South Uist deer refuge loss a blow to species survival

Loss of the South Uist deer population will have long term impacts on red deer genetic purity


The nation’s largest deer management body says a vote to eradicate South Uist’s deer would represent a ‘symbolic' blow for the last remaining genetically pure red deer in Scotland.

The residents of the community owned island will vote at a historic EGM on Monday evening on whether to kill all the remaining deer on the island, numbering around 1000 animals.

Whilst respecting local concerns around deer impacts, The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) has asked residents to be mindful, when voting, of the wider impacts such a step would have on the nation’s biodiversity - and the species.

South Uist represents one of the last named ‘refugia’ for genetically pure Scottish red deer, with zoologists recognising the long-term threat to the species posed by cross-breeding with Sika deer.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was amended to reflect those fears; Section 9 making it a criminal offence to introduce deer of other species onto South Uist and other named west coast islands.

With scientists predicting there will be no genetically distinct red deer left on the Scottish mainland by 2050, the importance of the remaining island refugia carry significant weight when viewed through a conservation lens.

Efforts to save Scottish wildcats, for example, are conflicted by a lack of pure cats in the wild.

Red deer are listed on the Scottish Biodiversity List- a roll call of species Scottish ministers regard of principal importance to the nation’s biodiversity.

SGA Chairman Alex Hogg fears for the future of genetically pure red deer if South Uist eradicates its population.

The listing also confers a statutory duty on all Scottish public bodies, through the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004, to further the conservation of those listed species.
“We have already made it clear in previous media comments that our principal interest in the South Uist eradication proposal lies in protecting the jobs of our deer stalking members in the local community, and their families. It is our duty to do so. We also realise and respect that the local community must decide what it considers to be best,” said SGA Chairman, Alex Hogg, MBE (pictured, above).

“That said, there is a wider dimension and it is important people are aware of what that is.

“A great deal of work went into genetic testing of deer before islands like South Uist were formally classified as refugia. The areas represent the future survival of genetically pure Scottish red deer. This is a case, therefore, where a local decision will have a wider and deeper impact in terms of conservation. Losing a refuge would be symbolic, certainly, but not in a positive way.”

Prior to South Uist becoming one of the few named red deer refugia in 1999, 317 deer from seven islands were tested for hybridisation with Japanese Sika deer in 1998/1999.

DNA markers were investigated and the report to the Deer Commission (now NatureScot) concluded that there was ‘no evidence for recent hybridisation with sika on any island.’

Parts of Scotland where red deer are genetically pure, including the South Uist refugia.

Josephine Pemberton FRS, who was involved in that work and now conducts red deer research on Rum, stated: “One way to keep at least some pure animals would be to make the Hebrides a sanctuary for red deer.”

A retired former stalker, who worked on South Uist at the time, hopes residents consider all the issues. “While not everyone likes them, red deer on South Uist hold a special place in the future survival of the species. They are a precious asset, in that regard.”

Stalkers on the community-owned estate Storas Uibhist are presently undertaking the biggest cull on the island since the 2006 community buy-out, with 329 animals taken as of 16th March.

Individuals driving the petition to eradicate the deer cite crop and vegetable damage, car accidents and Lyme Disease prevalence as principal reasons for precipitating the vote.



      Further Reading: 

  • The Paper: Red Deer on Scottish Islands, concludes, “The value of our remaining island deer should not be underestimated; they remain the purest genetic strands of red deer in Britain showing no evidence for hybridisation with Sika deer, unlike the mainland populations. In the long-term there is a serious danger that non-hybrid red deer will become extinct, and refugia have therefore been established on a number of islands (Arran, Jura, Islay, Rum and the Outer Isles) to which it is illegal to introduce Sika deer.” (see lead image).


  • Archaeological records show that Red deer have been present in the Uists since Neolithic Times.


  • Red deer previously disappeared from South Uist (over-exploitation) but were reintroduced in the early 20th Century. In the 1970s, 19 red deer (tested for genetic purity) were brought to the island to bolster the herd, mainly from Rum, with one Stag from a wildlife park in Kingussie.


  • Red deer are the UK’s largest remaining land mammal. A 2009 report found that Sika genes were present in 60% of Scotland’s red deer. Refugia were declared as an ‘insurance policy’ for the future of the species. 


  • A 1999 amendment to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 made it a requirement to ‘maintain red deer refugia on named west coast islands’. The refugia are the Outer Hebrides (including South Uist), Arran, Islay, Jura and Rum.



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