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


  1. Helen writes not just from extensive knowledge, but from a mind that is clearly looking to the future. To find the right answers we must first be asking the right questions. She has raised some interesting points. If I may, I would like to add a few of my thoughts.

    For myself, I am a Gaelic-speaking crofter’s son from the Hebrides and have been involved in upland and lowland deer management north and south of the border for approaching three decades and, like Andy, worked as a pony ghillie for some seasons (Applecross Estate in the early 90s). Deer hunting and welfare is a personal passion and, as much as I feel deeply in tune with nature as a whole and am an ardent conservationist, deer have always been particularly close to my heart.

    I run SACS, Scotland’s largest hunting (old sense of the word) organisation, where we have a large number of stalker members – recreational and professional. Most of them are ordinary folk with no land-holding to speak of and hunt deer for wild outdoor recreation, closeness to nature, conservation and quality wild food.

    Times have changed and now the vast majority of stalkers are ordinary folk like me and my wife, who is from an urban upbringing. An increasing number of women are taking up deer hunting and making use of this natural food resource and doing so much for our environment. Also, the voluntary take up of deer management training is strong and there is absolutely no need for mandatory training or assessment – we take our collective responsibility to habitat, deer welfare, meat hygiene and public safety very seriously. There is a natural curiosity amongst stalkers for knowledge and I strongly feel the voluntary approach to training is best, albeit with some incentives or investment from the Government.

    It is of concern to me that there seems to be a constant attack on deer and deer hunters as if they are an obstacle to conservation and regeneration of the natural heritage. On the contrary, we are part of the solution. Yes, there are many excellent and progressive estate owners, often these days from ordinary backgrounds, and a very few less responsible; I have seen both sides. SACS does not represent or speak for landowners, just ordinary responsible hunters. However, surely how land is managed and used is more important than who owns it.

    My personal view is that, where it is possible and viable to do so, more local people and communities should be able to benefit from local resources, such as wild deer and other sustainable hunting and fishing activities. If sustainable deer management is necessary to manage habitat impact then we need more deer managers and it makes sense that they are local to an area. Therefore surely we should be incentivising greater involvement in community-driven sustainable deer management?

    Yet with Forest Enterprise (the business arm of the Forestry Commission) there is an increasing move to commercial non-selective mass deer culling. They are obsessed with using professional deer contractors, often from hundreds of miles away, to shoot deer at night using high-powered spotlights. Having worked as a deer contractor myself I know what’s going on.

    Where viable, would it not be more sensible to have appropriately trained or experienced locals under the direction of FE wildlife managers and working within evidence-based local deer management plans, making use of the excellent Forest Enterprise deer larders and, either keeping the venison in the community, or selling it for the benefit of the community? After all, the prosperity of local communities, and the quality of life of those individuals who comprise a local community, is inherently linked to the meaningful utilisation of land as an economic, social and environmental resource.

    How lucky we are in this wee island nation to have such wonderful natural bounty. What an opportunity we have now to value and take local responsibility for the fantastic natural food resource that wild deer provide.

    What an opportunity to work together for the environment, wider ecosystem, the deer themselves and the greater common good. Sustainable hunting is a vital tool in forward-thinking land management; by accident or design we do so much for the environment.

    Le dùrachdan,
    Alex Stoddart


    • Hugh Chalmere

      Thanks Alex, I made similar points in my article in the Reforesting Scotland journal number 49 ‘ small is possible” . Helen Armstrongs article really does cover all the issues very well. There would be far more opportunities for local deer hunting if these ideas come about, and we wil,have better deer, woodlands and ecological restoration all round. We al need to be trained to shoot though, and be confident we can kill humanely.

      Hugh Chalmers


  2. Both the article and comment from Alex are fascinating. Alex’s idea of hunting for food is quite different to the trophy hunter’s attitude. It’s ridiculous that we need food banks while their are too many deer on the hill.


  3. Brilliant article by Helen. And good and interesting comments from Alex. I think Helen’s criticisms are to do with land management rather than the owners. But also her article highlights (new to me) information such as land value based on stag harvest. The comparisons with the Norwegian system is very informative. Clearly the Scottish system of land ownership militates against sensible deer management and I sigh regarding DMGs – they have been writing plans for years…I hope post 2016 something will happen to force better management since voluntary management is just not working in some places. Those landowners failing to control deer are letting you voluntary groups down, And lastly, we sorely miss venison. Access to this abundant food source in the Borders is mainly limited to who you know (since won’t buy supermarket meat)…


  4. I agree with the previous comments, an excellent article by Helen and a valuable contribution by Alex; let’s hope that progress is eventually made.

