50 for the Future – Reduce wild deer densities

Our recent publication, 50 for the Future, lists 50 things that we believe should happen in Scotland over the next 50 years to benefit both people and wildlife. In this week's 50 for the Future article, former Environment Minister, Michael Russell MSP, discusses why urgent action is needed to reduce densities of wild deer in Scotland.


Number 1: Reduce wild deer densities substantially to allow the widespread recovery of natural woodland and scrub.


The Land Reform Bill, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament yesterday after nine months of scrutiny, debate and deliberation, provides a step forward in the matter of deer management in Scotland. But much more needs to be done to restore anything like the proper environmental balance in many areas of Scotland. 

There is a deer problem in our country and by “deer problem” I do not mean the undoubted inconvenience and annoyance caused by the ever more common invasion of the species into rural or suburban gardens, though that is a symptom of it. I mean the progressive degradation of the environment which results in – as the Scottish Wildlife Trust has exhaustively outlined elsewhere – a whole range of environmental problems including the suppression of tree and shrub regeneration, the conversion of heath to grassland, the poaching of wetland features, the loss of species diversity, increased rates of soil erosion, damage to trees, the loss of grouse through deer fence strikes, habitat fragmentation and compartmentalisation, and even increased run-off and flooding risks. Moreover, deer themselves suffer and die as a result of overpopulation and scarcity of feeding.

Many of those involved in deer management will assert that these problems exist only in one or two places across the country and I do not deny that there is good work going on to try to tackle the issue through some of the voluntary deer management groups. Much of that work is undertaken by those with real knowledge of the complexities of reducing populations and stabilising numbers. 

© Nigel Corby, Creative Commons
Voluntary deer management is falling far short of the levels of culling necessary. © Nigel Corby, Creative Commons

Yet even a glance at the history of the matter shows that the overall number of deer in Scotland is – and has been for generations – out of control and that therefore, if we are to make a difference to our landscape, we have to adopt a more radical and more effective approach. Moreover, we have to do it soon and with urgency. 

The origins of the problem lie, as many problems of Scottish land use do, in the 19th century where the establishment of sheep farms on traditionally held Highland land gave way to the development of deer forests. This sociological phenomenon – the move from agricultural improvement for largely absentee landowners' profit to the utilisation of vast tracts of land for those same landowners' sporting pleasure – has been examined elsewhere. But it's effect was to create a situation in which the desirable outcome of land management over a massive 1.5 million hectares of Scotland was not productive use by the many, but a steady increase in the number of deer available for stalking by the few without any thought for the long term consequences for either local populations or the land itself. 

The only circumstances in which an increase in deer numbers can be positively borne by the environment is when there is planned, consistent and effective deer management. Even then, careful thought has to be given to maximum desirable carrying capacity. 

In reality, decreasing effectiveness of, and expenditure on, deer management from the turn of the 20th century onwards led to an explosion in the population. As Simon Pepper has pointed out in his fascinating notes on official reaction to the problem (a reaction that has spawned no less than seven inquiries in the last 100 or so years) “after WWII, when the population was about 100,000 the last of these inquiries led to the creation of the Red Deer Commission in 1959, with powers to intervene to protect agriculture and forestry. The advice of its official adviser Dr Frank Fraser Darling, was that this population was too large and an optimum number might be 60,000.”

But he goes on to observe that “since then, red deer numbers have more than trebled, and with increasing roe, sika and fallow deer numbers, the total Scottish deer population is now well over half a million.” 

© Lister Cumming
Red deer numbers have tripled in the last 50 years. © Lister Cumming

The succession of quotes from the reports of the Red Deer Commission and its successor, the Deer Commission, that Simon Pepper uses in his paper point up the frustrated futility of the approach by successive Governments (Westminster and Holyrood) which was based upon the insistence of the landowners themselves that they had the problem under control and were (of course) operating in the public interest. That insistence was backed up (with little evidence) by public bodies such as the Forestry Commission which did invest in culling but not with sufficient intensity to make a real and lasting difference.

My own decision when I was Environment Minister, to abolish the Deer Commission and merge its operations into Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), was based upon a desire to tackle the problem once and for all. However, that solution has not yet worked as intended. In mitigation it is fair to point out that all the official advice that I and subsequent ministers likely received was predicated by an assumption that the current enhanced and better policed system of voluntary regulation would, in time with SNH's support and slightly stronger legislation, have the desired effect. Yet it is now clear that this desired effect was never properly quantified nor was it ever explicitly stated that in order to get to a sustainable benchmark a massive reduction in current numbers would need to be achieved.

And that is the elephant, or the increasingly emaciated stag, in the room because at a present estimated population of over 300,000 red deer something like 100,000 would have to be culled every year just to stand still. To reduce the population to the 60,000 or so that Frank Fraser Darling thought was about right would take a massive effort over a generation and no voluntary deer management group or system could or would be able or willing to tackle that. 

The suppression of native tree regeneration is one of the biggest impacts that deer have on Scotland's landscapes. Here, Scots pine saplings can be seen growing in Sutherland. © Mark Hamblin, 2020VISION

The biggest failure of the voluntary deer management system is that it requires constant compromise to get any actions in controversial or contested circumstances. That has been graphically demonstrated at Knoydart, but those problems would be small beer compared to the challenge if all deer management groups were set greatly increased culling targets which they had to achieve. In addition, the looming problems in the South of Scotland will need to be tackled as part of the national strategy and there it is mostly public bodies, and particularly local authorities and Forest Enterprise Scotland, that need to be forced to act. 

So what is to be done? Those of us who wished to see urgent action taken in the Land Reform Bill eventually accepted, though with some reluctance, that the deadline for tangible and effective progress by Deer Management groups had to be allowed to run to the end of 2016 as previously agreed. The compromise offered – that of bringing forward the Scottish Government review of deer management so that it was completed in 2016 along with some amendments which I and others suggested to strengthen SNH's hand – has been implemented but that review must be independent, informed by the history of the matter and by the best science, and cannot be constrained by pre-conceived outcomes such as the need for the continuation of the voluntary system. In addition, there must be immediate evidence that SNH is prepared to be more active in the matter of forcing change and progress than they have been to date. 

My own view is that such a review is bound to conclude that after more than a century of well meaning effort but ultimate failure, deer management requires firm, radical remedial action to ensure that our environment and the potential of our land is not continually damaged by benign neglect at best, or willful and selfish mismanagement at worst. If that is the outcome, then the hard job of developing a generational plan supported and enforced by legislation will have to take place, and the plan implemented, as quickly as possible if further damage is to be avoided. 

Let us know your thoughts by emailing thefuture@scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk or Tweet @ScotWildlife using #50fortheFuture.

Michael Russell is the MSP for Argyll & Bute, a Member of the Parliament’s Rural Affairs Committee and a former Environment Minister.



Banner image © Bob Coyle

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In this week's 50 for the Future article, former Environment Minister, Michael Russell MSP, discusses why urgent action is needed to reduce densities of wild deer in Scotland.

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