FAQs: Managing Deer for Climate, Communities and Conservation

13th January 2020


What is the problem?

High deer numbers are causing significant ecological damage to Scotland. They are preventing woodland regeneration and expansion, and damaging peatlands – both of which play a vital role in storing carbon and removing it from the atmosphere. Native woodlands are also important wildlife habitats, which make a major contribution to biodiversity. High deer numbers can also cause suffering to themselves, especially in harsh winters when vegetation and shelter is scarce. In the absence of any rigorous regulation of deer numbers, there have been repeated calls for a statutory deer management system to bring Scotland into line with most European countries where the state or local authority determines and enforces cull levels in the public interest.

Inadequate deer management also generates significant social and economic costs, such as damage to forestry and agriculture; increased road accidents; proliferation of disease-bearing ticks; and lost opportunities for communities to flourish.


What are the numbers – and are they reliable?

Because deer are highly mobile and spread across tens of thousands of kilometres of rugged uplands and woodlands the process of obtaining an accurate estimate of numbers is costly and complex (all figures are estimates). We cite the official figures provided by SNH and its predecessor organisations (Deer Commission for Scotland and Red Deer Commission).

Since red deer counts began in the 1960s, official estimates have suggested that the Scottish population has roughly trebled from 150,000 to between 360,000 and 400,000 according to Wild Deer in Scotland, which was published by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre in 2013 (with a further estimated 200,000-350,000 roe deer, 25,000 fallow deer and a smaller number of sika deer). In 2017 the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee published its Report on Deer Management in Scotland, calling for a “greater focus and urgency” in addressing Scotland’s deer management challenges. It stated that “deer densities in many places are too high to deliver the public interest” and that “deer impacts continue be a significant factor in preventing the achievement of positive outcomes for the planting and restoration of native woodlands. A more recent report by SNH in 2019 estimated that the overall deer density in Scotland has remained broadly stable over the past 20 years (i.e. at an all-time high).


What causes high deer densities?

In the absence of natural predators, deer numbers are kept under control by culling. Scotland has a ‘traditional’ system of deer management, mostly based on a Victorian model of large private estates and professional gamekeepers. Cull targets are voluntary rather than compulsory, with each individual landowner free to decide how many of their deer they will or will not cull.

There is little incentive to manage deer in the public interest. Instead, there is an incentive to keep deer numbers high because part of the capital valuation for an estate is based on the average number of stags shot over a five-year period. Every additional stag shot increases the value of an estate by around £50,000 when it is put up for sale.


How are deer currently managed?

Because deer can freely cross ownership boundaries, a system of voluntary Deer Management Groups (DMGs) was encouraged by government agencies to try to get landowners to work together to address continued adverse deer impacts at a local level. These are entirely voluntary groups, mostly dominated by landowners whose principal objective is to ensure a plentiful supply of stags for sport shooting. Consequently, wider public interests, including the ecological condition of the land, tend to be secondary concerns and any culls ‘set’ are not enforceable.


What is the recent background to this debate?

A Scottish Government appointed independent Deer Working Group was established in 2017 with the task of recommending changes to ensure that deer management serves the public rather than private objectives. Separately, the government agency Scottish Natural Heritage was asked to conduct a review into the effectiveness of deer management structures. Its report, published in November 2019, suggests that there has been “significant progress” in deer management planning and evidence of improvements on the ground in reducing deer densities in some areas. The report, however, also noted that three out of five key Scottish biodiversity targets are “unlikely to be delivered” because of high deer densities and that there had been “insufficient progress” in protecting and restoring native woodlands.


What do we mean by “managing deer for conservation”?

High deer numbers cause serious damage to important habitats such as peatlands and woodlands. There are many existing models of exemplary deer management practice on land managed by public, private, community and environmental landowners, some which delivered impressive results over the past two decades. We need to get more land managed in this way, so that deer numbers are compatible with habitat recovery. This would produce a range of clear benefits for the Scottish public, the environment and deer themselves.


How can managing deer more sustainably help with the climate emergency?

Allowing woodlands to expand and regenerate naturally by reducing over-grazing by deer could play a significant role in meeting Scottish Government targets for increased woodland cover, recognised as a key response to the climate crisis. Each year, 12m tonnes of CO2 are absorbed by Scotland’s forests and woodlands; reducing deer numbers would allow expanding woodland to absorb even more carbon. Peatlands also have a critical role in climate change mitigation: healthy peatlands act as reservoirs of carbon and a sink for greenhouse gases, while degraded peatlands – trampled by excessive deer numbers – release large quantities of CO2. As well as damaging existing and emerging woodlands and peatlands, Scotland’s red deer produce around 5,200 tonnes of methane each year – the equivalent of 145,600 tonnes of CO2. A 20 per cent reduction in numbers would directly save the carbon equivalent of around 15 million car miles on Scotland’s roads each year.


