The Scottish Government have just published their reply to the Deer Working Group (DWG) Report, then promptly closed down parliament and left how to deal with it to their successors. There can be no discussion or scrutiny at this stage while they go off to try and get elected again.
The DWG report had 99 recommendations. For the record, I agreed with 86 of them, seeing the opportunity to clear up ambiguous areas of the existing legislation, and to deal with a range of matters that seem sensible and practical. There are certainly some good parts to the report, and we should acknowledge this.
The remaining recommendations seemed to me to be unnecessary and inflammatory to an industry that has been progressing well in recent years.
The Scottish Government have however decided that they approve of these measures as well. As a deer advisor and a native woodland enthusiast from long before this has become fashionable, the proposals have left me deflated, and now angry.
I don’t often get angry.
From being in a strong position in 2019, we have to fight all these battles again. Government have the ear of those who can shout the loudest. The evidence seems to matter less. This goes to the core of what the #RWP21 Rural Workers Protest was and is about.
Stalkers will look immediately to the proposal to remove the stag season and I have something to say about that, but we need to look at the back of the report first, and work forward from there if we are to appreciate fully the full extent of what is going on. The stag season is only part of it.
At the moment, you set your own cull targets. If your deer group is working well, you analyse all the information available to you, decide what your cull should be, and allocate this to each property. Nature Scot (formerly SNH) will be party to your deliberations, and contribute to this process. They can intervene if you are not doing things well. It is a voluntary approach, but it can be made to work. This is why we have been doing population models and suchlike in recent years, planning ahead using the information available.
There is a proposal now that Nature Scot approve your planned cull. Some will try to tell you that this is no big deal and no doubt it will be presented as something fairly benign, but if this is to be robust and gain the backing of the conservation charities, then they will want their say, and want to be consulted.
A flexible and proportionate voluntary approach will inevitably have to become stringent enough to withstand challenge, both from external parties and from property owners. The convoluted paper trails so beloved of government agencies will then apply to us, too. There will have to be penalties that can be levied for non- compliance. You will not be setting your cull levels. Nature Scot will be doing this for you on behalf of the government. Bear in mind that there is already provision for fines of up to £40,000 for not abiding by the requirements of a deer management plan, and you get an idea of the kind of pressure that could be brought to bear.
Alternatively, you could be licensed to shoot so many deer, and if you cannot do this, then the license could be transferred to some-one else. These options are speculation on my part, but “A Planned Cull Approval System” is most certainly statutory deer management, and to be legally compliant, would need to apply to not just the 2000- odd estates within the main deer range, but the other 50,000 land holdings in Scotland as well.
It would be a massive bureaucracy that would tie both government and every one of us up in red tape. They cannot make a new law just for the people they don’t like, it has to be for everyone. Any government who tried to bring in such a regime would simply not understand the people or culture of the country they claimed to represent, but this is what they say they are going to try to do. Imagine some-one else shooting deer on your ground because you are deemed not suitable for doing so.
This is the big one, tucked away at the back of the report where few will see it. Everything else is a point of detail in comparison. This is the direction of travel that everyone must now be aware of.
This is something I find quite insidious, and I think stalkers need to be aware of this. We are part of an industry that involves killing animals.
At the moment, your deer culls are only made known to other deer group members and Nature Scot. In theory, the public can access these through FOI, but this hardly ever happens. We now have a proposal that your culls are publicly available online. If you think for a moment about some of the abuse and intimidation that many keepers have to suffer from animal rights activists and suchlike, the government are now going to start telling them just what you are shooting each year. Can you see what can go wrong here?
We have heard a lot recently about “jigsaw identification”. This proposal would, I think, allow a malevolent individual to take information from this database, your online deer plan and other sources, and work out exactly who you are and what you do in the course of your everyday work. The only people worse than those who want all the deer shot are the ones that don’t want anything shot. We must not be naïve about the implications of this. Deer cull data is only meaningful to members of your deer group and Nature Scot. No-one else needs to know this level of detail, merely that you are working to a plan that is considered to be fit for purpose.
This can only go wrong, but it will backfire on the conservation NGOs as well, who will then have to declare to their members what deer they are killing. We already know that RSPB are sensitive to the point of paralysis about culling goats, and that the Scottish Wildlife Trust have to tiptoe around their members over what deer they kill, to the point of not doing any management at all on almost all their reserves. This is a very bad idea for everyone.
Although the average deer density in the Highlands is less than this, and most north and west Highland areas will have little to worry about, there are much more fertile areas of the eastern and southern Highlands where the ground can support greater densities than this with little consequence, especially if shelter is available and there are few sheep present.
