A venison subsidy is a positive and unifying issue for deer management in Scotland

Tom Turnbull, Chair of the Association of Deer Management Groups; Duncan Orr-Ewing, Convenor of Scottish Environment LINK’s Deer Group; Richard Cooke, Chair of Scottish Venison.  All are members of the Common Ground Forum.

Scottish venison is bringing people from all sides of the deer debate together.  Of all the qualities that deer management brings to Scotland, be it quality tourism or the skilled craft of our deer stalkers, Scottish venison is right up there as one of the most valuable products to come from our hills and forests.  At a time when differences of opinion on deer management are coming to the surface once more, this seems a good moment to write jointly about an issue, and an opportunity, which we each passionately believe in. 

Venison is a healthy meat, low in fat, high in flavour and has featured in Scottish cuisine, both lofty and humble, for centuries.  Most of our venison comes from wild, rather than farmed, deer populations that have been part of our landscapes for millennia.  While it may have a reputation for being expensive in some quarters, it sits in roughly the same price bracket as Scotch beef and lamb.  In short, we have a great product that is distinctively Scottish and highly marketable.

The clear direction of government policy is that deer populations in Scotland need to be reduced to help enable nature’s recovery and mitigate climate change across more of our landscapes.  A greater amount of work will be needed to implement this, with increased costs.  Venison sales are often the only income to offset these costs, but current prices fall a long way short of reflecting the true value of this high-quality product.  Research has indicated that it does not even cover the costs of hunting, letalone bringing venison to the market. 

And it is here that we see a clear opportunity for Scotland.  We have written jointly to the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Islands to ask her to consider allocating a small proportion of the public funding for land management to a venison subsidy.  We argue that doing so will directly support the additional deer management needed to allow our woodlands and peatlands to regenerate, while helping at the same time to secure the basis of a sustainable venison market that Scotland can be proud of for years to come. 

The investment required is estimated at £3-5 million per year, a comparatively minor part of Scotland’s annual ~£650 million land management budget.  This will contribute to the costs of deer management in delivering a range of vital outcomes everyone will benefit from – for nature, climate change, jobs in deer management and allowing deer, one of our finest national assets, to shine.  For all these reasons, we hope that the government will also see this as too good an opportunity to miss.

The discussions that us led to identifying this opportunity and to jointly write to the Cabinet Secretary took place under the Common Ground Forum, an initiative that brings together all those in the Scottish deer sector interested in a more collaborative approach to deer management, based on mutual respect and consensus building, can contribute to a vision of a greener, healthier and economically vibrant future.

Hear Richard Cooke interviewed on this topic on BBC Good Morning Scotland on 11 April 2024 via this link. Item starts at 10.20 in.

ADMG expresses deep concern at prospect of the most radical changes to deer management in living memory

Tom Turnbull, Chair of The Association of Deer Management Groups (ADMG) has fired a broadside at proposals in the Scottish Government’s consultation on deer management which closes on Friday 29 March saying that if they progress to become law they will not only be the most radical changes to deer management in Scotland in living memory but be a major step backwards for the delivery of collaborative deer management in the future.

One major bone of contention is the proposal for the introduction of Deer Management Nature Restoration Orders (DMNROs). This is a completely new regulatory concept demanding reductions in deer numbers to levels to be specified over as yet undefined but potentially extensive areas and over an undefined timeframe, potentially decades. It is proposed that such orders would be implemented on the basis of ‘nature restoration and enhancement’ ie on a totally subjective basis, whereas current regulations can be applied to counter or prevent damage following a series of rigorous steps and negotiation with the land owner or Deer Management Group.

The penalty for a land owner for non-compliance with the new DMNRO is proposed as a £40,000 fine, 3 months imprisonment, or both.

Tom Turnbull says:

“This draconian measure completely over-rides the current system that we understood was to be updated through this latest round of changes to deer management regulation and legislation. It also blows the principle of voluntary deer management clean out of the water. There would be no room for negotiation and it’s unclear in the consultation whether there would be any mechanism for appeal. If it goes ahead it will almost certainly end up in the courts.

