The future of deer in Scotland

Bryon Pace studies the future of deer in Scotland.

“It is difficult to explain, and certainly impossible to describe, the mingled feelings of excitement and interest of the enthusiastic sportsman who, after perhaps a couple of hours’ toil and stratagem, finds himself for the first time within eighty or a hundred yards of a noble stag, as it raised its head majestically to the heavens for a moment when it realises the possibility of danger.”

Tom Speedy wrote these words in 1920 in his incredible depiction of the time. His book, The Natural History of Sport in Scotland with Rod and Rifle, chronicles the Scottish landscape in intricate detail, offering a portal into a past mostly forgotten, or at the very least willingly buried.

Multiple chapters on the foes of game species, and particularly the open persecution of raptors, makes for some very uncomfortable reading, and a reminder of a less tolerant age. I would urge all young gamekeepers and stalkers to source or borrow a copy – it is an essential foundation of their history.

In the face of an overt disdain for species that hampered efforts of ‘sporting’ pursuit, the dedication to the art and science of naturalism is bare to see. Understanding the natural landscape strode across by men (and at the time it was primarily men) was a privilege of time offered primarily by social standing, but strip that away for a moment, and marvel in the adoration for the pursuit of species we consider game.

The ‘politics’ of land management can cause more issues than it prevents

Stalking today is far more accessible and affordable than it was in the early 20th century. Our populations may be more urbanised, but the accessibility of country pursuits has never been greater.

While this may be true, a parallel narrative is that far fewer people of the modern age would be comfortable preparing food in skin, fur and feather compared to our predecessors. Quite simply, the intrinsic association with the land was more vividly felt among the population of 44 million people in 1920, when Speedy was writing.

Of the four species of deer that roam the fields and hills of Scotland, only two are indigenous natives: the roe deer and the red deer. The red deer is the largest of all the United Kingdom’s deer species, and arguably the most iconic.

Along with golden eagles, Atlantic salmon, tartan, and haggis, they are engrained in the poetry, prose and art that defines this fiercely proud nation. But just as the flash of silver running our rivers and streams faces an uncertain future, so do our deer – particularly our red deer.

While the trending decline of Atlantic salmon isn’t fully understood – despite the momentous effort and time on the science which underpins population dynamics – the uncertainty of Scotland’s deer lies not in our inability to curb population declines, but in the bureaucratic politics of land management. Indeed, the ‘problem’ with deer is that we have too many of them. The measure of what constitutes ‘too many’ is the crux of the debate.

When the Deer Working Group report was published at the end of last year, the rather chunky document was immediately seized on by groups and NGOs as they drew out the elements of the report which most closely suited their bias. There is nothing new in this. We are all guilty of it.

Access to field sports has grown in the past century

Of course, one would hope scientists and those with working experience of managing deer will be listened to when it comes to the implementation of recommendations from the report – a process that is still ongoing.

Sifting through the report, and the subsequent demands or comments from the various groups, it is easy to get lost in the skirmish of polarising opinions and dramatic headlines.

It is a naive and easily led individual who condemns a report or study, which may have taken years to compile, based merely on the summary offered by mainstream media. Indeed, I suggest implementing critical thinking to the interpretation of any NGO, including those that may be viewed as ‘on your side’, as the emotional response to change tends to entrench positions.

I have no intention of covering the details of the report with counterpoints or arguments to every recommendation, as we would need to dedicate an entire issue to that endeavour. However, we can get a feel for the direction of travel, as it pertains to the future of deer in Scotland.

It’s first essential to understand the foundational elements that surround calls for increased control; to put it another way, larger cull numbers and a lower overall deer density. Fighting climate change, biodiversity loss, Lyme disease and the reduction of road traffic accidents are all mentioned, although this list is not exhaustive.

Knowledge of ‘best practice’ will benefit Highland habitats

Specifically highlighted was the reforestation of Scotland’s highlands; a function of both carbon-sequestering targets linked to the Paris Agreement on climate change, and a drive for increasing biodiversity.

