintain the status quo….there is a long way to go.
1996/7 ..in many areas current culls are not reducing the population either in woodland or on the open hill…there must be a higher commitment to cooperation and increasing the cull. ..target hind culls will be set…where numbers remain too high…if they are not achieved, compulsory control schemes may have to be introduced.
1997/8 ..in too many places ..hind culls remain insufficient to match recruitment….numbers remain obstinately high and in some places are continuing to rise. If the voluntary principle is to continue, peer pressure within Deer Management Groups is needed.
1998/9 [replacement of the Red Deer Commission with the Deer Commission for Scotland, with additional powers to intervene to protect the natural heritage from damage by deer] Red deer continue to increase on open range despite strenuous efforts to control them, and all deer species are increasing in woodlands. Unless strictly controlled these woodland deer populations will multiply and pose a serious threat to woodland establishment and sustainability. …still greater efforts are essential.
1999/2000 ..deer populations are still rising in some areas, and there is still a long way to go to achieve sustainable levels compatible with other land uses.
2000/1 …deer populations rose in 70% of count areas between the last two Commission counts……suitable populations and densities compatible with other land use interests will need to be established and maintained in many cases requiring additional effort.
[review of pilot Deer Management Plans: none provides a comprehensive and coherent analysis…little evidence that the pilot DMPs have had a direct influence on the management of deer.]
2001/2 [Commission switches emphasis onto impacts rather than numbers, especially on its new priorities of Natura sites where protection is now mandatory. Meanwhile no attention is given to the impact of deer on the great expanse of land outside designated sites]
2002/3 …new Priority Sites concept …an attempt to get away from over simplistic ‘too many deer in Scotland’ cliché which has dogged debate for years [nevertheless expressing concern at 19% reduction in hind cull, 27% in calf cull]
2003/4 …continuation of a low cull raises the risk of increasing deer numbers, and increasing impacts.
2004/5, 2005/6, 2006/7, 2007/8, 2008/9, 2009/10 [no refs to overall population, but reports of static or declining culls, while main emphasis is on voluntary agreements to protect designated sites]
2009/10 [Concluding remarks from Chairman before merger with SNH]: …the current voluntary system has not evolved much in the last 20 years…..if opportunities for reform are not taken then other approaches will need to be considered.
2010 [merger with SNH; detailed annual reporting ceases]
2013 The most recent population estimates for Scotland suggest overall numbers of between 360,000-400,000 red deer, 200,000-350,000 roe deer, 25,000 sika deer and an estimated 2,000 fallow deer (SPICe 2013)
1Mr James Scott in a minority report to a report by the Game and Heather Burning (Scotland) committee, 1921
2H. Armstrong http://www.forestpolicygroup.org/topic-papers/ ; FCS Native Woodland Survey 2014
3Rural Forum report The management of Wild Deer in Scotland 1991
4West Highland Survey 1955
6SNH Policy paper 1994