“Moreover, this concept was not one of the recommendations of the expert Independent Deer Working Group that was set up to advise government where legislation around wild deer might be improved and streamlined.  This has come completely out of left field – no science in support, no evidence that it will work – and actually at this stage very little if any detail, which is another reason for wanting to see it excised from any future thinking now.

“We are happy to talk to government about our concerns in more detail.

“We are also concerned by the information issued by the Scottish Government at the launch of the consultation which stated that ‘there are around one million wild deer in Scotland, up from around 500,000 in 1990’. This is completely subjective, and we challenge government to provide the science and evidence to support that claim.

“ADMG members are already committed and contributing massively to delivering on the Scottish biodiversity and climate change targets at landscape scale through regeneration and planting of woodland and restoration of peatbogs – and have been for the last 10 years and more.

“What is needed is facilitation and streamlining. Recent cuts of 40% to the Forestry Grant Scheme demonstrate Scottish Government’s lack of dedication to the very schemes that will support change.”

ADMG has also raised concerns that it is the upland deer range that is again being targeted for increased culls.  An uplift in the cull of 50,000 over five years was announced last year, but evidence through official reported returns shows a steadily rising cull anyway.

“It’s always the upland deer range,” says Tom Turnbull.  “That’s because there is a mechanism through the 50 or so Deer Management Groups, with published deer management plans, that are undertaking habitat monitoring and in almost all cases already reducing deer numbers – DMGs are an easy target for government to focus on and turn the screw.”

There is also the question of incentives.  Deer management is delivered at a cost to the manager/owner in virtually all scenarios, and the case has been raised with government that this reduction in deer numbers is in support of its climate and biodiversity targets and to be delivered in the public interest, but the increased cost burden is being carried by the private sector. 

“We are asking for financial support,” says Tom Turnbull, “and we will continue to ask, and developing incentives for deer management are supposed to be an important workstream for the Strategic Deer Board.  But the bottom line is that we don’t believe government has any money.  Basically, they want it all, but they want someone else to pay for it.”

ADMG’s response to the Consultation Managing Deer for Climate and Nature is available online here [link].

For more information about ADMG see www.deer-management.co.uk

To subscribe to the ADMG electronic newsletter e-scope here’s the link.

For more information or an interview with ADMG please contact:
Dick Playfair
Playfair Walker
Tel: 0131 445 5570
E: richard@playfairwalker.com 

Deer, farmers, bogs and trees

Summary
Over the past 7-8 years or so, there has been an interesting project taking place around Flanders Moss in west Stirlingshire to reduce deer damage to agriculture and the natural heritage. Although there isn’t a woodland angle as such in terms of objectives, trees have driven the situation to a very large extent, and the dynamic created has produced huge swathes of native woodland regeneration which are actually a real problem for all concerned. The following article sets out the context and past history. It takes some time to get to the tree bit, but the little tree twist at the end is interesting and will resonate with others elsewhere in Scotland.

Victor Clements, Chair of the Flanders Moss Deer Management Forum and native woodland advisor writes:

Introduction
Flanders Moss lies on the western part of the Carse of Stirling. It is a raised bog sitting on an otherwise flat landscape and is perhaps the best known and important lowland bog habitat in the country, being designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and also as a National Nature Reserve (NNR). NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage) owns a relatively small part of the moss, with the majority of the area being owned by the surrounding farms and one sizeable estate.

The surrounding farmland is very fertile, and the area is well known for its ability to produce both livestock and crops. The upper River Forth winds its way through the area. Centuries ago, much of the area was covered in deep peat, but it was “improved” by cutting the peat, taking it to the Forth by horse and cart, and effectively just floating it all away, revealing the mineral soil beneath. An astonishing effort, and unlikely to be approved off today. The result is a very flat, fertile landscape, in which drainage is very important, supporting a large number of relatively small farms, the majority of whom are owner occupiers. Flanders Moss itself sits as a low, flat dome, slightly above this landscape. In many ways, it is counter-intuitive that the higher area should be wetter than the lower surrounding land, but this is the reality, and it has implications for the issues now at hand.

