Deer health project finds low levels of harmful E. coli O157 strain in wild deer in Scotland

A project undertaken by the Moredun Research Institute and the University of Edinburgh into harmful E. coli O157 bacteria in Scotland’s wild deer has established that the bacteria has a low prevalence in deer of less than 0.3 per cent.

Richard Cooke, Chairman, ADMG, says:

“When we signed up to the project it was in part a leap of faith and we hoped that science would show that the occurrence of this bug in our wild deer species is extremely low, and this has turned out to be the case. Whilst we cannot make comparisons with the level in livestock or other foods, or comment on the level of risk to human health, we can certainly take comfort from this result whilst at the same time encouraging all involved in the sector to continue to be vigilant and observe Best Practice at all times to keep incidence to an absolute minimum.”

The study, funded by the Scottish Government and Food Standards Scotland, was carried out following the outbreak of E. coli O157 infection in people linked to the consumption of venison products in 2015. The bacteria, which is shed in animal faeces, causes disease due to the production of Shiga toxin and is most severe in very young or elderly people. The research set out to determine what the levels of E. coli O157 in wild deer in Scotland are and how these bacteria might be transferred to meat during the production of venison.

The research was based on the collection and testing of faecal samples from all species of wild deer in Scotland (red, roe, sika and fallow) and covered all of Scotland’s regions where wild deer are present. Through working alongside the Association of Deer Management Groups and Forest Enterprise Scotland, a total of 1087 samples were received of which E. coli O157 was found to be present in three. Two positive samples came from red deer and one from a sika deer.

Despite these low numbers, deer managers and processors are being urged to continue to do everything within their control, from the point of cull to the end product reaching the consumer, to minimise the risk of faecal contamination of the carcass.

Dr Tom McNeilly, the Moredun Research Institute, who led the study, says:

“This project established that prevalence of E. coli O157 in Scottish wild deer is low and suggests that deer are not a major reservoir of the bacteria. Nevertheless, as E. coli O157 was found in a small number of deer and the gene for the toxin was present in a number of other samples, care should be taken to ensure minimum contamination of the deer carcass during processing. We would like to thank the deer industry and Forest Enterprise Scotland who have been fantastically supportive of the project.”

Dr Jacqui McElhiney, Head of Food Protection, Science and Surveillance at Food Standards Scotland said:

We commissioned this piece of work alongside the Scottish Government in response to the 2015 E. coli O157 outbreak in order to improve our understanding of the risks of contamination of venison meat in Scotland. The results of this part of the survey show that the levels in deer faeces are low, but when E. coli O157 is found, it has the potential to cause severe disease if it is transferred onto the meat. The findings will support guidance that will help producers to prevent contamination.

“We would also like to remind consumers to ensure their venison is cooked thoroughly and that they follow good hygiene practices when handling raw meat to avoid the risks of food poisoning”.

Bill Bewsher, Chairman, the Scottish Venison Partnership, says:

“This has been an important piece of work for Scotland’s venison sector, given the new strategy for Scottish venison launched by Government in September and its increasing popularity.

“We will continue to urge those who manage deer, and those who process venison, to take all necessary steps to ensure that the processed product reaches the market in the safest possible condition, with a reminder to consumers that proper cooking will eliminate any residual risk.”


Partners in the Scottish Deer Health Survey include:
Association of Deer Management Groups
Lowland Deer Network Scotland
Scottish Venison Partnership
Scottish Quality Wild Venison

E. coli bacteria are very common in the environment, with many types of E. coli living in the guts of mammals. Some types of E. coli can cause disease, some are harmless and can even be beneficial.

E. coli O157 are a particular type of E. coli that can cause human disease as a result of the Shiga toxins they produce during infection. Other types of E. coli other than E. coli O157 can also produce the toxin and can also cause human disease.

• Human infections can cause serious illness or even death, particularly in very young or elderly people.

E. coli O157 can be carried by cattle and other ruminants, including deer and sheep, without affecting them in any way. Shedding of the bacteria from ruminants tends to be sporadic, meaning an animal that is positive for E. coli O157 on any particular day can be negative on another day.

Woodland management issues – do we want more trees or not?

Woodland management and creation are two of the areas of public interest that SNH will be paying particular attention to in the DMG review process in 2019, but the mechanisms to deliver these outputs do not always work smoothly. The Scottish Government has made forestry and woodland expansion a priority with ambitious growth targets and ha asllocated funding accordingly but many farms and estates have had or are having difficulties in gaining approval for suitable projects.