How are the methane figures calculated?

These figures (adjusted slightly since the publication of the LINK paper to take account of new methodology) are based on scientific research into the methane production of a range of ruminants. The estimates were calculated by 1) taking a mid-point figure for the mass of methane produced in one year by Scotland’s red deer population; 2) multiplying  that figure by the total deer population; and 3) converting total methane production from red deer into its CO2 equivalent using the methodology of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.


With more sheep than deer in Scotland, why not focus on the damage they do?

While sheep also occur in the uplands and potentially impact on woodland and peatland, primarily this document is in response to a public debate about deer management. There are 6.7 million sheep in Scotland compared to 400,000 red deer; however, the highest concentrations of sheep are south of the Central Belt. According to the most recent Scottish Government statistics, the density of sheep in the Scottish Borders is eight times higher than in the Highlands; and in Dumfries & Galloway five times higher. It is also the case that the impact of sheep grazing is more locally concentrated while red deer have a far wider range, and therefore a more extensive impact. One 2016 study, Quantifying the Grazing Impacts Associated with Different Herbivores on Rangelands, found that the geographical spread of the red deer population in the Cairngorms is six times greater than that of the sheep population; in West Sutherland, 12 times greater; in  East Sutherland, 13 times greater; in the Mid-West Highlands, 43 times greater; in South Ross, 70 times greater; and in West Grampian 220 times greater.


Aren’t deer an important part of our cultural and natural heritage?

The roaring stag – the ‘Monarch of the Glen’– is a Scottish icon. Reducing deer numbers would not damage this element of Scottish cultural identity. In fact, it would lead to bigger and healthier deer. Red deer are a native species in Scotland and have an important place in our landscape and ecosystem at a population level which enables healthy natural regeneration of habitats.


Isn’t it cruel to kill animals even for worthy environmental objectives?

Exactly the opposite. Humans long ago exterminated the natural predators of this natural woodland animal, and red deer were forced to adapt to open hillside – and became a smaller beast as a result. This contrasts with their larger European counterparts. In areas where deer numbers are excessive, there can be a high mortality rate from starvation and exposure, especially in extreme winter conditions – with often thousands and sometimes tens of thousands starving to death each year. By reducing deer numbers, the condition of the habitats that deer depend on for food and shelter will improve, which in turn will result in large and healthy deer and reduce deaths from starvation.


Are there non-lethal methods of controlling deer (e.g. immuno-contraception)?

As environmentalists and conservationists, we respect the work of animal charities and have an affinity with the underlying ethos that challenges animal cruelty and abuse. We have no problem in principle with immuno-contraception, but it is currently not available as a practical method to reduce deer densities to a level that would allow trees, peatland and other species to flourish. Immuno-contraception is only viable on a micro-scale – for example when dealing with small herds of deer around a village or town. It involves capturing and injecting hinds annually, or less reliably, firing contraceptive darts. It would be impractical to apply this method on a national scale across 30,000 square km of rough, mountainous and remote uplands, with a scattered, mobile red deer hind population of around 200,000 individuals.


Would reducing deer numbers mean fewer jobs?

A 2016 report commissioned by the Association of Deer Management Groups (ADMG) stated that the deer management sector supports 840 full-time equivalent jobs. Getting deer numbers down would require more stalkers. Evidence suggests that estates that have reduced their deer population even retained or increased their stalking staff.

In a response to the LINK document, the ADMG claimed that “many of the full-time employed resident deer management roles would be lost if the deer population became insufficient to support deer stalking businesses.” There are two misleading points here. First, the notion of ‘deer stalking businesses’ is something of a myth. The ADMG’s own 2016 report revealed that total direct expenditure on deer management in Scotland is £43 million (combined operational and capital) while the total direct income received from deer stalking was just £12.4 million. In other words, the entire industry is run at a £30 million a year loss and is not so much a business as a hobby facilitated by wealthy landowners.

The second point is that deer stalking has been a major activity on Scotland’s hillsides for many generations and was a substantial source of employment in the Highlands when the deer population was a fraction of its current size. If anything, a graduated halving of the population over a reasonable timescale would potentially create more jobs during that period and allow a transition period for sporting estates to move towards a more economically, socially and environmentally productive model of land management.


What is wrong with deer fences?

Deer fences are visually intrusive in the landscape and can be a barrier to public access. Deer fences can also lead to bird deaths from collisions, particularly low-flying birds such as black grouse and capercaillie. Deer fences are damaging to wildlife habitats, by increasing trampling and grazing pressure on areas immediately outside the fence as well as creating an artificial environment within the perimeter area. At the same time, they block deer out of their natural woodland habitat which provides food and shelter. Deer fencing is also expensive. The cost of protecting new woodlands on the scale needed to meet our tree-planting targets under current deer densities will run to tens of millions of pounds. This is an expense that other countries, with lower deer densities, do not face.


