The Deer Working Group report - what it means for Scotland’s deer

PUBLISHED: 15:04 24 March 2020 | UPDATED: 15:04 24 March 2020

An iconic symbol of the Highlands and valuable resource, or a pest that needs controlling by government contractors?

An iconic symbol of the Highlands and valuable resource, or a pest that needs controlling by government contractors?

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The Deer Wokring Group has now released its report on the Management of Wild Deer in Scotland - what does it mean for the future of Scotland’s deer?

One recommendation was to prevent the further spread of non-native fallow and sika in ScotlandOne recommendation was to prevent the further spread of non-native fallow and sika in Scotland

The Deer Working Group (DWG), established by the Scottish government in 2017, has now released its report on the Management of Wild Deer in Scotland. Following reports on Scottish deer management by Scottish Natural Heritage in 2016 and the Scottish parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee in 2017, the government panel concludes that there are “significant issues” surrounding the management of wild deer in Scotland. The government formed the DWG in response to its concern over these issues.

The group was tasked with reviewing the existing management of wild deer in Scotland in order to make “recommendations for changes to ensure effective deer management that safeguards public interests and promotes the sustainable management of wild deer”.

Background on Scottish deer management

Four species of deer are found in Scotland: the native red and roe, and the non-native fallow and sika. There are estimated to be approximately a million deer, though the exact figure is not known. As adult deer have no natural predators in Scotland, their numbers need to be controlled to safeguard the welfare of wild deer populations, and to limit physical damage to public and private interests.

The right to hunt wild deer generally goes with the ownership of land in Scottish law. This means most deer management in Scotland is carried out by private landowners via recreational hunters/stalkers/outfitters, with parts of the public estate managed by government paid contractors.

Deer management currently centres around two basic aspects: firstly, the legal status of wild deer, the ownership of deer hunting rights, and the regulatory framework, namely, the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996; and secondly, the distributions, population sizes and annual culls carried out by those involved in their management.

The DWG report looks at these elements along with public safety, deer welfare (including diseases such as Lyme) and damage to public interests. Its conclusions take the form of recommendations to the government about the future of deer management in Scotland.

Deer damage

Management of wild deer benefits the public interest by reducing ‘damage’, as outlined below. It also helps sustain rural economies and employment through sporting gains and tourism, particularly in the Highlands.

There has been a slow move from the traditional model where landowners manage their deer within a regulatory framework, including shooting seasons, towards state control of deer. The Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 includes several regulatory powers that allow Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to prevent damage or further damage to the public and private interests. In other words, SNH can enforce measures on private landowners if it feels their deer management does not comply with the Act and is damaging public or private interests.

The SNH defines ‘damage’ as: Physical Damage, i.e. damage to agriculture, forestry, public welfare and natural heritage; Damage Caused by Deer Management, i.e. damage to public interests of an economic, social or environmental nature (originating from concerns among some Highland estate owners that significantly increased culls could damage their red deer stalking business interests); Damage to Agriculture, which the report revealed to be of particular concern in relation to Highland red deer; Damage to Forestry, which has become a huge factor in this report since the government announced its intentions for forestry expansion, which in turn will generate higher numbers of deer and make them harder to manage, exacerbating the problem; and finally Road Traffic Accidents (referred to as DVCs), which have increased in recent years.

Recommendations

It seems that the DWG is continuing the trend of moving towards state control of deer and away from landowner management. The DWG aims to scrap the centuries-old evolution of deer management in Scotland in favour of a system of enforced management, which could result in more government contractors shooting where and when they like.

Key recommendations made by the DWG include:

n No closed season for male deer of any species

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n A reduced closed season for female deer

n A drive to prevent the further spread of fallow and sika deer

n A move towards the use of non-lead ammunition

n The immediate introduction of trials with scopes for night shooting

n The licensing of shotgun shooting of deer

n A requirement that the taking of wild deer be authorised by Scottish Natural Heritage

n Give greater prominence to the risk of Lyme disease in policies for deer management in Scotland, and greater priority to that risk in considering the need to reduce deer densities in locations across Scotland

n An upper density limit of 10 red deer per square km over large areas of open range in the Highlands

n Focus on building information about impacts of deer on the open hill range, as opposed to prioritising numerical deer counts

n SNH should treat as a high priority the challenge of changing deer management in line with climate change mitigation objectives

n The Scottish government should develop a ‘cull approval system’ – in other words, stronger national regulation of deer numbers

What the world says

Many rural organisations are opposed to these moves.

BASC Scotland director Dr Colin Shedden says: “This report contains a range of recommendations that, while not all required, will aid the discussion on sustainable deer management and deer welfare, while taking into consideration the environment and the rural economy.

“The report contains several expected recommendations, such as updating the Deer Act and a move away from lead ammunition, but also contains some recommendations that would be cause for concern if taken forward. Most notably, the proposal to remove the closed season for all male deer in Scotland will fail in reducing productivity levels among herds and has the potential to skew management plans.”

Countryside Alliance’s Scotland director Jamie Stewart says: “Many of the recommendations contained in the DWG report relate to legislative change, some of which are clear and obvious, [while] others will take a degree of discussion to alleviate concerns over deer welfare. I am, however, most disappointed that despite the recent favourable SNH report – Assessing Progress in Deer Management – the DWG seems overly focused on numbers.

“Much of the work carried out by private owners and DMGs has been recognised to deliver against Scotland’s ambitious climate change targets. Suggestions of greater use of agency staff would do little to foster relationships on the ground or serve good use of the public purse.”

Fieldsports Channel broke the story about the DWG report in a film with deer manager Niall Rowantree from Ardnamurchan, who makes the case for a collaborative approach in the future. He says: “We hope, as the Fieldsports Nation, to explore, with both professional deer managers and members of the public who hunt on a leisure basis, a vision for symbiosis between full-time engaged wildlife management professionals and a recreational support force. We see this providing long-term benefits, sustainable resource management, and the support of local communities.

“The concerns of many modern deer managers, from recreational to government contractor, are climate security, deliverable targets, local benefit and sustainable resource management. The demonising of deer to deliver an untested vision using poor science is no solution for rural Britain or for the welfare of our wildlife.”

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