This short article by Victor Clements looks at both woodland creation and management of existing woodlands and discusses some of the issues and context surrounding the outputs to which deer management groups are expected to contribute.

Woodland creation
There are many good reasons for creating new woodland areas in Scotland, and, historically, estates within deer management groups have made a significant contribution to this. Diversifying upland habitats and providing deer shelter for the future are strong motivations. Highland farms and estates are often in a position to create larger schemes than might otherwise be possible elsewhere, and indeed, in the last round of the Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP), what we might define as the ‘deer management group area’, a little under the half the total land area of Scotland, contributed the majority of new woodland creation, and a higher still proportion of new native woodlands.

The table below shows planting activity within the DMG areas in the last round of SRDP 2008 – 2014.

RDC Option Ha in DMGs Ha outwith DMGs Total Ha % in DMGs % of DMG planting
Productive conifer – low cost 2,650 3,832 6,482 41 11
Productive conifer – high cost 458 313 770 59 2
Productive broadleaf woodland 153 283 436 35 1
Native woodland planting 19,000 9,330 28,330 67 78
Native woodland – natural regen 1,015 320 1,335 76 4
Mixed conifer/ broadleaved 783 1,444 2,227 35 3
N & W Isles Native woodland 3 30 33 10 0
Central Scotland mixed woodland 343 1,464 1,807 19 1
Total 24,405 17,016 41,422 59 100

So 59 per cent of all woodland creation took place in the DMG areas, which included two thirds of all native woodland planting and 76 per cent of all native woodland regeneration.

Woodland creation

Throughout this period, 2008 – 2014, the Scottish Government had a planting target of 10,000ha per year, although this was never achieved, averaging about 7,000ha per year. In simple terms, the level of planting achieved was mainly driven by grant support available, although initial difficulties with the SRDP scheme effectively prevented any new schemes from coming forward in 2008, and the system then took another year or so to get going. Regeneration schemes were high risk in the way that the SRDP was structured, so the area established was modest indeed.

Native woodland plantings and the Highland area in general did well out of the first round of SRDP but, not surprisingly, the timber industry’s interest was primarily in planting Sitka spruce rather than in native woodland so as to secure future material for sawmills. The figures above show this.

To encourage the planting of more conifers, the planting rate was decreased by £400 per ha for native woodland and increased by £400 per ha for conifers. The initial effect of this in 2016 was that significant native woodland plantings more or less stopped, while conifer planting also remained low, at least for another year or so, before they started to increase.

Year to 31 March Total (1000ha)
Conifers Broadleaves Total
2008 0.7 3.4 4.2
2009 1.2 2.3 3.4
2010 0.5 2.2 2.7
2011 1.8 4.2 6.0
2012 3.3 5.7 9.0
2013 1.7 5.3 7.0
2014 2.0 6.3 8.3
2015 2.5 5.1 7.6
2016 1.9 2.7 4.6
2017 3.2 1.5 4.8
2018 4.7 2.5 7.1

Source: Forestry Commission Grant Schemes

In 2016, the extra £400 per ha was reinstated for native woodland plantings, and a higher fencing grant made available for woodlands in more remote areas. This should have opened the doors for more Highland native schemes, but the figures are not yet showing this to be the case. Some DMG member estates have reported surprising obstacles being placed in the way of what they believe to be good schemes, and it would be helpful to know how widespread this is. One example is a requirement that new schemes should be connected to existing woodland with applications being turned down unless this is the case.

Young Sitka spruce

If there are genuine obstacles to planting schemes on suitable sites in the Highlands, it is important that they be removed. The current grant rates should be sufficient to encourage schemes to come forward but there is some confusion as to how the rules are being applied.  In the short term, all of this creates a potential problem for the DMGs in the context of the 2019 Scottish Government review of deer management as the upland deer sector could be construed as falling short in terms of the important public interest objective of native woodland expansion.

Obviously, the Scottish Government cannot support high rates of both conifer and broadleaved planting at the same time with a limited budget, but clarity is required as to which is to take precedence. The enthusiasm from landholders for native schemes is certainly there subject to there being positive signals from Government based on targeted incentives and clear rules. Hopefully the new pre-application consultation approach will improve the speed at which worthwhile schemes can be developed and processed and save cost and time for applicants.

Better local information on schemes
A number of DMGs have highlighted the problem of woodland schemes being established within or near to their boundaries without their knowledge or them being consulted. While a DMG should expect its own members to consult them on new schemes, it can often be the case that forestry investors can buy and plant land within or adjacent to a DMG area without reference to neighbours, often with significant local consequences.

