The Knoydart deer massacre – what can we learn from it?

Victor Clements writes:

The incident that has been recently reported in Knoydart is almost unprecedented in Scotland, with 86 stags being shot and left on the hill to rot away in the name of conservation management. Like many people, my initial reaction to it was not to believe it, but as more information became available, the reality of the situation became, if anything, much worse than anyone might have imagined. I say that as someone who has had many thousands of deer shot to protect native woodlands and the wider environment.

As a woodland advisor myself, and some-one who is tasked with pulling together deer management plans, including one for Knoydart, my default position must always be that individual management objectives must be respected, and that these objectives should be incorporated into wider plans if possible. Occasionally, I come across objectives which are either unrealistic or which would extract too high a cost for an outcome which is likely to be marginal or uncertain. In such cases, it is important to speak up and say that.

In my estimation, the John Muir Trust (JMT) objectives at Li & Coire Dhorcail fall very squarely and obviously into that category, and I say that with complete certainty and conviction.

The basics of woodland regeneration
We have been having this argument about tree regeneration and deer for about 30 years now in Scotland, whether fences should be used or not. Those with an interest in deer reject the idea in principle, and fear the cost that must be extracted. Others passionately support the principle, but often assume it can just simply be implemented everywhere with the same expectation of success.

After 30 years or so, we now have plenty of experience of these things, and we know that regeneration schemes will work in some situations but not in others.

To regenerate trees in the presence of deer there are two basics:

You need to try and generate so much regeneration that the local deer population cannot get on top of it. This requires you to try and achieve a certain critical area. It is more art than science, but in practice, the bigger the area the better, and the more chance of success you have. Small, isolated areas are extremely difficult, and are almost always too impractical to consider. Large areas of regeneration of pioneer species such as birch or Scots Pine become very difficult to stop once they get going. They may get knocked back in some years, but deer cannot prevent the roots from growing, and as long as that is occurring, the trees will gain in strength, and will eventually push away.

Partly related to above, you have to be able to try and disperse the deer impacts over a large area of woodland. If an area of young trees is the only option for deer, then they will severely damage it. The same area of trees in a wider complex of woodlands is much less likely to be targeted.

It follows from the above that where you have large woodland areas across many properties, you have better options for dispersing deer impacts over that whole area and consequently, achieving regeneration without fences is much easier, and the number of deer that require to be shot to achieve it is much less, at least as a percentage of the whole. In practice, such habitats are capable of sustaining high deer densities with very high productivity, and so an ongoing commitment is required to keep numbers within reasonable bounds.

Stag carcase left to rot at Coire Dhorcail. Photo: Sir Patrick Grant

Stag carcase left to rot at Coire Dhorcail. Photo: Sir Patrick Grant

The areas in Scotland where tree regeneration works tend therefore to be those areas with an extensive woodland network already. Central Speyside, middle Deeside, Loch Katrine in the Trossachs, parts of Argyll. In all of these areas you can see extensive native woodland regeneration achieved by deer control without fences. Controversy has often been generated of course, but the important thing is that very significant areas of new woodland have actually been delivered. While the cost in terms of deer can be high, there have at least been some tangible outcomes, roughly in balance with the cost extracted. This is of course a subjective judgment that we can come back to later.

A large number of organisations and private estates now have experience of making these things work, including NGOs such as the RSPB, the Woodland Trust, the National Trust for Scotland and Trees for Life, as well as the Forestry Commission and SNH. Some, such as Trees for Life in Glen Affric or the National Trust at Ben Lawers, have been astute enough to acknowledge that in some situations, native woodland areas need to be consolidated within fenced enclosures before more extensive regeneration schemes might be contemplated in the future. They take the long-term view, and that is the right thing to do when the woodlands you are wanting to manage are separated from other woodland areas. You have to think in terms of phases. Phase One is to consolidate what you have got. When that is achieved, Phase Two can be to look towards a meaningful extension of the area.

