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Deer in Scotland, part 2

Deer in Scotland, part 2

Some years ago I wrote a post on the need to reduce the population of deer in Scotland, recently concern about Scottish deer population has come back into the news. Due to the amount of snow we have this winter, a larger than usual number of deer are starving. As anyone who walks in the Scottish hills will know, it normal to find a few dead deer which haven’t survived the winter each year.

So what is the scale of the problem? Well, figures vary, but there are estimated to be between 500,000 – 750,000 red deer (Cervus elaphus) alone in Scotland, in addition there are also more than 400,000 roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) and about 40,000 sika deer (Cervus nippon). To put that in perspective there are about 500,000 in North America. Note the difference, Scotland is a small country whereas North America is a medium size continent, but the numbers of just red deer in Scotland and all deer species in North America are about the same (remember these numbers are just estimates).

There have been suggestions from some quarters that additional feed be put out for deer to help them get through the winter, but the simple fact is the number of deer in Scotland is way greater that carrying capacity of the land area available to them. For the good of the deer population as a whole there needs to be a longer cull this year, and we can all do our bit by eating more (or at least some) venison.

Deer in Scotland

Deer in Scotland

I read recently in the papers that the incoming chair of SNH has suggested that more Scottish people should be involved in the culling of deer in Scotland. As an ecologist I feel this is a great idea and one to be supported.

It has long been known that there are too many deer in the Scottish highlands and that this has a negative effect on the regeneration of native forest and biodiversity. There is a clear need to manage deer populations in Scotland, the current approach of the Sporting Estates selling the shooting to the rich alone, simply isn’t effective. There has been a long term under cull and this need to be addressed.

I am not suggesting a free for all. It is important that all those involved in the cull should be up to the task i.e. they should be able to shoot straight and understand proper safety procedures. (Not that this is a problem at present). When I was younger I spent several summers working in Norway, there all hunting is under community control. Anyone wanting to hunt must go through a test to ensure their competence before they can get a licence. Each hunter is then allotted a quota of animals to be shot, in this way a balance can be maintained.

Here in Scotland the Estates have under culled the hinds and have only concentrated on the stags, so allowing the population to spiral out of control. Maybe we need to find a way of setting quotas for the Sporting Estates, whereby only those estates which have achieved their quota of hinds culled will be allowed to carry out a stag cull. Where an Estate is struggling to meet its responsibility in the hinds cull then it would have the option of asking the DCS to carry out the cull on its behalf, and pay them to do so, or allow qualified hunters from the local community to carry out the cull (under supervision), paying only a nominal charge. Hunters stalking stags can currently expect to pay £250 or more per day for the privilege of doing so, lucky them. There is nothing wrong in this Sporting Estates play an important role in the economy of rural Scotland.

We have a moral duty to protect and maintain the biodiversity of our country, part of this involves controlling deer numbers. In Scotland Red Deer (Cervus elaphus) should have at least four natural predators, wolves (Canis lupus), lynx (Lynx lynx), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) and humans (Homo sapiens). Well the wolf and the lynx are no longer with us, both hunted to extinction by man. Now much as I would like to see they both return, there are major problems involved in such reintroductions and they are not likely to happen any time soon. Golden eagle can only take small calves and will never have a significant impact on deer populations. That leaves humans.

Like it or not humans are natural predators of deer, when the glaciers retreated from Scotland at the end of the last ice age, the ungulates moved in closely followed by humans. One of the oldest archaeological finds in the Scottish highlands is a stone arrow head found in the Lairig Ghru. So as the last significant predator of Red Deer, humans have a moral responsibility to play their part in controlling population densities of deer. One that is not currently being taken sufficiently seriously.

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