In the lead up to a debate on deer management in the Scottish Parliament scheduled for 2nd May, we are issuing this short introduction to the issues and the case for reform. This follows a lengthy report by the Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee into the long-standing problem of managing wild deer. We welcome the Committee’s report and its call for much more rapid progress in bringing deer under control, so that people and deer can flourish in balance with the natural environment.
Scotland has four species of wild deer (red, roe and introduced sika and fallow). As wild animals, they belong to no-one; however the law gives owners of land the right to ‘take’ deer on their land, and also a responsibility to control them where necessary. Given the absence of natural predators (wolf, lynx) deer tend to multiply, causing increasing levels of damage to public interests.
This damage has been the subject of controversy for 150 years, especially in the case of red deer in the Highlands, where the creation of sporting estates led to a demand for higher numbers of “shootable” stags, by which these properties are valued.
Back in the late 1800s complaints were initially over the damage caused to crops of neighbouring tenant farmers and crofters, but as deer numbers grew during the 20th Century concerns grew over the impact on woodlands, wildlife, public safety on roads, and the welfare of the deer themselves.
Recent years have seen more issues come to the fore – overgrazing causing a general decline in ecological health and productivity of the uplands, reducing its resilience in the face of climate change. And the way that this one recreational land use is pursued on such a vast area of land, to the disadvantage of every other stakeholder interest, has placed this sector increasingly at odds with the land reform and land use objectives of the Scottish Government.
There is less ‘sporting’ interest in the smaller roe deer which frequents lowland woods and open spaces, even venturing onto road verges, cemeteries and suburban gardens; but sheer neglect has allowed this species also to grow considerably in numbers, causing a similar range of problems.
It’s not an overstatement to say that the situation has reached crisis proportions. Just considering three elements of public cost – to deal with forestry fencing, 7,000 deer-vehicle collisions, and the disproportionate cull undertaken by the Forestry Commission because other owners of land are not doing their bit – the annual total is about £15m, directly related to unjustified deer numbers.
The ECCLR Committee report is a timely alarm call. Its principal focus was on the natural heritage, where it says ‘a greater focus and urgency is now needed to address the challenges of deer management across Scotland’. But its recommendations show that the entire regulatory system needs to be re-calibrated to meet the legitimate expectations of society in the 21st Century. This would improve the landscape, transform the economics of forestry, promote the sustainable harvest of venison, contribute importantly to climate change mitigation, and revive the prospects of many forms of wildlife whose habitats have been degraded by overgrazing.
Importantly, these changes need not threaten the livelihoods of those who manage deer – quite the contrary. Deer are much more productive at lower densities, so there will always be a need for skilled stalkers to cull them humanely, maintaining a healthy deer herd in balance with a healthy and productive environment. A regenerating landscape will also support a wider range of sustainable jobs for others.
Parliament should strongly endorse the message of the ECCLR Committee, calling for urgent progress in reforming the regulation of deer management to meet society’s needs into the future.