Recently, East Sutherland DMG has successfully persuaded the Highland Conservancy of Forestry Commission Scotland to notify them of any schemes coming forward in their area so that they can make comment if applicable. This is a big step forward, and we need to move quickly to a situation where all DMGs are notified either by the applicant or FCS as a matter of routine of any woodland schemes in their area. Involving deer management interests in forestry and woodland planning is in the interests of all concerned.  Otherwise the danger is of inadequately designed schemes that increase deer/traffic accidents and risks to deer welfare.

Regeneration of existing woodlands
Regeneration schemes in the first round of SRDP were high risk, and very few people entered into them. The new SRDP seemed to have resolved this, covering fencing costs and having a more realistic and flexible approach to outputs. However, the requirement for more woodland creation has effectively taken funds from the management and regeneration of existing woodlands, to the point where regeneration schemes outwith designated sites may not be considered. Even within designated sites, the prescriptions are being applied in such a way that schemes can be impracticable, and there is no way of recouping the cost of rejected applications.  More flexibility as to local circumstances rather than a uniform application of scheme rules is necessary.

Regeneration within woodland

The result is that although there is supposedly a focus on regenerating native woodlands and a willingness among land managers to participate, the mechanism remains flawed, so inhibiting efforts to bring designated sites back into favourable condition as well as efforts to reach 2020 Biodiversity targets more widely. One woodland owner has recently remarked that if the Scottish Government cannot support efforts to improve designated sites by woodland regeneration when there is a willing participant, then they should be de-designated. It is difficult to disagree.

As with woodland creation, we have to ask the question again: “Do the people of Scotland want more trees or not?”

The Native Woodland Survey of Scotland (NWSS)
This is a big issue for DMGs in relation to the 2019 Review and discussions are ongoing between ADMG and SNH about this. All native woodlands have had herbivore impacts measured on a scale of Low –  Very high, and land managers can find information on their properties here

Land owners/managers should zero in on their property, and then click on the Native Woodland Survey of Scotland folder on the right-hand side, and then the NWSS herbivore impact tab. Higher impacts are red and orange, lower impacts are green. The level of low and medium impacts within most DMG areas is actually very good although that is often not the perception.

Thick birch regeneration delivered by deer control

In many woods, the impacts stated do not make sense on the ground, both as to level and cause, and we have many examples of this, with impacts being overstated or understated significantly. Have a look at your own woods. If you think your stated impacts are wrong, please get in touch with ADMG. The NWSS information can be up to 11 years old now and, if it is to be used to dictate significant changes to deer or sheep populations throughout the country, then we need to have confidence that it reflects present reality.

The time to look at all of these things is now, when we have a space to gather information, and collate and present it. If you have native woodlands on your property and have concerns about their classification or are having difficulty in sourcing SRDP funding to implement good management or woodland creation, please get in touch with ADMG.

Victor Clements is a woodland advisor working in Aberfeldy, and a member of the Executive Committee of ADMG



Plans to maximise venison in domestic and international markets – strategic plan launched this week outlines sector growth to 2030

The first ever strategy for Scottish venison has been launched, with the aim of bringing together wild and farmed deer interests and setting out nine ‘key areas’ for growth across the sector.

These areas include developing new supply chains, tailored support for deer farming, developing a scheme for co-op owned chills and larders and supply of local product to local markets, consumer promotion, education, skills development and building on Scotland’s reputation as a centre for world-class expertise, and further R & D including market insight.

Speaking from the Downfield Farm venison processing plant in Cupar, Fife, Minister for Rural Affairs Mairi Gougeon said:

“I am delighted to help to launch this strategy for this exciting, burgeoning sector in Scotland’s food and drink success story.

Launching the strategy (from left), Bob Prentice, Downfield Farms; Mairi Gougeon MSP, Minister for Rural Affairs; Bill Bewsher, Chairman, Scottish Venison Partnership. Photo: Ian Jacobs

“Venison is a premium food, renowned for its quality, provenance and health credentials, and its reputation continues to rise in both domestic and international markets. We know the venison market in the UK alone is estimated to be worth around £100 million per year and demand has been increasing year on year. With this strategy in place, the sector in a Scotland now has a fantastic opportunity to meet rising demand, displace imports and target new market opportunities.

“I welcome that the industry has come together to develop a plan that will build on the strong foundations put in place by the venison pioneers in Scotland. Deer farming and management play a significant role in supporting a thriving and sustainable rural economy and this strategy will support our shared wider ambitions to grow it.

