The Future of Deer Management in Scotland

Guest Blog by Dr Helen Armstrong

Wild deer in Scotland belong to no-one – in legal terms they are res nullius. Yet this public resource has traditionally been managed exclusively by the owners of land. How to ensure the public interest in the private management of a public resource remains a challenge and, in this guest blog, Dr Helen Armstrong provides some thoughts on the way forward.

Dr Armstrong is an ecologist who has spent more than 25 years providing advice and carrying out research on the management of deer, sheep and cattle, and their impacts, in the British uplands. She has worked for Forest Research, Scottish Natural Heritage and the James Hutton Institute. In 2012 she set up her own consultancy.

The future of deer management in Scotland

To continue the discussion of deer management started by Duncan Halley in his guest blog (Hjorteviltforvaltning i Norge, 23 Jan 2015), here are some thoughts on how deer management differs between Scotland and Norway, along with some suggestions of how we might start to make deer management in Scotland compatible with the regeneration and expansion of woodland (for a discussion of the advantages of increasing woodland and shrub cover in Scotland see: Armstrong, Holl & Halley, Restoring the Scottish Uplands). I have focussed primarily on deer management in the uplands i.e. the Highlands and Southern Uplands. The increase in roe deer numbers in lowland, and peri-urban, areas is also of concern but presents different challenges.

Differences between Scotland and Norway:

  1. In Scotland, there are far fewer land owners than in Norway. Since the right to shoot deer, in both countries, resides with the land owner on whose land the deer are present at any time, shooting rights are in the hands of far fewer people in Scotland than in Norway. This means that, in Norway, far more people hunt and many of these hunters harvest only a few deer to provide venison for friends and family. Deer hunting in Scotland is primarily carried out for sport; as let stalking or as a recreational activity for the family and friends of the land owner. In areas where trees have been planted, or are being encouraged to regenerate naturally, and where deer fences are not desirable or are too expensive, it is carried out principally to protect young trees from browsing. Venison is produced largely as a by-product of these other activities. This is despite the fact that demand for venison in the UK is growing rapidly, to the point where it is not being met by local sources. In 2012, around 20% of the venison coming onto the market in Scotland was imported, largely from New Zealand and Poland.
  2. In Norway, absentee ownership of productive land (as opposed to holiday cabins) is not allowed, unlike in Scotland where any individual or organization, based anywhere in the world, can buy land. Absentee landowners are often less involved, and less interested, in the approach taken to deer management on their land than are those are who are resident. As a result, persuading landowners in Scotland to adopt an approach to deer management that takes into account wider public interests can be a difficult task.
  3. In Scotland, Highland estates where deer stalking is the main land use tend to be valued on the basis of the number of red deer stags that are shot each year, regardless of the size and quality of the stags. This is despite many recent estate purchases having been by private individuals, or Non-Governmental Organisations, that have nature conservation, not sport shooting, as a primary aim. In Norway, by contrast, land is valued on the basis of its type and quality as well as that of all its potential outputs. Currently, maintaining the capital value of a Scottish stalking estate entails maintaining the annual take of stags at as high a level as possible. Traditional deer managers often believe that, to achieve this, the estate needs to hold large numbers of hinds that will, in turn, produce large numbers of stag calves. As a consequence of the resulting intense competition for food and the lack of shelter from woodland, Scotland’s hill deer are small and stag trophy heads are unimpressive by European standards. On many estates deer are fed in winter to avoid high levels of mortality. As in Norway, the social life of many of the people who own land in Scotland is bound up with the culture of sport shooting. The maintenance of these cultures is not dependent, however, on having artificially high populations of deer. The apparent reluctance on the part of some land owners to take action voluntarily to reduce the damaging impacts of the current high numbers of deer is therefore more likely to be related both to the outdated system of assessing capital values and to entrenched ideas of what constitutes good deer management, than it is to any potentially damaging effect on sporting culture.
  4. In Norway, the impact of deer on the environment is monitored by those who have the right to shoot deer. Numbers of deer are required to be maintained at a level that does not compromise the public good. In Scotland, those with the right to shoot deer have no duty to either monitor the impacts of deer or to limit their impact on the public good. As a result, high deer densities across much of the country are preventing woodland from regenerating naturally, cause large numbers of road traffic accidents (RTAs) every year and promote high tick numbers that, in turn, may be contributing to the increasing incidence of Lyme disease. All of these have a high public cost. There is around 2,250 km of fencing on the National Forest Estate in Scotland (land managed on our behalf by Forestry Commission Scotland; FCS). Between 2010 and 2013 FCS spent around £4 million on deer fencing to allow young trees to escape from browsing. This is a cost not borne by competing timber producers in other European countries such as Norway, where fencing for this purpose is unknown. The Scottish Government has a target to expand woodland cover from the current 17% to 25%. The cost of achieving this would be considerably reduced if deer numbers were brought down to a level where deer fencing was not needed.
  5. Unlike Scotland, Norway has in place a modern system of wildlife management. This requires annual counting of deer numbers over large areas, the collection of information on every deer shot and the assessment of deer impacts on woodland and other habitats. To achieve this requires a national system of oversight to ensure that appropriate methods are developed, that those doing the monitoring are trained and that the information returned is of a high quality. A similar system in Scotland would tell us how many deer there are and what impacts they are having. Data on RTAs and, ideally, also on the impact of deer on tick densities and the incidence of Lyme disease would also help inform deer population targets. A Government Agency (most likely Scottish Natural Heritage) would need to collate and analyse all these data, most of which would be provided by land owners and hunters. They would then advise each Deer Management Group, of which there are currently around 70 in Scotland, as well as individual landowners, on appropriate deer management. This would include the setting of harvest levels. All this costs money, but the Norwegian system is funded from fees paid by hunters and there is no reason why the same approach could not be taken in Scotland.
  6. Scotland currently has much less woodland cover than does Norway (17% v 33%), even though a greater proportion of Scotland is climatically suited to woodland. Much Norwegian woodland is semi-natural, and so contains more forage for deer than do our dense conifer plantations. Roe deer are almost always found living in, or near, woodland so they generally have access to relatively large areas of woodland. As a result, their impact on woodland is closely related to their density and this can be set such that woodland /RTA /tick objectives are met. Regular monitoring would allow any initial assessment of an appropriate density to be adjusted over time. Red deer are also woodland animals by preference but, in Scotland, the lack of woodland has forced many of them to live in the open where, unlike roe deer, they can survive, if not prosper. Red deer almost always seek shelter in woodland in winter, where it is available. Many of our open hill estates have so little woodland that the pressure on the remaining woods from deer (both red and roe) in winter is intense. As a result, densities of deer that are compatible with achieving woodland regeneration and expansion are often low and considerable effort would be needed to keep numbers low enough. The remaining deer would, however, produce more, bigger, and more viable offspring due to reduced competition for food. Individual deer would therefore produce more venison and stags would have bigger antlers that reached their full size at a younger age. As a result, sport shooting may remain financially viable. Numbers of jobs associated with deer management would need to be maintained, or increased, to keep up the high culling effort that would be needed.
  7. In Scotland, a ‘recovery’ phase is needed, where appropriate deer management allows woodland to regenerate and expand. Once we have increased woodland cover, higher numbers of deer could be supported and the sustainable harvest increased accordingly. Significant reductions in deer numbers are needed to give us the step-change in Scotland’s woodland cover that is needed to both meet woodland policy targets and to achieve the long-term health of the Scottish uplands (see Armstrong, Holl & Halley).