    Making any significant progress is I would suggest entirely dependent on land reform and whichever government goes about it needs to ignore the inevitable screams of protest that will come from absentee landlords, offshore trusts and all the other tax dodging cartels.

    We need a coherent wildlife management plan for Scotland; mans effect on the environment means it now cannot be left to itself to regenerate. A program is needed for re-afforestation with native broad-leaf trees and sensible re-wilding, predators need prey and do a lot to maintain a healthy environment; look at the results from the re-introduction of wolves in the Yellowstone National Park in the USA.


  5. An interesting article by Helen and a good follow up comment from Alex, we definately need a more “sport for all” approach to game & wildlife management rather than the elitist/tax evading/banker’s bonus type culture that pulls the strings at present.
    Scotland could support far more natural game meat supplies than it does at present, some forms of land management are actually hostile to game numbers and diversity such as the grouse moors mass slaughter of mountain hares – deer estates also shoot out mountain hares as they are perceived as interfering with stalking, as if a hare is disturbed a hind may notice and start looking out for a stalker – many lowland estates also shoot out all the brown hares.


  6. Helen, excellent article which reflects your huge depth and breadth of experience on deer ecology and management. Interesting ideas in the follow up comments too. It would be good for the Scottish Parliament Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee to see this given their recent interest in the topic – perhaps you might consider writing to them? Jonny


  7. Suzanne Kelly

    Dear All, In my area of Aberdeen, we implemented draconian deer culling based on the SNH guidelines. The deer population in Aberdeen may be as low as the 19 deer the SNH managed to count last winter. The new guidelines say that Tullos Hill can only support 3 or 4 animals maximum. How this can mean a healthy gene pool is something I’d like you to please explain, particularly where we had a healthy herd of 3 dozen+ in a large area, mainly meadow (which established itself on top of an industrial and domestic waste site) of several dozen animals for over 70 years.

    It seems to me that you are all known to each other, and you are all have at some point worked for the SNH, and clearly subscribe to the notion only the SNH knows about deer population, and must be given control over private and public lands for deer management. I am only starting to unravel the number of groups funded by the SNH at arm’s length that seem to me to exist to push the SNH mantra, which certainly seems to be: deer are too plentiful, deer are responsible for environmental damage (more than human intervention and urban sprawl), and that establishing forest habitat trumps everything, and only by hunting deer and therefore treating these animals as a commodity can we go forward. If any of you are doing positive work to stop urban sprawl or establish meadowland (as I understand it the fastest-disappearing environmental resource in the UK), please do tell.

    I can only despair that the SNH seems unable to entertain or allow dissenting voices to be heard (and there is dissent within the ranks as I’ve discovered). It begins to seem to me that rather than protecting Scotland’s heritage for the future, the SNH and its adherents are looking for short-term monetary wins (deer management is a nice consultancy earner), when overdevelopment, urban sprawl, and disrespect for SSSI designations (Menie Estate, Torry Harbour) is the observable outcome of what the SNH is achieving. Sorry, I expect I’ll be jumped all over by those on this page who all seem quite chummy and have the same hymn sheet, but that’s how I see it. I invite you to give me some real factual, logical information to change my mind. An article that starts by comparing Norway with Scotland (different climates, terrains, land use, human populations) is not working for me, either.


    • Hi Suzanne; fear not, I have never been an employee of SNH, nor do I regard them as the fount of all wisdom. I can’t speak for anyone else on here but I would be surprised if they didn’t have some reservations of their own.

      The Forestry Commission are about as far from enlightened land management as you can get being no better than the big (toffs) estates.

      Incidentally Red deer are not meadowland animals, they originally inhabited the edges of woodland and forest.


    • Suzanne,
      The point about comparing Norway( our nearest continental neighbour) and Scotland could perhaps be highlighted by this comment( describing Vestlandet) by prominent Scandinavian biogeographer, Prof. Hugo Sjors,

      ”The combination of pinewoods and cold sensitive species like the Holly and Ivy in W. Norway reminds one of Scotland and it seems adequate to include much of Vestlandet in the same phytogeographical region as N and central Scotland. There are many plants of an oceanic distribution, such as Bell Heather and Foxglove. Among the animals the isolated occurrence of Red Deer is especially significant.”