Continue reading “Deer, farmers, bogs and trees”

ADMG Chairman’s response to recommendations made by the Deer Working Group to be implemented via secondary legislation

The Association of Deer Management Groups (ADMG) welcomes the opportunity for stakeholder engagement and always insists that deer welfare is at the forefront of any changes to deer management legislation. We therefore have reservations about elements of the proposed changes.

The recommendation that light intensifying and heat sensitive devices for the night shooting of deer be permitted raises concerns, particularly in relation to the identification of deer sex and age as well as the ability to identify whether there is a safe backstop for bullets or ‘in line of sight’ vegetation which could lead to bullet deflection. There may also be risk of misidentification particularly in areas of regular human activity. Weather conditions can alter the performance of these devices and could lead to an increased chance of mishap. If the Scottish Government is to proceed with this recommendation ADMG would strongly recommend that Best Practice Guidance is in place for the use of this technology prior to any implementation.

The proposed adjustment to approved ammunition regulation for deer would be welcome in view of the steadily increasing take-up of non-lead ammunition on food safety and environmental grounds as the present restrictions have acted as a constraint on the conversion process, particularly at some calibres. However, ADMG is aware that some of our members have concerns about the efficacy of non-lead ammunition and have raised welfare concerns. We are also aware of a heightened risk of bullet ricochet with non-lead ammunition and therefore health and safety issues when using it. It is for the person responsible for the culling to ensure calibre size and bullet weight is appropriate for conditions and species.

ADMG welcomes the decision not to extend the season for female deer but we do have apprehensions about the removal of the stag seasons. Many deer managers will continue to stick to the same traditional seasons and choose not to shoot deer further into the winter when stags in particular are in depleted condition post rut leading to welfare concerns about disturbance due to culling. We feel therefore that this change has negative welfare implications while being unlikely to greatly increase the cull of deer in Scotland.  It will also be likely to be a divisive issue within some Deer Management Groups and undermine effective landscape scale collaboration.

The advantage of the current requirement to have an authorisation to shoot deer out of season means that there are checks and balances as to who is culling deer and a valuable record of out of season culls. To obtain an authorisation it is currently necessary to be on the Fit and Competent Persons register and be aware therefore of Best Practice Guidance. Removing this necessity means that NatureScot has less control of who is shooting deer and when, and deer welfare is potentially compromised.  ADMG feels strongly that any downgrading of the use and status of the Fit and Competent provision will be a significant retrograde step, and indeed a surprising one when the general trend in respect of deer management and other upland land use is for increased regulatory intervention.

Tom Turnbull
Chairman, ADMG
May 2023

Comment on the outcome of the vote on South Uist regarding deer numbers. Statement from the Association of Deer Management Groups (ADMG)

Tom Turnbull, Chairman, the Association of Deer Management Groups, says:

ADMG is pleased that the vote on South Uist has gone against an outright cull of the island’s entire deer population.  ADMG supports the South Uist Deer Management Group and has welcomed its ongoing commitment to reduce the deer population to a level that will be helpful to promote biodiversity and secure the jobs involved.  As in all Deer Management Groups there is a balance to be struck and deer are an important component of our wildlife and an attraction for tourism bringing economic benefits to rural communities. Increased culls have already been undertaken this winter in a response to last year’s helicopter count. This shows a proactive approach to deer management and towards meeting the concerns of the community.

Assynt

The Assynt Peninsula Sub Group of the West Sutherland Deer Management Group has been endeavouring to collaboratively reduce deer densities to a previously agreed target density of 7 deer per sq km. This population target goes beyond the 10 deer per sq km set out in the Deer Working Group recommendations and is based on delivering sustainable deer management as part of a landscape scale plan, taking into account local environmental as well as socio-economic interests.

