Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Response to 'Deer Management: Getting Out of the Rut' from Autumn 2013 Geographer


We are delighted to receive feedback on any articles in our magazine, The Geographer.  In the Autumn 2013 edition, which was focussed on Forestry, we featured an article on the subject of Deer Management by Mike Daniels.  Mike Daniels is Head of Land and Science at the John Muir Trust, you can read his article Deer management : getting out of the rut here.

Member George J. Strachan, who is a retired Principal Teacher of Geography and former keeper/stalker, made the following comments on the article:

"The Autumn issue of ‘The Geographer’ was interesting and well-informed, but the article by Mike Daniels on deer management cannot go unchallenged on a number of points.

On red deer numbers:
The accuracy of the John Muir Trust (JMT) figures of 150,000 red deer in the 1960s to over 400,000 today are open to dispute.  WWF state  400,000 (Hunt 2003, p.5), but do refer to a lower figure of 350,000 (Nature, 2004).  Putman (2012) gives 360,000 to 400,000 in 2010.  G.K. Whitehead believed the NCC’s 1961 total of 155,000 to be an under-estimate.  He arrived at a figure of 188,850 and even considered that an under-estimate, since his calculations omitted hill sheep farms, common grazings and grouse moors lying outwith recognised red deer territories (methodology used is given in detail in Whitehead, 1964).  Even if a higher red deer total in the early 1960s could be substantiated, the fact remains that the deer population suffered severe decline as a result of heavy culls by contractors during the War and poaching post-war when dam construction was on-going in the glens. Only now are deer numbers probably approaching pre-war levels.

But total figures conceal regional differences.  The SPICe Briefing on wild deer in Scotland gives red deer counts in selected areas (Edwards & Kenyon, 2013, table 1).  Wide disparities in % change between the two most recent counts are apparent.  The Monadhliaths, for example, record a drop of 10% since 2004 to present ; Knoydart 26% down from 1996 to 2003 ; West Sutherland down 14% from 1999 to 2006 to mention but a few.  Over the Highlands & Islands the drop averages 5%.  A number rise including an anomalous increase in South Uist – 884% over a 17 year period from 1983!  This figure, if nothing else, backs up the comment in the WWF report that ‘deer numbers are notoriously difficult to estimate’ (Hunt, 2003, p.5).  Yet of more importance are local deer densities and carrying capacities.  A limited number of areas are pressure points ; environmental damage in the majority of areas across the Highlands is not a problem.

"Red Deer Stag" by mozzercork is licensed under CC by 2.0

On forest and woodland regeneration:
The work of Donald McVean (Johnston & Balharry, 2001) on regenerating the Coille na Glas Leitre pinewoods in the Beinn Eighe NNR found that hindrances to regeneration were far more complex than could be attributed simply to deer browsing.  Deep heather prevents the seed from taking hold, as do bracken and rhododendrons.  The present dislike of muirburn has led to rank heather clothing much of the Highlands.  Woodland regeneration is prevented and the potential for major moor and forest fires increased.  Two years ago, for example, the NTS Torridon estate suffered a catastrophic fire which swept along Liathach’s south face, a fire which could have been prevented by a programme of strip burning undertaken over previous years.  Far from being inimical to forest regeneration, recently burnt ground cover provides the perfect seedbed for a whole variety of trees.  Judicious burning should be given more consideration by wildlife organisations.  They have a lot to learn from the old keepers.

Sheep are far more destructive of woodland habitats than deer.  In the area of South Gairloch red deer seldom came into the oak and birch woods in any numbers except in periods of extreme winter conditions, e.g. winters of 1961/62 and 1962/63.  On the other hand sheep grazed them continuously ; over 5000 sheep were hefted on the Gairloch Conservation Unit (GCU), over three times the number of deer present.  Even the WWF correctly highlight the need for sheep to be taken into account (Hunt, 2003, p.5).  Mountain hares and rabbits also add to the problem.

Yes, deer browse on trees.  Putman (2012) reckoned that 15-20% of young trees suffered some damage.  This concurs with McVean’s earlier estimate of roughly 25% tree seedlings destroyed by deer damage (Johnston & Balharry, 2001).  This leaves 75% to grow to maturity, surely sufficient.  In areas where planting had taken place, McVean found that the percentage eaten was much higher.  It appears that they smell the freshly turned earth, hence the need to fence.  That is certainly the case with rabbits and sheep, as any gardener will testify to.

