Out of season deer culls caused by Forestry failings

Peter Fraser stands before bracken over 6ft high in August. He feels it will be nigh on impossible for deer managers to find all calves in fawns in such dense vegetation in September. (Photo: Steven Rennie Photography).

(all Images by Steven Rennie Photography). Peter Fraser stands before bracken over 6ft high in August.

One of Scotland foremost deer managers believes Scotland’s forest authority would not need to cull females out of season in September if it had managed woodland deer properly.

Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) will today begin a controversial cull which Peter Fraser, Vice Chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, believes will leave orphaned young to starve.

The FLS action, authorised by Scotland’s nature body, NatureScot, is being carried out across Scotland’s public forests, many weeks before the official start of the season on October 21st.

At this time, red deer calves or roe fawns- between 6 and 12 weeks old- are so small and fragile that they are entirely reliant upon their mothers’ milk and guidance for survival.

FLS say, when culling, they task trained contractors to kill the youngsters prior to the mothers, to minimise the risk of dependents being abandoned.

They claim the licensed culls are necessary to prevent browsing damage to woodlands, with Scotland home to an estimated 1 million deer, a figure which is disputed.

However, Mr Fraser, who spent 45 years managing the species, says the early September start places unfair pressure on deer managers.

Ground vegetation and bracken is so thick at this time, he says, that young will be missed by marksmen- despite their skill- and left to starve.

To illustrate this, Mr Fraser had himself pictured (see main image) in front of bracken well over 6ft tall; conditions which deer managers will experience in September, prior to vegetation dying back.

He says a cull, with calves and fawns so small, is unwise at this time and is only being signed off because increasing forest deer damage is the result of FLS mismanagement.

A female deer with her two juveniles in August. The young are entirely dependent on the mother's milk and guidance for survival. Photo by Steven Rennie Photography.

“I have been managing deer a long time and youngsters will be left, no question,” he said.

“In forestry, even in a clearing, you will get one shot and the mother will be off into cover. 

“You might shoot a baby but then lose the mother and a twin so matching mothers and youngsters in family groups then becomes difficult thereafter.

“In areas like the west, deer managers will be encountering bracken 6ft or 7ft high regularly. It is very difficult to get deer out of cover like that.

“I don’t see the point of this cull when they could wait a few weeks more and get the job done more effectively, without the animal welfare implications.

“Forest damage is so high in Scotland today because, for years, FLS policy has meant that they have shot the wrong animals at the wrong time. There has been no selection and no thought put into creating forests which are designed for deer control.”

Forestry failings

For many years, FLS, formerly, Forestry Commission Scotland, have been culling increasing numbers of deer out of season and at night, using authorisations from NatureScot.

They have also been trimming full-time ranger staff and contracting self employed deer managers, with costs of over £6m a year to run its wildlife management operations.

Despite all year round culling, deer damage in forestry continues to surge.

This is in contrast to the open hill red deer range where increased cull effort has led to most areas maintaining a balance close to the Government target of 10 deer per sq km.

“FLS are not going to be able to reverse years of mismanagement overnight but all new forests should contain design features for deer control,” added Mr Fraser.

“They would also be better taking on more full-time wildlife rangers, not less, and assigning them an area. By observing, they will learn the family groups and dynamics and they will be able to be selective and remove the right animals.

“A lot of the problem has been caused by indiscriminate culling of males throughout the year. When a master Buck is killed, the influx of young bucks challenging for the vacant area increases damage such as bark stripping and marking territory, as does culling a roe doe and leaving fawns.”

Further reading

  • FLS acknowledged to the SGA in a Freedom of Information request, dated 6th May 2021, that it did not record on its database whether adults culled in public forests the previous September were matched to juveniles.
  • In 2020, FLS culled 871 females and juveniles, at night, under authorisation, between 1st September and 20th October (when the season legally opens). It is harder to match adults to juveniles at night. Night shooting is prohibited in many European countries. 
  • In 2020, in total FLS culled 730 adults and 556 juveniles (1286 deer) out of season, under authorisation, between September 1st and October 20th (when the season legally opens).
  • Several Contractors employed by FLS to carry out the culls contacted the SGA anonymously to say that they had been uncomfortable executing the policy. 
  • The legal seasons were put in place to protect the welfare of dependent young and to reduce the numbers of deer shot at night by poachers using spotlights.
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