ADMG has been actively engaged with the Sub Group with Tom Turnbull acting as chair for the last few years and good progress has been made. Following a recent helicopter count, cull targets for the Group were increased and it had been hoped that the deer numbers could be reduced whilst not negatively impacting on an important income stream to a remote rural community.

Tom Turnbull, Chairman, ADMG, says:

“It is disappointing that The John Muir Trust has withdrawn from the Group. The contributions of the Trust’s employees have been important over the last few years and have so far aided and supported a collaborative approach.

“It will place the Assynt Peninsula Sub Group in a difficult position as they try to continue to reduce deer numbers to avoid degradation on important designated sites whilst also endeavouring to maintain an important sporting asset that provides employment and income to the remote community. Deer wander and move according to pressure, weather, exclusion and disturbance. Without considering the landscape as a whole ADMG believes that the land management objectives of all members could be compromised.

“ADMG strongly promotes collaborative sustainable deer management that includes all land managers within a landscape and we are pleased that the highlands are one of the few areas of the UK where deer numbers are actually dropping whilst continuing to retain employment in rural areas. The situation on Assynt however vividly highlights the challenges that will be encountered in deer management in the highlands as deer managers are encouraged to achieve ambitious Scottish Government targets for the climate and biodiversity through deer reductions.”

Finding the Common Ground on Sustainable Deer Management

Finding the Common Ground is a joint project between the Association of Deer Management Groups and Scottish Environment LINK. It intends to develop better relations across the deer sector in upland Scotland to find shared solutions that will support the implementation of the Scottish Government’s action in the light of their response to the Deer Working Group recommendations.

For decades, relationships between some of the groups involved in upland deer management have been characterised by low trust and conflict. If we are to genuinely navigate the changing priorities for upland deer management, we urgently need to understand, and then address, the barriers to workable relationships.

After about a year of preparation and consultation, the project kicked off at the end of August 2022, with a residential workshop for around 40 stakeholders representing different perspectives across the deer management sector – including private landowners and managers, deer stalkers, the Scottish Government and statutory agencies, public landowners, environmental NGOs, the agricultural sector, foresters and community trusts. The group was facilitated by Centre for Good Relations, an independent not-for-profit company whose core work is “civic mediation”, involving facilitation and dialogue to work through issues of contention and dispute, and addressing social conflicts and tensions.

Over the two days the group picked apart some of the main issues that were blocking constructive dialogue between stakeholders, particularly around leadership and communication, addressing the impacts for people working on the ground, accountable dialogue and science and information. Over the following year, these issues will be tackled through further work via the stakeholders themselves, as well as bringing in others.

Tom Turnbull, Chair of ADMG said,

“At a time where land management objectives are rapidly changing the Association of Deer Management Groups welcomes the opportunity to work closely with deer managers from a wide variety of backgrounds to help deliver deer management on a landscape scale across our membership. The Finding the Common Ground Project has been a step in the right direction and we hope it will help to facilitate collaborative deer management in the Highlands.”

Alan McDonnell from ScotLINK’s Deer Working Group said,

“The deer debate in Scotland has been stuck in conflict for too long, and we can no longer afford to allow mistrust to undermine our response to the nature and climate crises.  Achieving the spirit of collaboration so badly needed in deer management will be challenging, but the progress made so far is encouraging and we’re looking forward to seeing where this can lead.”

This project is separate from, but is intended to complement, the processes that the Scottish Government is leading to implement the Deer Working Group recommendations. It should be seen as an enabling process to help identify and implement workable solutions on the ground, and address the greater need for collaboration that the Scottish Government has acknowledged will be needed.

With thanks to NatureScot, Woodland Trust, Cairngorms National Park Authority, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority, Association of Deer Management Groups, Scottish Environment LINK and Future Woodlands Scotland for their generous funding for this project.