      Further to this, in a report to WWF, Dr Johan Hammar recommended that the Grampian Highlands should be placed in the same ecoregion southwest Scandinavia.

      By and large the bio-climatic and geobotanical affinities of Vestlandet in Norway ( the stronghold of Red Deer in Norway) are profoundly similar to Scotland and the different biological and social outcomes derived, owe their origins to man made land tenure and land use decisions rather than the basic environmental parameters operating. That is indeed fortunate as these anthropogenic factors are under our control.


    • perhaps taking this wee tour through the thumbnail photos in this this site might help.


      • Suzanne Kelly

        Many interesting points, thank you all. I have my own experiences of how the SNH wished to dominate and eliminate other debate in my area, to the point of refusing to entertain any debate at all on non-lethal deer control as regarded a controversial tree planting.

        Norway and Scotland may look similar, thank you for the link to the photos, but the issues, terrain, human and animal populations, weather, temperatures and habitats are not comparable

        I do not trust this government, and its SNH, to look after the environment. The complete hash made of the submission to protect the SSSIs at the Menie coastline; the lack of any action against urban sprawl, and the imminent carve-up of the Torry Harbour do not fill me with confidence.


        • The reason why Scotland and Norway look so similar is because they are part of the same Caledonide mountain chain projecting into the north Atlantic, with an oceanic -subarctic climate affected by a branch of the gulf stream and share a similar bioclimatic profile and phytogeography. Are you saying that the Scandinavian biogeographers are wrong? We also share a human history at least to the Bronze Age. The fauna of Western Norway is also similar and if we had not wiped out many of the large mammals in Scotland, the similarity would be even greater. The differences in the landscapes in the photos are due to a different land management protocols, not the basic subset of geographical parameters.


  8. There is much to be said for treating deer as a harvest instead of sports trophies or worse still, vermin. It makes me angry when land owning conservation charities leave large numbers of culled red deer on the hill to rot. Through SNH and FCS the Scottish Government is almost frenzied when it comes to encouraging deer culling but they see no further than the numbers game. We feed our school kids and hospital patients on intensively farmed poultry and pork while much of this free-range organic meat is either exported or thrown away.

    Dr Armstrong is right in that more needs to be done to properly evaluate the impact of deer on our wild and urban environments and their value as a wild harvest. We should also evaluate the worth of live deer as far more people visit Scotland to shoot wildlife with a Canon or a Pentax than those who come armed with a Remington or a Winchester. We must also look into the viability and sensibility of the current mania for planting trees on almost every square foot of available land. Let’s get some proper stats on the number of road traffic accidents involving deer and, to put that in perspective, accurate figures for RTAs involving sheep and other domestic livestock.

    I cannot agree with immediate withdrawal of supplementary winter feeding for deer. Some herds have relied on this for generations and where it is suddenly withdrawn animals are cruelly culled through deliberate starvation. I am also opposed to shortening the hind close seasons. What can be crueller than culling by starvation of unweaned calves?

    When looking at land reform the Scottish Government should give more value to those creatures for whom wild places are home and not just an investment, a workplace or an entertainments venue.


  9. Suzanne, personally speaking as a “pot-hunter”, I too am aghast at the “mass extermination” approach certain people and organisations take to deer (just as I am against grouse moors killing all the mountain hares or illegally poisoning raptors), healthy deer numbers are a human food source as well as a food source for Golden Eagles.
    I’m not really against supplementary feeding in winter as many areas of the Highlands are nutrient depleted due to years of overgrazing by sheep (although limited numbers of sheep that have been treated with “spot-on” type tick killers are useful for tick control – of benefit both for human and wildlife health), and have suffered forest loss resulting in deer requiring more calories just to keep warm in winter.


  10. Hello. Just coming back on a few of the interesting points raised.

    Deer Management Groups
    Though deer management groups have been going for a while, it is only in the last couple of years that they have been challenged by Scottish Government and the Scottish people to work better and meet certain objectives. I am led to believe that this work is in most areas going well and, rather than take out the old fencing mell to drive in a garden stake, they need time to effect the changes demanded of them. Some of the challenges within deer management groups aren’t even deer related. Again, investment and incentivisation will have more meaningful effect than even more legislation.