What are the ‘public costs’ of the current deer management system?

While sport shooting and venison sales bring in income, Scottish Natural Heritage reported in 2016 that “management of deer in Scotland results in a “net monetary loss” for both the private and public sectors.” High deer numbers also have external public costs: road traffic collisions; damage to forestry and agriculture; fencing costs and public health costs from increasing incidences of Lyme disease. A community model of deer management in some areas could provide a more just and fair method of controlling deer and distributing public benefits than the current traditional model of sporting estate management.


 What scale of land use change will be needed to make serious progress towards meeting climate change and biodiversity targets?

The Committee on Climate Change has recommended creating 15-24,000 hectares of new trees annually in Scotland and a minimum of 18,200 hectares of peatland restoration in Scotland per year from the mid-2020s to 2045. The Scottish Government has set an increased target of creating 12,000 hectares of new woodland per year, increasing further to 15,000 hectares by 2024. These levels of planting have rarely been achieved in the past and will require far-reaching change in land use.

As a broad rule of thumb, deer densities above eight per square kilometre have the potential to damage peatlands, while natural woodland regeneration will not occur where deer densities are above five per square kilometre. Without reduced deer densities, extensive and expensive fencing will be required to deliver tree-planting on the scale needed to meet climate change targets.


Would these changes mean an end to traditional stalking?

‘Traditional’ deer stalking is an important part of local culture in some parts of Scotland and can bring economic benefits to fragile communities. That tradition has of course evolved over time, with the use of high velocity rifles, sound moderators, scopes, All Terrain Vehicles etc. We do not advocate banning deer stalking but we would like to see stalking evolve and diversify to involve more people and to create additional economic opportunities. This in turn could help to revive fragile and remote communities and reverse long-term population decline in the Highlands. Rather than ending deer stalking, we would like to see it benefit more people, restore more habitats and contribute more to public benefits, such as reducing greenhouse gases.


How would managing deer differently benefit rural communities?

The ‘traditional’ Victorian estate model across much of rural Scotland has contributed to economic stagnation and depopulation in many areas by closing down opportunities for greater community involvement in the use of land and natural resources. The spread of diverse woodland types across the red deer range would increase the availability of timber and other forest products, benefitting landowners and communities as well as the wider environment. Woodland nature-based tourism enterprises could flourish in areas that are currently off the beaten track.


 What do you mean by ’community hunting’?

Since the middle of the 19th century, the main model of red deer stalking on private land in Scotland has largely been based on wealthy paying clients and guests guided by professional stalkers. In many European countries, communities are directly involved in deer control and community models of hunting are widespread. In Norway, for example, over half a million people – almost ten per cent of the population – are registered hunters. Hunting is considered a communal source of sustainable food, and local people have priority use. Game meat is an important part of Norwegian food culture, rather than a by-product of trophy hunting as is often the case here.

Closer to home, the community-owned North Harris Trust has opened up stalking, both for recreation and for responsible land management, to the wider community. Through the Harris Stalking Club, locals can participate and take on the responsibility for annual cull targets and this model appears to be working well. We would like to see pilot community projects where local people are trained and encouraged to be more involved in deer management.


Could broadening participation in shooting cause any risk to the public?

There are rigorous laws in place around the licensing, use and storage of firearms in Scotland. In developing broader participation in hunting, European models of training and assessment could be explored where potential hunters are trained and assessed in their own and public safety, deer welfare and habitat condition. Rather than a free-for-all, we would like to see more stringent regulation, including compulsory training and certification of all hunters and a ban on the use of lead shot.


Could wider participation lead to such a drastic reduction of the red deer population that it might eventually become an endangered species?

The benefit of a more regulated approach cuts two ways. In the short-to-medium term it could help reduce the population to a less damaging level. In the future, intervention could also be used to protect the deer population in areas where its viability is threatened.


What experience of deer management do the authors of Managing Deer for Climate, Communities and Conservation have?

The report Managing Deer for Climate, Communities and Conservation is supported by a broad and diverse range of organisations with a strong interest in how Scotland’s land is managed. They include six landowning environmental NGOs, which are directly involved in day-to-day red deer management, plus one of Scotland’s oldest and largest community landowners, North Harris Trust, which manages the largest red deer population in the Western Isles. The coalition for change also includes organisations with specialist scientific expertise in the grazing impacts of herbivores upon forestry and peatland.


For further information, contact Alan McCombes alan.mccombes@johnmuirtrust.org 0771 744 2805

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