The Scottish Government are now suggesting that you cannot have more than 10 deer per sq km, in any circumstances. It doesn’t seem to matter what your habitat monitoring says. Densities over this will, at best, be viewed with suspicion. At worst, they will trigger intervention. There then is the question of what scale this is applied at. Some small properties can often gather up high densities in winter, with 30-40 deer per sq km not unusual on small fertile areas for a temporary period. Any group of more than 10 deer standing together will give you a density that is higher than that allowed in that particular square kilometre. It would be like the very worst deer equivalent of the COVID rules for people meeting together. It will certainly be used to target wintering grounds, no matter how few deer there might be elsewhere. Think this one through and what it might mean for you.
I should declare an interest in this, having done so many, and some people might be happy to see these go, but the deer group assessments have driven progress over recent years, encouraged people to articulate what they are doing, and have been in many ways the best defence deer managers have had against outside criticism.
They have provided robust evidence of progress across the country, strengthened the current voluntary approach and allowed Nature Scot the sort of information they need to have more oversight of what is going on.
Scottish Government now say they want to stop these, but that will undermine progress, and allow them to make the case for why they need a statutory approach. In my opinion, the assessments negate the need for a statutory approach, and those familiar with them know the type of changes that can be made to save time and expense and make them more effective. The assessment process is a much better way of doing things than anything mentioned in the DWG report, whose authors seem to be completely unaware of the benefits of it and how it worked in practice. It brings structure and oversight to the mechanisms already in place, and everyone has bought in to it.
You can’t say that about what is coming forwards now.
Beyond this, the DWG report is very lukewarm on the whole collaborative approach and deer groups in general. It implies that deer groups have become too effective, and that this is now a problem. They prefer divide and rule, and government seem to have bought in to this. They cannot have a situation where deer groups have higher capacity than Nature Scot. Government cannot have that, so a process that works must be dismantled to preserve the narrative of others who prefer to belittle us. They are more comfortable with that. We are being penalised for the progress we have been making, by people who do not want to acknowledge that, not really.
This will be the headline proposal for most stalkers. I won’t rehearse the arguments here, but I will add some thoughts on the implications of this.
If there is no closed season, it is open season all year round. You may well choose not to shoot your stags during this period, but others around the periphery of the deer range will quickly work out that instead of getting £50 from the game dealer for the venison, that they can put a paying guest in accommodation and get £5- 800 for the same animal, at any time of year.
Others may extend their stag season well in to November to get some extra weeks. The law of unintended consequences would dictate that deer numbers could well go up if stags became more in demand, and people left more hinds to try and produce these.
Removing the closed season gives us a sporting value all year round. A new and very perverse dynamic could be created that drives even more conflict than we have now.
There is no need to remove the close season for stags. If you have enclosed farmland or forestry, you can already shoot all year round under General Authorization. You can get a specific authorization for unenclosed ground, but only if you make the case for it through a management plan and liaison with your neighbours. This gives Nature Scot some leverage and forces people to co-operate.
Removing the closed season only makes sense if your objective is to allow everyone to do exactly as they please with stags and you want to destroy a collaborative system. The proposal is unnecessary, and it will not end well. This is another recommendation designed to undermine our current structures. It is not one that will improve the environment.
There is a proposal that the Out of Season (OOS) Section 5 (6) Authorization should now apply to ANY land, whether there is a specific reason or not. So, extended seasons can be used on unenclosed ground without a specific reason. Combine this with the proposal to use night sights, and you can see how easily you could remove a lot of deer very quickly. Admittedly, this is the end being sought.
There is also a proposal to extend the use of the Section 18 (2) night shooting authorizations to not just owners but occupiers as well. Imagine you are out lamping foxes and you meet your tenant farmer out shooting deer at the same time. What could go wrong? Safety could well be compromised.
On the flip side, EVERYONE shooting deer will have to be Fit & Competent. I wonder what the crofters and farmers shooting a single beast will think of that? Perhaps an exception will be made, as has happened in the past, but farmers and crofters need to be aware of all this as well.
With all the above, you wonder where the checks and balances might be. To their credit, the DWG did suggest that there should be a mechanism whereby deer culling on a property could be constrained in certain circumstances if this was in the public interest. For example, if high deer culls could not be justified on environmental grounds, and threatened local livelihoods. This is one of very few DWG recommendations that the Scottish Government did not support. So, checks and balances do not figure in all this new thinking. This is what we are facing after the election is done.
For someone who is quite partial to the odd deer argument, I should be looking forward to all this, but it would be better for everyone if we had some level of stability to grow and improve in a more measured and sustainable way.
These provisions are unnecessary. We will spend the next few years arguing when we should be building our capacity. Why should anyone invest in training, equipment or habitat monitoring if this is the chaos ahead? Why would you update a deer plan when you don’t know what to plan for? This is the trouble ahead, and this is the conscious choice that has been made.
Does it make you angry, too?
We have already shown that there is a better way. The alternative already exists, and has been evidenced to work.
Victor Clements is a native woodland advisor working in Highland Perthshire. He is secretary to the Breadalbane DMG and has worked extensively on deer management plans throughout Scotland over the past ten years, and on native woodland schemes for long before that.