    Sport vs hunting for food
    This is an odd one in that the enormous revenue and positive deer herd management created by hunting tourism / sport hunting benefits local communities and the environment. On most estates or land where upland and lowland deer are managed decent trophies are simply a by-product of good management. If deer are well-managed in sustainable densities then they will usually produce good heads. As the good males get on they will eventually need to be culled, but will still have twigs on their heads that visiting hunters are happy to take away as a memento. If in some areas pure trophy hunting exists then the chances are that the deer are well-managed and the local income is beneficial.
    It is my experience that most hunters here take herd management seriously and have a hunger for further knowledge. Correct and sustainable management results in not only decent antlers, which some visitors are happy to pay good money for, but also quality venison. For most local hunters venison comes first and the antlers are kept if the stalk was particularly memorable or if they can be made into something useful. Older male deer need culling and the antlers will be there anyway. If someone wants to pay £1500 for shooting a big stag that needed culling anyway and take the antlers away then surely that’s an important external revenue source that’s worth pursuing? Especially so if land management employment is maintained or created as a result.
    Anyway, as we all know, the key to good deer management is the correct control of the females, which don’t produce antlers. Time was when the females were largely left to their own devices, however, we now know that a sensible reduction in female numbers within red deer can result in more male offspring. There is a fine balance, but there is already a step change in how we, 1) think about what we are doing, and 2) undertake essential deer management on the ground. We are getting better at both and without big legislative sticks.

    Shooting a deer is not everyone’s cup of tea, even if purely for the fantastic meat resource. But for those that hunt for recreation as well as meat there is pleasure in doing a good management job humanely. A carpenter who takes pride in and enjoys his work will be more likely to do a good job. A hunter that invests in his or her skill, knowledge, equipment and rifle is more likely to manage their deer responsibly and humanely and process the venison with care for the end consumer, themselves or others. Is it really a game sport, or is choosing to spend free time in the outdoors and taking a sustainable harvest of certain species a lifestyle choice? I know from my own heart and soul-searching that it is not a ‘bloodsport’ in the sense of revelling in a kill, but there is immense satisfaction from managing deer well and seeing with your own eyes the benefits to the herd and ecology / farmland. To me there are two types of sport: games like shinty or darts and simple non-competitive recreation, like recreational / lifestyle choice hunting for food, environmental management or pest control.

    Lowland deer numbers
    As mentioned by Daye Tucker on Andy Wightman’s Facebook page, lowland deer population growth is now of greater concern than upland. Reds are by and large under or coming under control. Roe deer have spread into urban and peri-urban areas and present a major challenge for deer management, especially where urban / council landowners refuse to take responsibility for deer control on their ground. Funny that the landowners and managers increasingly intransigent towards responsible deer management are less upland deer management groups, but increasingly local authorities, property land banks, road and rail networks and utility companies.

    Winter feeding
    Where there is already sensible deer management, red deer supplementary winter feeding can be both humane and a good management tool. Where hinds are hard-pressed and winter / spring mortality is high then meat is of lesser quality and more female offspring can result from the hardship. Where females are well-controlled and healthy then more male offspring are more likely – better for visiting hunters and local communities and better for the environment.
    It is one of these things that needs to be considered objectively. Local knowledge is vital.

    More hunters?
    We all know the challenges we face in getting more folk outdoors. Nature deficit disorder is now often three generations old. It was interesting to read Cameron McNeish’s recent thoughts on apathy towards rewilding. I look forward to working together for greater common good based on voluntary enthusiasm; more legislation will just build barriers and create hostility. We are all already working fairly well together. With a bit more time and investment so much more can be achieved through goodwill.

    Suzanne, not only have I never been in the employ of SNH, I do not know anyone else on this thread. I am here to tell a little of our progressive thoughts and atitudes, but mainly to listen. The more I try to understand, the more I realise how very little I know. I am not a scientist or ecologist, but a hunter with his heart in the right place.



    • I have enjoyed this discussion, but as in so many areas of land use ands tenure reform, in Scotland,there is a strong sense of Deja vu together with a fair degree of disappointment of how similar this discussion is to discussions over this 40 years ago.