The woods at Li & Coire Dhorcail
The woods at this location are very small and isolated, but there has been a significant area of native woodland planted behind fences in West Knoydart over 20 – 30 years or so, including on JMT land. The woods at the centre of this dispute have been planted and fenced by John Muir Trust themselves, so, in the recent past, they have not objected to the principle of fencing areas. The small pinewood remnant on their property is actually within a fenced enclosure, and the mixture of regenerated trees and additional planting has helped secure that area. It is a small proportion of the overall pinewood remnant, with by far the greater area lying on an adjacent private estate, and designated as an SSSI. Although this has been grazed by deer for decades without any regeneration taking place, a plan is currently being taken forwards with SNH and that is likely to be delivered in the very near future, possibly in 2016.

It is therefore very misleading for the John Muir Trust to say that its deer cull is being carried out to secure the future of ancient woodlands. In practice, the key areas are already either secure, or are about to be secured on adjacent land. There is no point in trying to jump the gun and try to move forward to a new phase without consultation with other stakeholders in the area. At Li & Coire Dhorcail, a period of consolidation must be completed first.

The wrong dynamic
In recent years, JMT dismantled the deer fences around a 30 hectare planted block of trees, opening them up for shelter, which effectively drew deer in to that area, directly adjacent to the small area of natural regeneration that lay outwith those fences. The current deer culling practices are designed to try and protect that small area, but the dynamic created is all wrong. Instead of working with neighbours to try and disperse deer over a wider area, JMT has created a situation where high impacts on regeneration are guaranteed. Killing more and more deer will not resolve that situation. The cost that must be extracted is out of all proportion to the environmental outcome that might arise. The area they seek to protect is tiny, and has no local or national strategic value. There are much more important woodland areas in Knoydart that are being restored and managed with no publicity or controversy whatsoever, on both public and private land. JMT could learn something from them if only they would engage a bit more.

The bigger picture
When you look at the wider West Knoydart area, it is immediately apparent that 1200 – 1500 hectares of new native woods have been planted over the last 30 years or so, and that process is ongoing. This is a very significant area of woodland, covering up to 25 per cent of the entire area. In terms of native woodland habitats and networks, it is this growing area of young trees that has strategic value in West Knoydart. In the short term, it is all behind fences because much of it is still vulnerable to deer. But also in the short term, the area enclosed is constricting the available deer range, and forcing deer onto the small sheltered area on JMT ground, ensuring that it is heavily damaged, and requiring them to kill large numbers of deer.

But within the next 10 – 15 years, a new dynamic will arise. When the time comes to open up all these newly planted woodlands, deer impacts will then be dispersed over a much wider area. There will be less need for deer to go down into Li & Coire Dhorcail. The extent of these new woods is such that regeneration outwith their boundaries may well then be possible, even without fences. Deer footprints will create regeneration niches, and profuse seeding species such as birch will almost certainly be able to take advantage of that. At that point, these woodland areas will start to expand naturally. If they don’t, and deer are judged to be the limiting factor still, then the deer population can be reduced a bit more, but that would be a more transparent and structured process at that point.

Woodland regneration

Woodland regneration without fences is possible with the right approach. Photo: Victor Clements

My assessment of the woodland situation in West Knoydart is that JMT is trying to act too soon. They have generated a situation that is likely to fail, and are killing deer out of frustration and anger. That is not a good place to be if you are an environmental NGO that relies on public donations and legacies for its income.

JMT needs to wait for another 15 years or so until their neighbours are in a position to take down fences and disperse deer over a wider area for them. That will then allow all those involved with native woodland projects in the area to progress things together, in a properly collaborative manner. A significant ongoing deer cull will still be required, but not at the level currently taking place, and with more certainty of a meaningful outcome.

Fifteen years is a long time in the life of an employee, but it is a short time in the life of a woodland, or in the life of a mountain. JMT needs to take the long-term view.

Patience is required at Li & Coire Chorcail. Whether JMT decides to take a longer view depends on whether their objective is to regenerate trees, or to generate conflict. On the face of it, the current situation there seems to be designed to generate the latter for political effect. I do not say this lightly, but it is clear to me that those 86 stags were killed as part of a wider political lobbying campaign, and their deaths had very little to do with woodland regeneration at all. JMT themselves admit to killing these animals because Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) would not give them an out of season licence last year. This cull was therefore to send SNH and the panel reviewing such licences a message not to deny them their right to kill what they want, when they want to.