“It’s very fitting to launch the new strategy on Scottish Venison Day and during Food and Drink fortnight, the annual celebration and promotion of Scotland’s food and drink sector. The Scottish Government looks forward to working with the sector to take forward the actions contained with the strategy.”

Bill Bewsher, Chairman, The Scottish Venison Partnership, said:

“Venison producers and processors in Scotland, both wild and farmed, will take very significant encouragement from this new strategy. We are exceptionally fortunate that on the one hand we have a rich asset in our wild deer as a sustainable source of healthy food and, on the other, increasing enthusiasm and undoubted potential to grow our farmed venison sector to meet expanding markets both in the UK and elsewhere. This strategy points all of us in the right direction with a set of common goals for 2030 and we are grateful for the additional support forthcoming from government in helping us to meet them.”

Scottish Venison Strategy to 2030 – Beyond the Glen

Fire Level Danger EXTREME – 4 July going forwards

There have not been drought conditions like this for many years. In many parts of the country all fuel layers have become ‘available to burn’. There has been no significant rain for a long time, with a consequent continuing increase in fire danger. We are now also in the main holiday period with many people out enjoying the countryside.

The assessment is that the level of fire danger is now extreme. This will continue until Sunday  8 July, for the whole of Scotland. There is light rain forecast initially for north-west and then west Scotland by Monday 9 July, which should provide some relief there. However eastern and southern Scotland have a continuing drought.

This means that there is the potential for extreme fire behaviour, should there be ignitions, especially in grassland, gorse, moorland and forest habitats. There will also be potential for re-ignitions and significant smouldering. So all phases of fire suppression: knock-down, containment and mop-up and patrol will be important. Increasing thought needs to be given to dry fire fighting techniques.

Although the news has focused on the very large Saddleworth moor and Bolton fires there have also been very large fires in Wales, Northern Ireland in Scotland as well.

With these conditions extreme caution is advised.

If you have High Fire Risk signs now would be a good time to put them up; also consider checking known problem areas and having equipment prepared.

Conditions for anyone tackling any fires will also be very difficult and de-hydration could become an issue. Provision of water will be essential.

This is the latest Wildfire Danger Assessment for the period 4 – 11 July 2018

New food safety films for venison sector now online

Three food safety films specifically to highlight potential high risk areas of contamination in the venison food chain are now available online.  The three films, titled The gralloch on the hill, Essential red deer larder work, and Field dressing a roe buck have been produced by the Scottish Venison Partnership, Scottish Quality Wild Venison, and Scottish Natural Heritage (Best Practice Guides) in order to increase awareness about contamination risks and steps that can be taken to prevent this.  The three films, made by Pace Productions, will be shown at two special workshops for stalkers and deer managers on Friday 29 June at the GWCT Scottish Game Fair this summer with opportunities for discussion and questions around this and related meat hygiene issues. The films can be seen on the Scottish Venison Youtube channel here.

Higher winter mortality expected in wild deer

ADMG is warning that, given the recent cold spell and conditions through the winter months, there is a possibility of higher deer mortality this spring than in recent milder winters.

Richard Cooke, Chairman of the Association of Deer Management Groups, says:

We have heard from some Deer Management Groups that deer in their areas were found to be in poor condition during the hind season and this cold spell will be hard for them, particularly if it now turns wet. Often it is the last few weeks before the grass starts to appear on the hill that leads to losses particularly of last year’s calves; also mature stags which use up most of their body condition in the breeding season in the preceding October and November can succumb.  Hinds tend to be more resilient. The thinner skinned roe deer are also susceptible to hard weather.

Winter losses are a natural process for wild deer, particularly in a year such as this but, by selectively removing the older and poorer individuals, management culling undoubtedly reduces natural mortality.  The Scottish red deer population is now beginning to decline due to culling effort, as found in the James Hutton Institute report to SNH in 2017, and the overall health status of our red deer is generally good and within the carrying capacity of their range, but hard weather takes its toll as it does on all birdlife and wildlife.

Our request to the hill-going public is please to give deer a wide berth to avoid imposing further stress. Also, we would urge particular caution on the roads as deer naturally seek shelter on lower ground in hard times and are a potential hazard for motorists.

Joint letter from rural organisations to Scottish Government highlights concerns over reintroduction of non-domestic rates for shootings and deer forests

Rural organisations have written to Scottish Government Cabinet Secretaries setting out their concerns for the sector following the reintroduction of non-domestic rates on shootings and deer forests.