      We have known for a very long time that Red Deer and related species are animals of the nemoral and boreo-nemoral forest zones and their optimal habitat is forest( not a cellulose monoculture factory) of mixed structure, density and species. It is under these conditions that Red Deer attain their largest sizes, antler growth, individual performance, greatest rapidity of maturation and highest fecundity. Despite advances in fiscal support for non commercial forests, we are still a far cry from these over much of the uplands. We can of course glean a vision of the future from the performance of deer in forested areas of Scotland and there is the classic and oft quoted example of the deer from Invermark sent out to New Zealand at a time when average stag weights at Invermark were around 14 stones, but whose descendants in the forests of New Zealand attained weights at least twice that great.

      Good for the deer perhaps, but not for the non-adapted native forests of New Zealand!. However it was a clear demonstration of the latent potential of Scottish deer given a forest that circulated a total amount of nutrients( especially Nitrogen and Calcium) and at a faster rate than the nutrient poor and nutrient immobilised uplands of Scotland. The key issue here is that the true resource is not the deer per se, but the soil-vegetation complex that supports them. We need to manage that soil-vegetation complex in a way that optimises deer performance( among many other positive reasons) and in creating this new SV complex we should remember an old saying from the Abruzzi region of Italy
      ‘ the deer live in fear of the bear, but the mountain lives in fear of the deer’ Why is that?
      It’s because, when we get round to creating that optimal SV complex, it’s going to lead to earlier maturation of the hinds and an increase in fecundity, that could create a large population of deer that could destroy the sylvan nursery that brought it in to being. And that Alex is where your approach offers a safeguard to SV integrity and productivity as well as the socio-economic benefits you mention.


  11. Suzanne Kelly

    Mr Greer you too have quite a few links with the SNH – but I think I clearly explained why I do not feel comparing Norway and Scotland is a convincing methodology for me. Different pressures on the land, different human and animal populations, just a tad less urban sprawl in one country than another; just a bit of a difference in geographical area, etc.


    • You are completely wrong as far as SNH is concerned and indeed I would hazard a guess that I am near the very bottom of their Xmas card list. I have expressed the thought that the acronym might stand for ‘still no hope’ on several occasions. Your views on the comparability of Norway( Vestlandet) are at variance with the bioclimatic reality and no, you have not explained clearly why you feel comparison may be invalid.


    • I further suggest a more detailed reading of the references you quote, before jumping to a conclusion you may have already erroneously come to before reading them


  12. Suzanne Kelly

    Mr Stoddart – I note your comments re. not knowing people on this thread, but are you the Alex Stoddart with links to the Lowland Deer Network? If this is not funded in part or influenced by the SNH, please do confirm; thank you


    • Suzanne,
      Yes. I represent our members on LDNS quite independent of any other organisation, as I do on many other panels and boards across the UK.
      LDNS is funded by its members, including SACS, plus major funding from FCS and SNH.
      Any issues with SNH are probably best directed to them as a more productive vector.
      Best, Alex


      • Alex,
        Have you ever thought, as I sometimes do, that ‘Bambi’ and’ Watership Down’ were disaster movies?


        • Ron, yes indeed, though I wouldn’t go so far as describing them as disaster movies. Certainly they are far from kids’ films and most adults are blind to the, at times subliminal, subtleties.
          War, love, self-reliance, comradeship, fear, violence, fragility of flesh, famine, feast, death, new life; more about the cycle and varied path of life.
          Anyway, disaster is relative; a farmer’s plough is a disaster to a rabbit warren, but life-giving food to us.
          One day we will all meet the Black Rabbit Of Inlé and face our sunset, but the sun will rise for others the next day.


        • Despite having seen Bambi as a wain I didn’t think twice about sinking my teeth into venison the first time it was served. Not a great fan of rabbit always thought it tasted like old army blankets!


          • I usually reckon no matter what species the TGB is, if it’s on my plate it’s not out there trashing 10 years of tree growth in an afternoon. Bambi-burgers are my favourite.