The reason that SNH withheld the licence is that they were not convinced by the JMT rationale for killing more deer in that location. This is the crucial point to understand. Is there actually a justifiable reason for them doing what they are? Even SNH suspect not. They want to see a better analysis of what is actually happening there. You cannot kill any animal with a clear conscience unless you have good reason for doing so.

Li & Coire Dhorcail in context
At the moment, all this is taking place in the context of the Land Reform Bill which is passing through the Scottish Parliament, and that may involve additional legislation for deer management. The John Muir Trust has been lobbying heavily for a new statutory system of deer management, and has full time professional staff who can spend all of their time bending the ears of key MSPs. It is not likely that they are telling them how they actually implement deer management on some of their own properties. For this reason, it is important that others do not duck their responsibility to report it.

Recommendations going forwards
Stepping back from the immediate horror of what they have been prepared to implement at Li & Coire Dhorcail, and it is horrible, what strategic lessons can we learn from the Knoydart Deer Massacre?

On the basis that there should be no criticism without recommendation, I would put forward the following suggestions as to how the current system of deer management in Scotland could be strengthened:

We need to acknowledge that potential conflict situations will always arise where deer are involved, and one person’s definition of public interest will always differ from the next. Potential conflict situations will always arise, and some of these may not be possible to resolve at a Deer Management Group level. There needs to be some sort of arbitration mechanism or expert panel set up within SNH that can “take a view” on difficult situations. Outside expertise should be sought where required. Many such situations are not black and white, and a degree of subjective judgement will often be required, but it should be possible to analyse any situation in a systematic manner and come up with a way forward. The view arrived at should inform the need for special authorisations, or in determining the overall appropriate cull levels. It can be reviewed as required. In the situation above, it is clear to me that the current culling approach is not appropriate and is unlikely to create any useful outcomes. The organisation involved does not actually have much expertise in regenerating woodlands, certainly in comparison to many other NGOs. Someone else has to make the binding decision on the way forward if they cannot agree a solution with their neighbours themselves.

While we already have mechanisms for compelling landowners to shoot more deer where under culling is the issue, we do not have a recognised mechanism for preventing over-culling if the wider public interest in an area might be damaged from that. It is also the case that some private properties can simply be too greedy in their deer culls, with little thought of how that might impact on others. We need a mechanism where the right to cull deer on your property can be suspended if it is in the public interest to do so. Culling excessive numbers of deer for unrealistic regeneration schemes might be one example where that should apply, but there are other situations too.

Finally, what John Muir Trust did in Knoydart is illegal in many if not all other countries, and would be regarded very clearly as being a wildlife crime. It is not illegal here, mainly because most people would never contemplate doing this, and how can you define an offence for something that you think would never be contemplated? But John Muir Trust have contemplated doing it, and then followed through on it. They have also done this on Ben Nevis in 2011, much to the disgust of walkers there. With increasing numbers of roe deer now present around areas of habitation in central Scotland, you can see how some people might be tempted to reduce impacts in a similar manner if they thought it was legal, but creating a public nuisance by doing so. MSPs need to consider changes to the 1996 Deer Act to make it illegal to deliberately kill and leave deer in the way that has happened here. If they don’t, then they are signalling that this is acceptable practice, and this is the standard of deer management that we now wish to see in Scotland. We have to remain very conscious of how we are viewed by visitors from abroad, as well as being answerable to the public at home.

In conclusion, when someone kills animals in this manner, and deliberately leaves them in the full knowledge that others will find them, then they have done that to create a reaction.

It is very important that the reaction to this is measured. No landowner in Scotland, public, NGO or private, should be able to assert their will over all others without challenge. To prevent this from happening again elsewhere, it may be necessary for SNH to intervene, take a view on an individual situation, and perhaps deny someone their right to cull deer on their land as they see fit. That does have an element of statutory deer planning about it, but it is likely to be acceptable if there are appropriate checks and balances. The irony of course is that the organisation that campaigned in favour of such changes should be among the first to be reined in by them.

Victor Clements is a woodland advisor working in Highland Perthshire. He is secretary to the Breadalbane DMG, is on the Executive Committee of the Association of Deer Management Groups, and is currently putting together a deer management plan for Knoydart.

Also see:  The Charitable Destruction of a Community Asset by Sir Patrick Grant, Chairman of The Knoydart Deer Management Community, available in full here (pdf)