More information:
Finding the Common Ground Project Brief
Summary of FtCG workshop, August 2022

Contact:
Julie Stoneman
Chair of Finding the Common Ground Steering Group
E: julie.stoneman@plantlife.org.uk

Deer people – a new book that explores and illustrates the lives and interests of 24 individuals and what red deer and deer management means to them

This beautiful new book Deer People is a collaboration between artist Ian Macgillivray, photographer Glyn Satterley, and Richard Cooke, the long-time former chairman and secretary of the Association of Deer Management Groups in Scotland.

The hardback glossy publication explores the thoughts, work and the interests of 24 people in Scotland whose lives in one way or another have been or are dedicated to the UK’s largest land mammal, the red deer.

In commentary quotes and anecdotes, individual portraits and black and white photography the book paints a picture of the breadth of involvement of these 24 individuals in the world of the wild red deer. As Richard Cooke writes in his introductory paragraphs:

Those portrayed in its pages include professional stalkers and deer forest owners across the age range, the managers of conservation land, a forester, a crofter and community representative, a scientist/professional adviser, a venison dealer, a rifle maker, a chef and a Government official.”

But he admits that these are just a handful of the numerous characters on whose lives and interests the book could have drawn.

The book will be launched at the GWCT Scottish Game Fair at Scone Palace on Friday 1 July 2022 and following that will be available by mail order or by contacting the authors (price £30.00 + £6.00 p&p)

Note: Deer People is now out of stock/out of print.

Richard Cooke says that it was firmly the objective from the outset to make this a work about people:

“Deer, red deer especially, are constantly in the news and are always at the centre of the debate about our upland environment and what needs to be done to improve it in the light of the new imperatives – climate change and the biodiversity crisis. So much is heard about red deer numbers, densities and negative impacts that we felt it important to offer a reminder that the management of deer involves people, deer people.”

Proceeds from the sale of the book will be used to start an educational fund (see below). This will support a range of projects such as providing travel grants for young deer managers to experience wildlife management in other countries of the world and supporting educational initiatives within Scotland to take deer and their management into schools.

ADMG ‘Deer People’ Training and Education Fund
ADMG curates a fund initially raised from the proceeds of the book Deer People that provides support for overseas work experience placements for professionals working in the Scottish deer management sector.  More information about the fund is available on page 12 of the Spring 2024 issue of our magazine SCOPE and an application form is available here.

Tom Turnbull, Strone Estate, Argyll, elected Chairman of ADMG

Tom Turnbull has been elected Chairman of the Association of Deer Management Groups (ADMG) at the Association’s online AGM held on Wednesday 23 June 2021. His election follows the stepping down of Richard Cooke after 10 years in post as Chairman, and prior to that 17 years as the Association’s Secretary. Richard now becomes ADMG Vice-chairman, a position formerly held by Tom.

Tom Turnbull is owner, land manager, farmer and stalker of the Strone Estate, Argyll, at the head of Loch Fyne. With a background in estate management and sporting agency, he is a former Chair of the Inveraray and Tyndrum Deer Management Group and has been ADMG Vice Chairman for three years. Tom Turnbull says:

Tom Turnbull, the new Chairman of ADMG

“In taking over the helm of ADMG I am strongly aware of the challenges that we face.  I believe that Deer Management Groups have never been a more vital component in the land management of our uplands – indeed, DMGs are probably the best example of collaborative land management at landscape scale in Scotland with a crucial part to play as we tackle the climate emergency. ADMG’s role is as important as ever as we work with Scottish Government, its agencies and land managers across the uplands in ensuring that the outcomes of the Deer Working Group report as implemented on the ground are sensible, workable, and take account of the interests of all involved.”

Richard Cooke, retiring ADMG Chairman, says:

“I am proud to have been associated with this period of tremendous change across Scotland’s deer sector. I am convinced that stalking as many of us think of it will continue to have its place in this fast changing and more complex world, albeit perhaps on a different scale. Adapt we must, but equally we must hold on to the traditions and values of our past. With Tom taking ADMG forward I have every confidence that the leadership of our sector is in safe hands.”

ADMG issues ‘A Declaration for Upland Deer Management’ ahead of May elections to Scottish Parliament

After 6 May we will have a new Scottish Government and new members of the Scottish Parliament.