  13. Suzanne Kelly

    So, many if not everyone here has links to the SNH, and it certainly seems you are on the SNH’s wavelength when it comes to deer management issues. I’ve explained why I think the country comparison is not an equal one. I note the references to ‘Bambi’ – for some reason this makes me think of the many pointed digs those who favours non-lethal deer control are subjected to – unless you would care to offer a more innocent and logical explanation as to why you bring Bambi films into it. No one has yet put forward any reason why people should not be compassionate to animals, or why killing is an acceptable first resort to a problem which many landowners think is an invented one. Seeing the amazingly small number of deer the SNH propose should be allowed to live on Tullos Hill for instance, I think I’d side with the landowners on deer population targets. But none of you, mostly with far superior scientific knowledge to mine, have addressed the related issues I raised such as urban sprawl. I’ve certainly found this an interesting thread


    • JOHN ROBINS: Scotland is one of the least forested countries in Europe and it has more to do with our land use activities over the last 5,000 years or so than the bioclimatic potential for tree growth. Trees, especially broadleaved ones have many important ecological roles and attributes, including providing in streams up to 90% of the basic food matter ( via leaf litter) for the invertebrates that become food for fish such as salmon and trout. In addition they improve microclimate, soil fertility, store carbon, fix nitrogen and prevent hill slope erosion. They also provide the prime habitat for Red Deer and other large mammals. Planting them or encouraging their regeneration is not ‘mania’ it’s a repayment of a biological debt and one that can restore a biological capital from which a biological interest that can be accrued.


      • Dr. Armstrong: First of all, I take your point about winter feeding; we need to phase it out, but of course integrated with a woodland management strategy that creates a smorgasbord of browse species in balance with the deer population.
        I wonder if you like myself( and others), think it is time to reconsider the concept of ‘res nullius’ and replace it with the concept of ‘res publica’ .This is something we considered in the Scottish Land Commission set up by the SNP ( then in opposition) as well as the principle of the soil-vegetation complex being the primary management unit, and not the animals we use as secondary access to it.
        With the concept of ‘res publica’ comes a different set of administrative and political responsibilities which will demand management structures not yet manifest in Scotland.
        In my various study and lecture tours to North America , Fennoscandia and Ireland, I was met with polite incredulity from the staff of national parks, fish and game depts. forest services and various state/federal land management agencies on hearing that Scotland did not have national parks that were actually owned by the nation and administered by a national park service ( the basic definition of a national park) and likewise in respect of a national wildlife service, fish and game depts. etc. We cannot do ‘Yellostone’ a ‘Sarek’ or a ‘Padjulanta’ in terms of large mammal and environmental management, because we have no such structural and administrative analogues in Scotland( even though the Cairngorm ‘national park’ would be considered quite large even in Fennoscandia). In this context SNH is as much good as a chocolate fireguard.


  14. Is there some overarching Scotland-wide deer management strategy and/or regional implementation plans anyone can put a link to so we can see the criticisms of the existing management regime in that context?


  15. Stuart Wilshaw: You are the only person who has responded to the situation regarding Scottish ‘national’ parks with appreciation of the reality of their false nature. There should be signposts directing the path via Strath Chicanery, through Glen Gerrymander to Ben Oxymoron from whence the full extent of Ersatzland can be overviewed. When I explained the tenure system in Scottish ‘national’ parks to my North American and Fennoscandian colleagues who worked in or were familiar with real National Parks at home, they just burst out laughing.
    I have been advocating’ re-wilding’ ( not really happy with that description) since 1986 and making detailed bioclimatic/phytogeographical studies of analogous biomes, with my colleague Derek Pretswell, with such in mind, since 1984. In 2003, I advocated to the then environmental spokesperson, later Environment Minister, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, the establishment of a state-owned National Wildlife Refugium embracing the whole of the greater Monadhliath ( the Cairngorms being a lost cause). This has been ignored in favour of using them as a windfarm dump.


  16. Suggest you look at the overarching Scottish Government Strategies on Land-Use, Climate Change and Biodiversity, along with Forestry and Rural Strategies. These inform the national strategy on wild deer – Wild Deer; a National Approach, which in turn leads to the policy document which is the Code for deer management. Practical “how to” guides are delivered through the Wild Deer Best Practice website. Links below
    These give the starting point for understanding national policy. WDNA has been reviewed and an updated version is due to be published soon.


  17. Some quick thoughts on Helen Armstrongs blog:

    Scotland is 5 times smaller than Norway (but with the same population) so there will naturally be fewer landowners here.

    The top 23 private landowners in Norway own on average 91,000 acres each so significantly more than in Scotland.

