Deer Dilemma

It seems to me that our nation’s deer are, more and more, coming to be regarded as vermin by the powers that be. I am not just talking of governmental departments – more non-governmental organisations are turning against our deer and are calling for substantial culls, ignoring the advice and knowledge of those who work with deer on a daily basis. A science-based argument needs to be based on fact, rather than warped re-shaping of field studies, strengthened further with biased opinion to ultimately form a justification paper. The Dolman report released earlier this year instantly springs to mind.

Both sides of the border, high ground and low ground, our deer are having a hard time of it, and generations of careful sustainable herd management are being thrown to the four winds. Let’s look at the red deer that roam the Highlands for a start. Firstly, this is a beast that has survived the felling of its native wild wood and adapted to the harsh existence found on open moorland, with little quality feed and weather extremes, not to mention the relentless attention of a myriad biting insects and parasites. The red survived and developed into its own sub-species; smaller, leaner, with less heavy antlers than its genetic forbears but with a vigorous tenacity enabling it take all the Scottish weather can throw at it on the high tops.

Deer forests have been managed for generations by skilled operators who know deer. Feeders are kept on the ground in winter; the keeper can evaluate his stock and have half an eye on what should come out but, most importantly, he knows what he has got and how many he should cull by the time spring is showing its welcome face. However, the post-war forestry blocks that were planted en-masse became a ticking time bomb. There is good and bad fencing, but it all rots eventually and becomes porous to deer, and then the problems start. The non-selective killing of marauders does so much to undo the keeper’s work. Yes, forestry interests have to be protected, but the keeper’s knowledge shouldn’t be ignored. It seems to me that far too often the very valid opinion of the keeper and stalker isn’t even sought in areas of conflict, but deliberately ignored.

The Association of Deer Management Groups do a very good job on a voluntary basis, and their management plan is based on the very knowledge and experience that those who wield the power choose to ignore. These guys are doing a fine job of it in Highland Scotland, and have expanded into low ground deer too, and I applaud their efforts. However, this isn’t enough for Robin Gibson MSP, who has recently called for statutory Deer Management Groups. I can’t help thinking it’s because the ADMG are doing such a good job of it on their own, on a voluntary basis with applied common sense backed by members who are almost all deer experts in their own right. Perhaps he feels he is in a weak position?

Too often the cry is cull out the deer because of damage to the environment, or suppression of so-called regeneration of the old Caledonian forest. I cannot help smirking at the hypocrisy; mankind basically cut and burnt the species out of its habitat and they adapted to an alien environment and now the powers that be want to eradicate them and put the landscape back to how it was.

I am all for protecting the remnants of what was once a great forest, and even the expansion of it has to be commended, but not at the expense of a species and the livelihoods of those who manage it. Deer are an economic resource for many estates, and the sporting potential of these wild lands are what has protected them for today’s generations to see and use. Commercial forestry has mostly become un-economical, and its blight on the landscape has done little to repay the conflict caused to sound management plans. The trend towards restocking native species makes more sense, and I certainly understand that these vulnerable plantations need protecting, but statutory inspection of plantation fencing enclosures seems a far more important use of time than telling the experienced, ‘you don’t do it like that, you do it like this’. Although I agree that quality fencing is the only way to protect plantations, I am against large-scale fencing to exclude red deer from their natural migration to wintering and summer grounds. Indeed, to impede these seasonal movements should be considered a crime.

Imagine, then, my dismay when I read that the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and John Muir Trust (JMT) joint statement, following hard on the heels of Robin Gibson’s call for statutory Deer Management Groups (DMGs) after his visit to the JMT property at Assynt, crying for the same thing. Add in the Forest Policy Group’s proposal for a licensing system and, forgive me, but I can only conclude – as others have – that this cannot be anything but a coordinated campaign to take deer management out of the hands of those who know what they are doing, to put it into the hands of those that don’t.

There is no need at all for statutory deer management groups or a licensed culling system. Richard Cooke of the Association of Deer Management Groups couldn’t have said it any better: “Only two years ago the Scottish Parliament, in passing the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act (WANE), took the view that the voluntary basis of deer management was fit for purpose, despite the best efforts of JMT and others to persuade them otherwise. The harking back to pre-WANE opinions takes no account of the substantial process of change that is occurring in the deer sector, most notably the willing adoption of the Code of Practice for Deer Management, and the setting up of the Lowland Deer Network at the instigation of ADMG in 2011.” What shouldn’t be overlooked is that there already is a process in legislation when deer conflict cannot be resolved. SNH can impose either a voluntary control agreement known as a Section 7 Agreement, or under more serious circumstances, a Compulsory Control Order, Section 8.

Deer are indeed a very valuable resource. Yes, they can be a source of conflict with other countryside stakeholders, but the economic versus environmental benefits and deficits that deer provide are at the very heart of the countryside, and they should be managed by mutual cooperation with due process adhered to. It seems to me that deer managers are working to the code. They should be recognised for that effort and not have statutory licensing forced down their throats by ignorant, ill-informed, political grandstanders, who care not for deer but only bettering their own aims.


Red Stag

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