Scottish Land & Estates, Confor, Scottish Countryside Alliance, NFU Scotland, BASC, ADMG, and SACS have written a joint letter to Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, and Derek Mackay, Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution. The letter expresses concern that the re-introduction is being rushed, Assessors have not had time or resource to implement the reintroduction satisfactorily, and it is rural businesses and communities that will suffer the consequences.

The organisations have welcomed further dialogue with the Scottish Government and seek the consideration of how unintended impacts on policies, such as those regarding deer management and forestry, can be mitigated.  Breathing space would allow businesses to plan while accuracy of valuations is established through the appeals process and the Scottish Government can undertake impact assessments which would fulfil their commitment set out during the Bill stages.

It is hoped this collaborative working and engagement will help with the understanding of how this reintroduction is unintentionally detrimentally affecting rural areas.

Scottish Deer Health Survey 2017 – 19

Deer stalkers and deer managers across the uplands and lowlands are being encouraged to take part in the Scottish Deer Health Survey, possibly the largest research programme ever of this type in the UK, to establish the prevalence or otherwise of a number of health risks across all of Scotland’s wild deer species.

The research project, which runs over two years and is funded by Food Standards Scotland and the Scottish Government, is being undertaken by the Moredun Research Institute and Edinburgh University, and is supported by Scotland’s wild deer sector, the Association of Deer Management Groups, the Lowland Deer Network Scotland and the Scottish Venison Partnership.

The initiative was launched at the ADMG meeting at Glenfinnan in August with a follow-up session for low ground land managers at the LDNS meeting later in the month. Its objective is to assess the prevalence of E. coli O157, Cryptosporidium and Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in the Scottish wild deer population, all species, upland and lowland.

Alerted to the risk of E. coli O157 in processed wild venison products in an outbreak in 2015, scientists suspect that its actual prevalence may be very low in Scottish wild deer.  However, the Scottish venison industry, which is helping to meet a healthy and ever increasing demand for venison products in the UK, would benefit from having this verified, along with information on which stages of the venison production process carry higher risks of potential contamination from E. coli.

It is intended that this research once concluded can help to inform current Best Practice guidelines for processing of carcasses and reduce any risk to human health, and is considered a vital part of the knowledge bank if the industry is to continue to grow and develop.

The research project will also involve screening faecal samples for the parasite Cryptosporidium and rectal tissue samples for CWD, both of which are currently seen as risks to deer health and welfare.  CWD is especially prevalent in certain states in the USA and has been reported in Scandinavia where it was diagnosed in moose, and in March 2016 in wild reindeer from the Nordfjella mountain area in Norway resulting in a Government order to cull the herd and a quarantining of the ground.

For the research project, sample collection is a simple process that can be done at the time of the gralloch or in the larder. It is hoped that more than 1000 faecal and tissue samples will be collected from all deer habitat across Scotland including the islands in order to provide the broadest picture of where risk from such issues may be highest.

Further detail about the research project and the sampling protocol is available here:
Scottish Deer Health Survey
Sampling protocol

For more information contact Tom McNeilly ( or Beth Wells ( tel. 0131 445 6157.

The ongoing Assynt deer situation

ADMG does not in principle oppose the use by SNH of its statutory powers as a last resort where a DMG is unable to bring all of its members into collaborative management conforming to an agreed Deer Management Plan.

SNH was criticised by some during the recent deer sector review for not using all of its 1996 Deer (Scotland) Act powers, mainly Section 8 Control Schemes, in circumstances where such a course of action might have been justified.

SNH has now determined to take a more assertive approach and is clearly seeking candidate landholdings associated with designated sites in unfavourable condition where it can test its full array of statutory powers.  ADMG reiterates that any such actions must be based on clear and undisputed evidence both of failure to take effective remedial measures on habitats in unfavourable condition, and of evidence of underperformance by the landholdings concerned.

In the case of Assynt there is a general recognition of a longstanding failure of collaborative management in addressing the condition of a protected site.  However, over the last year the Assynt Peninsula DMG has developed a draft Deer Management Plan and we understand that there are early signs of progress, not least in the recovery of the birch woods.  We would be concerned if the testing of Section 8 of the 1996 Act in Assynt were to undermine a recovering DMG.

Further context and comment on the Assynt situation is available here:

Deer Management on the Assynt Peninsula SNH Board Paper, 30 June 2017
The Assynt deer argument – what is it all about?
A report by Victor Clements, July 2017

Note: ADMG welcomes contributed articles and opinions. In that respect, views expressed on the ADMG website, and in links, may not necessarily reflect the views of ADMG.