    Stalking in Scotland is carried out primarily as a management operation providing revenue, employment and habitat management, the three elements of sustainability.

    The majority of carcasses are sold through approved game dealers. Venison is a primary product second to stalking revenue with more now meeting approved quality assured standards.

    Absentee ownership does not mean that a property is unmanaged. Majority of land holdings in Scotland’s deer range are now aware of the Code of Sustainable Deer Management and the need to meet the requirements of RACCE Committee by 2016.

    Valuations of land also take into account location, residential buildings, land capability, renewable energy potential, woodland cover and potential as well deer and fishing returns.

    Red Deer population in Scotland varies from area to area and the holding capacity of the land. Southern Highlands can generally support higher densities than Northern Highlands.

    Impact of deer on the environment increasingly monitored by landowners in Scotland on a voluntary basis with Best Practice habitat monitoring now being widely adopted ie. 30 plots per habitat type monitored every three years and photographic records being kept. This is normally mandatory on wind farm sites under s.75 agreements.

    With 5 times the human population density of say, Norway and the increase of lowland and peri-urban deer RTAs are possibly likely to increase.

    Deer are not the only animal to carry tick. Foxes, badgers and hares also carry as well as sheep and other mammals and domestic animals such as dogs and cats. Lyme disease has long been endemic in the U.S. And Europe, and climate change may well be a factor in the increase here, we have just been lucky.

    ADMG arrange annual counts in most Deer Management Groups and culls are set and agreed by estate stalkers based on the count and other factors such as wind farm developments, road schemes and new woodland schemes. Counts include stag, hind and calf numbers with an estimate of calving percentage. SNH and other agencies are involved in that process. SNH undertake aerial counts of DMGs every 5 years or so.

    Would not disagree that Scotland needs a recovery phase but not just from deer but also from from historic sheep farming practices and current renewable developments etc. and would question whether Scotland needs a higher deer population than it already has.

    Nothing in the environment is either perfect or natural anymore, nor will it ever be so with 67 people per km. sq. – as I said just quick thoughts.


    • The surface area of Norway is 323.780 and that of Scotland 78.770, so that means Norway is about 4, not five times the surface area of Scotland, so an equivalent area of estate owned by a Norwegian would have to be 364,000 acres-455,000 acres in proportionality. Or in reciprocal to 18, 200 to- 22, 750 acres or so in Scotland–and Atholl Estates, Buccleuch Estates and Polsen’s estates are???


    • I agree that we don’t need any more deer than we have at present and the totality of the sheep grazing and muirburning regime of the Victorian-Edwardian rural anachronism in Scotland has to be taken into account in respect of tree regeneration potential.


  18. Slightly ot, but as we’re talking about culling (or over culling as the case maybe), I wish to draw attention to the increasing use of night vision riflescopes that have rapidly become far cheaper than they used to be, sometimes used by poachers, sometimes by “sportsmen” who have paid farmers for the right to do shoot over the land.
    Many gamekeepers and police still live in an era where they just had to look for a lamp beam sweeping the land, unaware that a rifle with a nightvision scope will do the job unseen, furthermore, many “roadsiders” ( those who shoot from vehicles on rural public roads) have started using those military type night vision goggles when driving in remote areas late at night, so you don’t even have a pair of headlights to look out for, although they have to take them off and switch on their headlights when they see another car in the distance.
    On places where they have permission, these pseudo-hunters claim to be just doing pest control of foxes and rabbits, but in reality will shoot any wildlife that has the misfortune to turn up in their sights, ie deer, hare, even badger etc. when they have cleaned out one farm, they will just move to another, leaving a countryside devoid of game and wildlife – all perfectly legal (apart from the badgers)- but hardly showing good management and respect for the countryside – this is not hunting, it is mere gun-fetishism for shallow egos.


    • I was listening to a farmer or gamekeeper on radio 4s, Farming Today program speaking about the use of night vision aids and the added dangers they bring. With most commercially available kit, range and angle of view is limited; and because the scene is not viewed in true colour the viewers perception of what is in front of them can be inadequate. It can result in shots being taken with no knowledge of what is behind the intended target and may well be hit if the shot misses.


  19. The exponential land tax should be applied to all these big estates, and reduce them to 3,000 acres maximum.
    Too many deer are just a symptom of the problem,…. too few people.


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