Unless you are a climate change denier, in which case there is no hope for you so you can stop reading now, I don’t think that any of the aspirations in that list are particularly controversial. We surely all want this. But as is so often the case, the cross-party agreement fails despite the fact similarities lie in the proposed outcomes – we disagree on the actions required to achieve those goals.

Before delving any further, I think it is important to point out that deer are contributing architects of the landscape here. Humans are too, of course, but the vast swathes of open hill that are so iconically Scotland, remain that way today, in part at least, because of deer.

The nationwide reductions of tree coverage and the famous Caledonian pine forest, was a process which spanned hundreds of years, really gaining momentum with the Vikings, and culminating with our English neighbours forcing the Scots off the land to make way for sheep. As well as the people of Scotland, the other casualty was the destruction of the last ancient forests and the degradation of biodiversity from over-grazing.

We’ve come a long way since the rape and pillage of the Highland clearances. Although some of my Scottish brothers and sisters seem unable to let that lay in the past, the heralded and prized landscape we enjoy today is shaped by this history.

As the forests disappeared, with people and livestock claiming land once wild, the deer were pushed out further into the hills. There they found an environmental niche few other species were able to adapt to.

Over time the large woodland evolved bodies became leaner, and today carcass weight is some 50 per cent less than their European cousins. Despite poor soils and forage, the deer prevailed and thrived, offering an incredible conversion of poor-quality grazing into low-fat protein.

Are governing bodies in touch with those who work on the hill?

In my mind, the most straightforward aspect to agree on is that we should be managing deer in concert with the landscape. We are the apex predator
in this story, and it is our responsibility to act as such. That involves understanding habitat impact through regular habitat assessments, as facilitated already by Best Practice guidance, and rolled out by the Association of Deer Management Groups.

Curiously, and somewhat counterintuitive to the report, the work undertaken to manage populations in the last few years has reduced densities to an average of 9.3 deer/km2 as determined by a report from Scottish Natural Heritage in 2019. The Deer Working Group report calls for a target of 10/km2 – a number we are already below.

What I find concerning about this is that the density target is entirely arbitrary, and it is ridiculous to suggest we can have a single number that determines carrying capacity across the country. No ecologist of sound mind would agree on this as a reasonable endeavour.

The number of 10/km2 may be too high in some more fragile environments, and far too low in others. We need an adaptive approach that puts trust in managers on the ground, and not one that implements top-down draconian measures.

Indeed, deer have a role in maintaining a landscape of suppressing tree regeneration, and maybe in some places that is a good thing. Add to this an increasing necessity for careful fire management and fuel load suppression, and it becomes clear that we need to undertake considerable analysis of risk when it comes to keeping the carbon stores where they are.

When we start to look at issues around the climate emergency, it is easy to get swept up in the momentum. Cast your eyes over the European Wilderness Society website, and it’s not hard to imagine people agreeing with their statements on the contribution to climate change by deer populations; I can hear the chants and see the placards now.

However, dig a little deeper, with even a modicum of knowledge, and you realise how out of touch they are with reality. There is a claim, which is so absurd I struggle to find the energy to counter, that female populations are not managed. The author obviously lives in some alternative, parallel world.

On a more serious note, deer cannot be considered alone. We currently have twice as many sheep in Scotland as we have deer, occupying much the same habitat. If we are to reduce populations of deer further, sheep must follow.

Stalking should be a simple pursuit

I am aware of how many questions I have posed and how few answers I have given to this point. This article should serve as a catalyst for us to ask what we want from our landscapes.

In the short term, what concerns me most are the proposals surrounding the use of night vision for controlling deer, and opening up the current close seasons. The recent move by Forest and Land Scotland to cull females at the start of September was met with criticism.

Reliable sources tell me that their own rangers are against the move and haven’t been shooting, with culling undertaken by contractors. There are serious animal welfare considerations to such a move.

Fundamentally we are slipping into a worrying realm where welfare has the potential of being compromised, and the foundational responsibility for the long term sustainability of deer population is no longer a pillar of conservation.

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Posted in Features, Hunting

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