Deer in Scotland – another point of view

An ADMG response to the recently published Scottish Environment LINK proposal Managing deer for climate, communities and conservation.

We support some of the objectives of this document, which are also Scottish Government climate emergency policy objectives.  Indeed, most Deer Management Groups (DMGs) are already delivering peatland restoration and woodland expansion on a wide and increasing scale, alongside a steady reduction in the open hill red deer population.  Where we may diverge is in the means to that end proposed by LINK which would amount to a halving, at least, in the population of our native red deer. This would not address all the issues identified and would have a major impact on rural employment. 

We do not think it has to be a case of trees OR deer; it can be a matter of trees AND deer.

There is a common cause for all interests in working together towards a carbon neutral Scotland.  Many LINK organisation members are active participants in Deer Management Groups (DMGs); we have recently recruited a LINK representative to the ADMG Executive Committee and can therefore hopefully look forward to constructive collaboration in future.  What is certain is that when it comes to managing red deer, collaboration, within the DMGs, is essential to achieving the best outcomes for all stakeholders, whatever their objectives.

Firstly, the LINK document states that in 2010 “red deer numbers reach an all time high of 400,000” but fails to recognise that the SNH report Assessing progress in deer management (September 2019) cites that the density of deer in 2019 is estimated to be about 9.35 deer km2, or its lowest level for some considerable time.

LINK in its document sets out Ten public benefits of a new approach on which our comments are as follows:

1. More trees
We are very much in favour of more trees and understand the climate and environmental benefits.  The DMGs are already coordinating projects involving woodland expansion and native woodland restoration and there is much more to come.

2. Healthier peatlands
Here too the DMGs are setting a lead in peatland restoration projects.  Most of the 19,000ha of peatlands restored in Scotland to date have been in areas covered by DMGs.

3. More rural jobs
It is difficult to follow the logic of a ‘less deer more jobs’ approach.  Certainly, many of the full time employed resident deer management roles would be lost if the deer population became insufficient to support deer stalking businesses, which is how much deer management is currently funded.  ‘Hunting’ is an important strand of Scotland’s tourism offer, particularly out of season, and supports many downstream jobs.  The 2016 PACEC report commissioned by ADMG which is referred to by LINK estimated the employment impact of deer management in Scotland as 2532 jobs in total which equates to 845 FTEs of which 124 were unpaid, ie vocational deer managers.  The economic value is £140.8m, much of which benefits remoter areas with little other economic activity.  We reject the argument by LINK to the effect that this economic contribution is too little to matter in the context of overall nature-based tourism.

It is disingenuous to claim that NGO properties generate more economic activity than deer estates.  Both NGO and privately-owned estates support many economic activities, not just deer management.  Many NGO jobs are research related, often with public funding support.  This is to compare apples and pears.

4. Reduced rural inequality
The ‘community model’ is already the norm in many parts of the Scottish lowlands particularly where many vocational hunters undertake most of the local deer management at no cost.  It is an appropriate approach for the management of territorial deer species such as roe deer but much more difficult for the herding red deer where a coordinated and collaborative approach to a shared resource, based on a deer management plan, as in a DMG, is most effective.  In many parts of the Highlands those who have responsibility for deer management ARE the community and the trickle down effect of deer management to local businesses is a key element of the community based economy.  There are also many seasonal jobs associated with deer management.  It is sometimes said that deer stalking is “exclusive”, an activity for the rich.  This is not so.  While there is a high end to the stalking market which generates much of the revenue for deer management, there are opportunities across the country for interested individuals to become involved in managing deer locally, at little if any cost.  Even accompanied stalking for red deer can be readily accessed for as little as £250 per day.

5. Reduced need for fencing
All herbivores will browse trees and eat seedlings in regenerating woodland if unprotected.  Even if there were no deer, much stock and rabbit proof fencing, (two thirds of the cost of a full deer fence), would still be required.  Despite the steep reduction in sheep numbers since the millennium there are still 600,000 breeding sheep sharing the hill with less than 300,000 red deer, and hares and rabbits are also plentiful in some areas.

6. Improved deer welfare
Living in open habitats does not necessarily imply that deer welfare is compromised. It is true that hill living deer do not reach the size and body weights of woodland deer.   Equally, hill breeds of sheep are less productive but much hardier than their enclosed lowland cousins.  Both have adapted to their environment and are acclimatised to it.  A visit to any venison dealer will generally reveal healthy carcases carrying layers of fat.  Like any other animals, including domestic livestock, otherwise healthy animals can suffer privation and sometimes die in exceptional weather conditions.  However, the pattern of milder winters experienced as a result of climate change has made such winters rare (2017 was an exception) and generally natural mortalities are negligible for a wild species, <1% of population.  In addition, a population culled selectively at rates of over 20% has a high level of general health with few old or sickly animals.  The health and welfare of our wild deer herd is generally excellent.

7. Safer rural roads
Numerically the majority of deer/vehicle collisions (DVCs) occur in the more populated areas of central Scotland, although collision with a red deer is more likely to have severe consequences.  Research has not indicated a direct linear relationship between deer numbers and DVCs but it is agreed that they are a real matter of public safety concern.  Other than deer numbers there are other factors at work which draw deer to roads (eg unfenced woodland, verges sown out to grass or salting in winter months) or which enclose them on roads (eg roadside fences with no buffer zone) and thus increase risk.  These additional risk factors can be mitigated at road and woodland design stage.

8. Fewer ticks
This may now be wishful thinking as tick numbers have increased greatly in Scotland and they are to be found in all environments including city gardens, having become as endemic as midges.  This is thought to be due to climate factors but there is little doubt that mammals (including wild deer) and birds are responsible for their distribution out of the relatively few and small hotspots of past years.  It is unlikely that they can now be eradicated and a reduction in deer numbers would be unlikely to have a noticeable effect.  The focus must now be on mitigating the risks to human health.

9. A cut in greenhouse gases
The methane output and CO2 figures from LINK are new to ADMG and we would like to see the calculations.  The extended logic of this argument suggests that the world would have a better future if all methane/CO2 producing mammals, cattle in particular, were removed and this is of course a strand in current thinking, but that is surely too big a matter to just hang on Scottish wild deer which are understood to be relatively low emitters of methane.

10. A stronger venison industry
This argument really does not stand up. Of course, a national reduction cull to halve the red deer herd would increase the supply of venison for as long as it took to achieve the reduction but this would create a short term glut, probably leading to a fall in value, followed by a serious shortage for a commodity where supply is already in decline.

The Scottish Environment LINK document Managing deer for climate, communities and conservation is available.

ADMG’s Forward Look outlining its view on future deer management in the Uplands is available.