Deer management is complex and affects much of Scotland – upland deer, their habitat and the people who manage them are the principal concerns of the Association of Deer Management Groups (ADMG) and its Deer Management Group (DMG) membership. 50 DMGs cover in excess of 3 million hectares – that’s almost half of Scotland. Their remit extends far beyond deer, embracing many associated upland issues and increasingly supports delivery of national and global commitments and targets. There are positive and negative aspects to our wild deer requiring a balance to be struck in their management.

DMGs are making good progress. The Cabinet Secretary, responding to the Deer Working Group (DWG) report, said: “I am very grateful for the work of the Deer Management Groups who have collaborated, assessed impacts, planned and put plans into effect over the period. I must also mention the gamekeepers, gillies and other deer managers, both professional and recreational, who have worked hard to make plans a reality.”

For our new and returning MSPs here are six short messages.

Seasons and deer welfare
We want our deer herd to be in the best health possible. To achieve that it must be managed.  The current system and the structure of close seasons safeguards this priority. Whilst out-of-season culling is permissible under certain conditions it is important it is granted for exceptional circumstances only.  Skilled deer managers will use their judgement and ADMG strongly advocates that all management should continue to take place within the current seasons structure wherever possible. Best Practice and a professional approach are paramount.

Deer impacts and culls
Ongoing NatureScot helicopter counts, DMG foot counts and academic research have shown that open range red deer numbers now average <10/sq km, below the target specified in the DWG report, with an estimated population of some 300,000 red deer. ADMG will continue to encourage its membership to maintain that level or less but impacts of other herbivores – sheep (which outnumber deer 2:1), hill cattle, hares, rabbits, and feral goats – must be taken into account too.  Annual culls are planned with and reported to NatureScot as normal practice and part of Deer Management Plans. A mandatory cull approval system for the setting of culls across the upland range managed by DMGs, whilst recommended by the DWG, is unnecessary.

Collaborative management and delivery at scale
Collaborative management works. The DMG system embodies this, with collaboration and consensus at its heart. The DMG structure, and the voluntary principle that underpins it, are not only delivering deer management at landscape scale but much else in addition. As expectations for what DMGs can deliver in the public interest have increased DMGs have risen to that challenge. The Scottish Government response to the DWG report says: “We recognise the strengths that the existing collaborative DMG structure delivers and the benefits this brings to many communities.”

Supporting the green agenda and climate change targets
Could another system be as effective in delivering Scotland’s climate and biodiversity targets for new woodland planting, restoring native woodland and peatland restoration?  DMGs are well aware of these targets and their role in their delivery. They know they are a vital part of the solution and are already delivering woodland expansion and peatland recovery on a wide scale. Publicly available Deer Management Plans highlight the work DMGs are doing in response to the climate emergency.

Working in the wider public interest
The NatureScot assessment process has placed DMGs under considerable scrutiny over the last six years and their capability in delivering against the broadest set of public interest criteria has been reviewed three times.  Management to limit road traffic accidents, to address rising concerns about tick-borne disease, and furthering our understanding of deer health in relation to safe, healthy food are all examples of joined-up, coordinated deer management working at scale and depth to deliver the public interest.

Underpinning the rural economy
The rural economy too has taken a hammering through the covid pandemic but, under normal circumstances, deer management contributes £35.4m in operating expenditure annually, offset by £12.5m in revenue, as well as providing more than 2,500 jobs in our remotest areas. Deer management related tourism, both high-end and affordable, is a necessary source of funding for deer management related employment.  The safe supply of venison to market is crucial as is expanding future venison markets.  All these aspects are vital elements of the upland deer management process.

ADMG and the DMGs will work with the next Scottish Government to continue to deliver on the above. We are asking for the trust and the confidence of those who will make future decisions that affect our sector to allow us to continue to do our job, in collaboration with others from across a whole spectrum of management objectives, for the benefit of future generations, and for our deer.

Richard Cooke
Chair
Association of Deer Management Groups

April 2021