This is the type of headline that seems to be appearing more and more lately, with - tragically - deer being depicted almost in the context of vermin needing to be destroyed.
In my view there is an unbalanced focus on the reporting about deer numbers, and there is another side to the story that isn't being heard or understood. To start with, we need to understand why deer populations have grown; and rather than embarking on massive Government-commissioned slaughtering programmes, consider how we can turn our large numbers of deer into a positive opportunity to reap and benefit from a wonderful harvest of wild and natural food. This blog is the first part of my musings on this issue and is something I feel deeply passionate about.
📷 Woodmill Game
The History Bit
Around the 15th century Scotland was covered in native forests and deer existed in a natural balance alongside crofters who took what they needed for food. By the 19th century the value of wool as a commodity had become well recognised, and forests were felled to create grazing lands for sheep, as well as provide timber for ships to fight the French and Spanish. The deer survived on hill grazing, but gradually the land owners started to re-introduce woodlands for the deer and to create deer estates which provided income and employment for deer stalkers and local workers. As a result of this investment deer populations started to grow and thrive as the lands were managed and more food became available.
Post World War II the country needed more of everything to get going again, including timber, and Government incentives encouraged land owners to plant vast tracts of dense commercial pine forests. In the 1980s a more sensitive approach was taken towards the landscape with an emphasis on carbon capture, and grants turned towards mixed woodlands in smaller blocks, creating wildlife corridors attracting deer and other species.
The thing with trees however, is that until they are about 20 years old they are vulnerable to damage, and need to be protected from all sorts of creatures from voles to hares to deer. This can be achieved with tubes, or fencing, but it is well known that without this essential investment the trees will suffer. (And investment in tree protection is often sadly lacking, seen as an expense rather than an essential part of the overall programme.) Accordingly, where fencing isn't provided or well maintained, deer will gain access to the trees, and the more trees there are, the more deer will come to them for shelter.
📷 James Glossop
Deer As The Bad Guys
So having been given access to more food through man-made planting schemes, deer are now being villified as mass destroyers of trees and criminalised as carbon consumers. Put simply, as the Government sees it: Deer Eat Vegetation = Bad = Kill Deer In Vast Numbers. (The issue of how much carbon-blame is due to deer is for another issue for the View.)
Speaking as a deer stalker, the slaughter targets set by the Government distress me to distraction, as it does my fellow stalkers. Nothing is rewarding about the indiscriminate mass culling of animals that have been allowed to 'do wrong' by finding food they weren't supposed to; and my additional concern is that at present rates there is a real risk that we will over-shoot our deer populations to dangerously low levels.
As deer managers, we are passionate about these beautiful, enchanting, graceful beasts and ensuring that populations remain healthy and sustainable in realistic numbers. This will be achieved by allowing well planned, selective culling (the old and the weak must make way by leaving food for the young, strong breeding stock), skilled land management to ensure there are good heather moorlands and mature forests, and encouraging deer stalking as an accessible sport that can be enjoyed and appreciated by anyone. Deer numbers, or rather deer behaviour, can be sensibly controlled, and our Deer Management Groups work hard to get this message across to the public consciousness and conscience.
By Steven Wade
This blog was composed before a letter to the Press & Journal was published in March 2021 (see below), and is a complete echo of the views put forward by Peter Fraser. There is widespread despair about the situation regarding deer culling amongst our Deer Management Groups and we are seeking to find support for our voice.