Deer are dead, long live trees

The Scottish Government is putting public safety at risk, and wasting tens of thousands of taxpayers’ pounds littering the countryside with fencing. It has shown it is incapable of managing Scotland’s deer herds. Now it is doubling down, with tens of millions of pounds-worth of contracts to shoot the deer, and a report from its Deer Working Group (which includes no deer managers) calling for the eradication of two whole species of deer and a sweeping reduction of the rest. The red stag may be Scotland’s most iconic animal but Nicola Sturgeon wants it dead. We ask deer manager Niall Rowantree to tell us what is going on.

▶ Deer Working Group: Gov.scot/groups/deer-working-group
▶ Here’s the report
▶ Here’s the BBC version of this story
Click here for the Scottish forestry consultation
Click here for Niall’s series, A Year in the Life of Red Deer

How does Scotland solve this problem?

The Scottish government agencies should look again at:

  • The validity of targets
  • The fact that the success of contracts currently are scored on by the number of carcases
  • Poor forest design, poor fence maintenance and undeliverable long-term objectives

All of these are likely to push Scotland’s deer herds and confidence in Scotland’s deer policy towards failure.

As the Scottish government’s policy towards deer has developed in recent years, so have the number of issues contained within it.

It was apparent a number of years ago, that, as pay and conditions improved for forest rangers, economic challenges lay ahead. The government would always struggle to fund the size of the workforce. Declines in fulltime staff started to occur shortly afterwards.

Many former ranger staff believe that this is where the major disconnect occurred. As the government replaced full-time rangers with ‘helicopter staff’, brought in to shoot as many deer as they can, rural communities became alienated from management practice on the public estate.

In its origins, the Forestry Commission established itself to expand the nation’s timber reserves AND to create welcome employment in fragile rural communities. Today, it wants to expand our natural woodland and commercial woodland cover. Occasionally, politicians and officials refer to Scottish forestry as a carbon store. They call for increased woodland coverage up to 50% of Scotland’s land area. Politicians and officials also refer to the public estate as a leisure and amenity resource, though they tend to try to remove references to countrysports from these. Whatever function Scotland’s forestry estate is meant to achieve, for communities in rural areas to benefit from this, there must be greater local involvement.

We hope, as the Fieldsports Nation, to explore with both professional deer mamagers and members of the public who hunt on a leisure basis, a vision for symbiosis between fulltime engaged wildlife management professionals and a recreational support force. We see this providing long-term benefits, sustainable resource management, and the support of local communities.

The concerns of many modern deer managers, from recreational to government contractor, are climate security, deliverable targets, local benefit and sustainable resource management. The demonising of deer to deliver an untested vision using poor science, is no solution for rural Britain or for the welfare of our wildlife.

Deer are component-part of a diverse forest and should be seen as a sustainable natural resource. Just as too many can be destructive, too few can affect the health of woodland ecosystems which evolved with browsers as a component-part.

Perhaps the first step the government should take is to examine the quality of data it uses and the credibility of targets it sets. Many of the population models used on the public estate are not sound and the confidence limits in population densities are unreliable. It would be better to abandon the obsession with deer numbers and look, instead, at the effect deer have. Impact on habitat is the only true way to assess what is going on.

There are examples across Scotland where regeneration has occurred following the suppression of deer numbers. This is true at Glenfeshie. But, equally, there are examples where it has not. Glen Finglas had similar objectives to Glenfeshie but other factors played a part. The failure of ‘reduction’ deer culls to produce regeneration has occurred again and again across Scotland.

If the population models the government uses, along with nearest-neighbour assessment on the public estate, are not accurate then the sought outcomes will not be delivered. On the open range of the Scottish Highlands, not only will this lead to failure on the public estate, it could lead to catastrophic impact on the socioeconomic value of deer on the open range.

Broad-brush policies at a high level are all well and good but it was with a disappointment that we felt it necessary to open the debate by demonstrating gross inadequacy in function at a local level.

Deer management is already one of the most closely supervised and regulated elements of land use in the country. Members of deer management groups have voluntarily met with increasing standards, despite no evidence that increased regulation will bring functional benefit across the sector.

