The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) has warned that over-culling of deer to support forestry and conservation is putting rural jobs and livelihoods at risk.
The red deer was voted Scotland’s iconic animal in a poll run by Scottish Natural Heritage last August, with 73 per cent choosing the ‘Monarch of the Glen’ as their national symbol.
However, in a study launched yesterday, the SGA claimed pressure to cull more and more deer to support reforestation was causing Scotland to ‘lay its greatest wildlife assets to waste.’
Despite growing demand for wild venison from Michelin chefs, deer are regarded by many in conservation and forestry circles as pests as they trample young trees.
Now, with Holyrood advocating increased afforestation from 17 per cent to 25 per cent by 2050, the SGA is urging government to rethink aggressive deer culling policies now before it’s too late.
Yesterday’s research paper demonstrated how reducing deer numbers to support trees could have a serious detrimental affect on economic stability in fragile rural areas.
The study, compiled over three years in Sutherland, showed that money from deer stalking and management currently supports 140 households and 112 full-time jobs.
Sporting estates and local businesses that rely on deer are now fearful decimation of herds could lead to job losses, in turn placing an increasing welfare burden on the tax payer.
“Scotland is laying its greatest wildlife assets to waste without considering the consequences. And it may already be too late in some places to prevent the devastation from being permanent,” said author of the study, Peter Fraser, who claims the future wellbeing of red deer has reached a ‘tipping point’.
“What is now putting them- and fragile rural economies- at risk, are the confused and conflicting aims for the land on which the herds roam.
“Overambitious and ill-thought forestry or conservation projects are the longest running culprits and carnages continue to be carried out in numerous locations in the name of protecting unfenced natural regeneration.”
A vastly experienced stalker, Fraser acknowledged the need for deer herds to be kept at realistic levels in Scotland to balance differing countryside objectives.
However, he drew a clear line between the culling targets and practices on sporting estates and those in Scotland’s forest regeneration areas where notable examples of over-culling have taken place.
A recent review of practices at National Trust for Scotland’s property at Mar Lodge showed deer culling levels, to protect unfenced forest regeneration, were unsustainable.
“This is a small country and there are many competing pressures on the land and I don’t believe in deer at any price.
“What I am worried about is the generally held perception that deer have become a widespread menace which don’t need our protection. The general message from conservation groups is the less deer that roam the hills the happier they will be.
“Stalkers recognise the importance of a balanced age structure within herds both locally and nationally which will guarantee the production of sustainable numbers of mature stags. Sustainability is the watchword, here.”
Businesses in Sutherland are also worried about their livelihoods if deer numbers are to fall further.
Les Waugh, Managing Director of Ardgay Game, employs 15 people at Bonar Bridge and counts Gleneagles Hotel and Skibo Castle as clients.
“We’re bang in the middle of deer stalking country and we rely on deer from local estates to make the business viable. If significantly more hinds were culled in the short term because of a change in Government policy, that would have a serious impact on our business and the families we employ.”
At Loch Coire Estate, deer management supports six staff but deer numbers are falling due to harsh winters, increased culling on neighbouring estates and greater culls by conservation interests.
“The owners feel strongly about maintaining employment and it’s clear that without deer there would be none,” said land agent Tom Chetwynd of Bowlts Chartered Surveyors.
The SGA believe that by re-examining culling policy on forestry and conservation land, the Scottish Parliament could help safeguard rural employment.