Deer Management Groups across the Highlands, with some financial support from SNH, are currently writing deer management plans. The aim of the plans is to present information, where available, on deer populations and impacts, and set population and cull targets in light of both private and public objectives. These plans will be publicly available and the success of DMGs in writing the plans, and making progress towards sustainable deer management, will be assessed in 2016. While many estates and DMGs are fully committed to producing well informed plans, some are less committed.

While the system remains voluntary it is unlikely that all estates, and all DMGs, will put in place modern deer management systems that adequately address public as well as private objectives. Those that do will need to bear the additional costs of taking this approach while those that do not will have fewer private costs but their deer management is likely to have higher public costs. A fairer system would legally oblige those who have the right to shoot deer to put in place a high standard of deer management that takes into account public as well as private objectives.

An Initial step towards this would be to put in place a modern, state-of-the-art system for the monitoring of deer populations and their impacts so that local population sizes, compatible with acceptable impact levels, can be determined. Deer population and harvest targets could then be set. Currently deer management is often tradition-based rather than being based on carefully collected deer population and impact information. This approach needs to change.

There should be a legal requirement for land owners to regularly count the deer on their land (including the number of young per female) and return this information to SNH. Count methods should be specified by SNH and regular checking would be needed to ensure accuracy. There should also be a requirement to return basic data on all deer shot (sex, weight and age class as a minimum). This would provide information on the deer population that could then be used to determine the size of harvest that will be needed to adjust deer numbers to a level that best meets all objectives. It would also allow land owners, and SNH, to track improvements in deer weight and productivity resulting from better management of populations.

Land owners should also be required to collect basic habitat impact information and return it to SNH. All of this is standard practice and legally required in most other European countries. A levy on land owners in return for the right to shoot deer, which in Scotland are currently owned by no-one, would pay for the system. The fee could be set at a rate per ha of land and might be increased if targets were not met, to reflect the consequent costs to society. The fee should not be per head of deer shot, since that might provide a dis-incentive to control populations. A land owner who did not participate, would be obliged to pass the deer management on their land to a person, or group, who would. If they could not find anyone else to run the deer management then, as a last resort, SNH would need to take over deer management on the estate. This might mean either carrying out appropriate deer management themselves or letting the hunting rights to others who will. Deer are a national resource and information relating to deer management should be publicly available.

Two other actions would help to ensure that deer numbers are brought down to sustainable levels:

  1. Extend harvest seasons. There is no welfare reason for not having a year-long season for stags and the hind season could be extended (deer managers can currently apply to SNH for an extension for reasons of habitat /forestry/ agricultural protection). The current seasons were put in place to protect deer when numbers were low; but that is not the current requirement. All hunters should be required to hold an appropriate qualification (as in Norway).
  2. Discourage winter feeding of deer. This is a common practice for hill red deer and results in populations that are artificially higher than the habitat can support. If deer numbers were lower there would be no need for winter feeding.

These three actions would have a major impact on the way that deer are managed as well as on their numbers. They would also provide the information needed to take the next steps of setting target deer densities and harvests at a local level to minimize conflicts and maximize the benefits of the national deer resource to all the people of Scotland.

Helen Armstrong
Broomhill Ecology
1 April 2015