Feeding time

Highland stalker Davy Thomas stresses the importance of proper wildlife management, concentrating on the benefits of feeding deer

“Generalisations about deer numbers have been made on the basis of population problems in localised areas. Wildlife management cannot be separated from habitat management and must pursue long-term, worked out objectivism, not faddish whimsicalities. ” – Sir Michael Wigan, Stag At Bay.

If you are familiar with Darwin’s theory of evolution, and likewise acquainted with red deer, then at some point you may have questioned the timing of the rut, specifically how it ties in with their survival during the winter months when the stags have lost condition after a long and tiring rut. Compare this to the roebuck who, while keeping a low profile following his much earlier rut, can still gain the last of the summer’s goodness in the grass on which he feeds. For the stag, that goodness has gone.

Every so often, one of the many nature organisations performs a study into some aspect of our nation’s wildlife, producing a conclusion that is meant to leave everyone aghast at the ground-breaking revelation that perhaps crows take eggs or something similar. For those of us who work the land, and are amid its flora and fauna every day of our lives, our reaction to such studies is often similar to a lone, slow handclap. With this in mind, it is not my intention to preach the obvious benefits of feeding red deer in harsh environments and harsh conditions.

With the stag season now concluded, feeding deer soon becomes one of the main priorities of the estate. As a hind forest, our main objective was to produce a core of healthy, calf-producing females in an area of the estate that, owing to a number of factors, had fragile deer numbers. We began from scratch.

Holding on: Feed stations can help keep deer in a locality over a hard winter

Holding on: Feed stations can help keep deer in a locality over a hard winter

It was a test for all involved, but I recall it took around three weeks for entirely wild deer to come readily to the feed. We began by trailing beet pulp at the potential feed site, and by the third night it had gone completely by morning. By the end of the first week I caught them at it, and they scarpered like hooded youths from a smashed-up bus shelter. Eventually, through consistency alone, they would run 500 yards and watch. Then 400, 300, 200, until one day I saw them running in behind as I left the site. By the end of that winter, hinds could be seen standing on the skyline, waiting for the familiar call to the familiar place.

In year two, I decided we would try a second feed site two miles from the first. I believed it was working, too, until I noted familiar deer arriving at each feed, using up all the extra energy they were gaining by crossing from each site, thus making the operation somewhat pointless.

Five years on, we have finally established a system that works here. It enables us, in even the harshest of winters, to hold on to that core, even if the overall calving rates are down on the hill come the following June.

A rare breed: Estate workers could find their jobs at risk as environment plans drain land of deer

A rare breed: Estate workers could find their jobs at risk as environment plans drain land of deer

One deer calf, Feadh, was a family friend of ours for a couple of years. Orphaned in August, I did not have the heart to dispatch her, so I set about persuading her to suckle from a bottle. As it happened, it took just two days until I succeeded. Just months later she would take vegetable peelings from the house windows, and on occasion would graze down the grass in the dogs’ run, totally unbothered by the presence of Canis lupus familiaris sprawled out in the sun nearby.

As deer get older, beet pulp is a popular choice. It expands in the deer’s rumen and fills them up, but I am told by a reliable source that it holds ‘limited feed value’ and one would be better to feed with cattle feeds, also in pellet form. As a test, I have several times trailed a bag of each side by side, and every single time they have walked over the cattle feed to get to the beet pulp. I understand it to be the molasses content that they find so addictive. But it must be said that often a keeper’s preferences are also governed by the amount of deer being fed and the funding available for his operation.

We each have our own objectives, but the differing deer management policies of land managers throughout Scotland can often result in bitter clashes between neighbours. Some are deer-motivated, while other areas are grouse-motivated, and in large areas the priority is the protection of trees. Others prefer ‘sustainable’ regeneration projects, with no fencing or planting in place. This is possibly one of the most controversial of all. It is accepted that the landscape has changed since the vast native forests cloaked the lower areas of this country, but there are educated opinions out there suggesting that climates have changed since the forests’ existence, and that they can never exist on that scale again.

I believe it true that, in the words of Sir Robert Burns, ‘Man’s dominion has ruined nature’s social union’. But I also believe it is extremely irresponsible to turn your back on our forefathers’ wrongdoings and do nothing, justifying the cause by referring to it as ‘re-wilding.’

Sustainability is a word used commonly nowadays by many of the aforementioned organisations, who preach to us the benefits of sustainable deer management. It would be beneficial to them to become aware that some individuals in the audiences they preach to have not always worked in the private sector, and thus have gained an insight into the other side of the fence.

What has often conveniently gone unmentioned is that there was, until recently, a substantial amount of public money to be gained from unfenced regeneration schemes, which drain huge areas of Scotland of deer as they move into vacant territory. As estate workers, this greatly concerns us. Our wages are paid for by landowners, who pour money into the local economy, thus benefiting schools, hotels, local tradesmen and food suppliers. It won’t do to simply move taxpayers’ money around mid-recession at a time when things have got so bad that there is talk of police officers’ jobs being on the line. The questionable sustainability and far-reaching effects of half-baked ideas can eventually result in rural unemployment, far beyond the project sites. Unless somebody can put a ‘Biodiversity Action Plan’ in place for us and our families, I truly believe that this will ensure the removal of the last few people from Scotland’s most remote areas.

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