On road accidents involving deer:
This is an emotive issue used by some organisations as an excuse to get rid of deer.  The fact is that, of all deer road casualties in Scotland during 2003-2005, 1204 (76.9%) involved  roe deer and 321 (20.5%) red deer out of a total of 1566 with sika and fallow accounting for the rest (Langbein, 2007).  The problem is that the ‘organisational finger’ is pointed at red deer with no distinction made as to which deer species dominates the figures.  Generally where deer do come down on to the road, signs have been erected to warn motorists.  Figures on accidents involving sheep should be given for comparative purposes.  I suspect sheep/vehicle collisions would be much higher across the Highlands than that of red deer.

On red deer mortalities due to starvation and exposure:
Frank Fraser Darling’s (1937) classic study of red deer discovered a 50% mortality rate among red deer calves.  While some was due to predation by foxes and eagles, most perished over the winter.  His figures concurred with those of Cameron (1923) on the Isle of Jura also at 50%.  Darling (1937) frequently found heavy parasitic infestation in calf carcases examined.  North American studies on deer have produced similar high calf mortality rates.  High deer mortalities are normal and very seldom related to overgrazing.  Statements such as ‘thousands of deer die every year from starvation and exposure’ (Daniels, 2013) are misleading and indeed mischievous.

On legislation and close seasons:
Three major pieces of legislation have been enacted in recent years affecting deer management – the Deer Scotland Act (1996), the Land Reform Act (2003) and the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act (2011).  All have retained the close seasons for deer shooting with good reason.  They are there for the purposes of preventing poaching, reducing disturbance of deer particularly during calving time and ensuring animals are in prime condition when culled.  Licences have always been obtainable for out-of-season culling from the Deer Commission (pre-2010) and the SNH (post-2010) when necessary.  There is no need to seek changes to the legislation.

On costs to the public purse related to deer management:
The value of deer stalking to the UK economy was reckoned at £105m in 2005, of which over 2/3rds was earned in Scotland.  The JMT claim the costs of deer stalking to the public purse run into tens of millions of pounds, but when their figures are examined there are inconsistencies.  Forestry Commission’s costs for deer fencing in 2012 was £5,127,452 and grants paid to landowners came to £3,174,200 – not tens of millions of pounds.  Not only that, the figures given for grants paid includes all participants, not just landowners (Parliamentary question: S4W-17136).  Similarly, the FCS costs are hedged around by caveats (Parliamentary question: S4W-17137).  Note too that red deer being seen and heard during the rut must add value  to the Scottish tourist trade.  As with all businesses, estates pay considerable taxation annually as do the 2520 stalkers and ancillary staff employed full-time on the estates.

On deer management groups:
I was personally involved in the establishment of the first deer management unit in 1967, the Gairloch Conservation Unit (GCU).  Six estates were affected including the Beinn Eighe NNR and the NTS Torridon Estate.  My own recollection of the GCU meetings were that they were most amicably conducted and led to annual deer counts conducted in the Spring. Most DMGs working within the voluntary principle do a similarly good job.  Statutory measures to bring DMGs into a legally binding framework would be counter-productive.  Essential to the success of deer management groups is good neighbourliness.  If one estate cannot work with the rest, the result is animosity.  Surely the majority view must prevail ; the others within the deer management group cannot be ruled one dissenting estate.

In conclusion:
The WANE Act was passed in 2011 and the whole matter of deer management was fully discussed.  Clearly, a couple of the members of the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee along with the JMT and the RSPB have felt that WANE did not meet with their agenda.  Surely in a democracy the majority verdict stands."   


Cameron A.G. (1923). The wild deer of Scotland. Edinburgh.
Clutton-Brock, T.H., Coulson, T. and Milner, J.M. (2004). Red deer stocks in the Highlands of Scotland. Nature, 429:261.
Daniels M. (2013). Deer management : getting out of the rut. The Geographer, Autumn Issue. RSGS.
Darling F.F. (1937).  A herd of red deer. Oxford University Press, corrected 1956.
Edwards T. & Kenyon W. (2013). SPICe Briefing : Wild Deer in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament.
Hunt. J. (2003). Impacts of wild deer in Scotland – How fares the public interest? Report to WWF Scotland and RSPB Scotland, Aberfeldy and Edinburgh.
Johnston J.L. & Balharry D. (2001). Beinn Eighe – the mountain above the wood, SNH publication, Birlinn Ltd.
Langbein J. (2007). Natural deer-vehicle collision project – England 2003-2005. Highways Agency, Research Report 07/1, data extracted from Table 11A.
Putman R. (2012).  Scoping the economic benefits and costs of wild deer and their management in Scotland. SNH Commissioned Report No. 526
Whitehead G.K. (1964). The deer of Great Britain and Ireland, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Submitted by:
George J Strachan (Retd. PT Geography, Dingwall Academy and former keeper/stalker).