The points raised in our film are only the tip of the iceberg. We would truly like to hear from each and every one of you have with examples of good and bad practice and any recommendations or thoughts on taking sustainable deer management forward for not just Scotland but the whole of rural Britain.

In response to our film,

a contractor writes…

My business is to shoot deer for the Scottish Government. As a civil service contractor we are constantly highlighted as a ‘problem’ facing deer in Scotland. People say we are not professionals and only in it for easy money. Many recreational deerstalkers simply do not like us.

Leaving aside the policies of the central Scottish government, I would like to make the case for our professionalism. First of all, we act responsibly towards our private sector neighbours, often engaging with and assisting them.

Because we are public sector deer controllers, our role is direct or indirect (via a government wildlife manager) involvement in meetings with local deer management groups where we discuss achieving joint culls. Both sides normally recognise the difference between the role of contractors and of recreational stalkers.

There is a vast gap between a forester’s objectives and a recreational stalker’s cultural beliefs about what is acceptable. However, we work to the same ethics, moral codes and standards as any recreational stalker.

For my business, controlling deer is about deer numbers, best practice and the Scottish Quality Wild Venison processing scheme. We are paid on those results. For Niall Rowantree, it’s about trophy/quality stags and an experience of Highland hunting for his stalking business. He needs to shoot ‘representatives’ year after year. That’s fine for his business model. It is his business and it is successful. This outlook does not work for our business.

The rotting fencing that Niall highlights in the film is rightly shown as it’s all our money. There always seems to be waste with all government bodies and greater control/monitoring may well be needed.

Fences are becoming a thing of the past in certain areas. Deer control is vastly more efficient than fences (certain sites’ topography and other factors considered). Also some sites with heavy public use just don’t suit high, obtrusive fences.

I agree we have been increasing control measures year on year in recent. This number is currently going up around 10% per year. We are implementing ever heavier reduction culls followed by high maintenance culls in order to maintain government guidlines.

It is my company’s instructions – and we are monitored – to pay particular attention to unprotected new plantings (restocks) and adjoining areas to achieve that. We need lower densities of deer to save the crops grown by the foresters. Never has or is our job just a carte blanche to wipe species from the face of the earth. Our culls are supported by facts, figures, results from surveys by private firms, and continual monitoring of our sites.

I take issue with the assertion in the film that the millions paid for deer management is a waste. And the way it is portrayed on social media as ‘free money to assassins’ is certainly wrong. The headline figure of £10 million is divided over a four-year period, and between approximately 50 authorised contractors. They can hope to win awards of £40,000-£80,000 a year. The actual time versus return is minimum wage at best. At worst, it brings in less than the minimum wage.

The time it takes to shoot red and roe varies from nine hours per day in the summer to 90 minutes per day/night in winter. Costs of fuel, vehicles, ammunition, insurance, training courses and kit including shooting equipment and quads/argos make it a ‘covering costs’ exercise, not bounty, as the film and ‘general attitude’ portrays it.

Swapping contractors for ‘staff’ rangers would be even more costly. In my experience, a contractor costs on average £100 per deer shot. My colleagues are among the highest paid sub-contractors. That’s what it costs to get good, reliable, consistent people and not Saturday/Sunday warriors.

The cost to the taxpayer from using contractors is low and way more efficient than permanent staff. A permanent ranger is £200+ per deer shot once vehicles and pensions are counted.

Shot deer give a rough average of £35 per roe and £105 per red in venison sales. I have heard of some poor lads earning as little as £50 (net) per deer they shoot.

As for asking recreational stalkers to carry out the work we do, they simply couldn’t do it. Yes, they may like the initial start but, after three days not seeing a deer, soaked, losing money on fuel and expenses, they will see the reality. A lease would bring in money and provide recreation for deerstalkers but the cost versus return is not worth it. People think it’s easy but the dream is far from reality.

I sympathise with Niall as a businessman. I have estates near me who would see me out of business for killing their stags, hinds and their roe. But once the animals cross that march fence they unfortunately – as Niall points out – do become a pest. Our clients grows trees, not deer and that’s what you, as taxpayers, pay them to do. If they planted trees and lost whole crops, which happens, the public, including the stalkers, would be even more outraged.

Our deer contractor has asked to be anonymous

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