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Autumn 2013


Geographer The newsletter of the

Royal Scottish Geographical Society

Reseeding Forests?

In This Edition...

The multiple facets of modern forestry

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plus other news, comments, books...


CLIFTON BAIN Drawings by Darren Rees

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” Greek proverb

RSGS: helping to make the connections between people, places & the planet

Issues Facing Forestry

$DDQ-@M@FDLDMS- Getting Out of the Rut! Mike Daniels, Head of Land & Science, John Muir Trust

“Since red deer counting first began in the 1960s, the estimated Scottish population has nearly trebled.”

The roaring stag, monarch of the glen, is a Scottish icon, and is one of the ‘Big Five’ animals chosen to represent this Year of Natural Scotland. But behind its Landseer image lies a complex and troubled story, of ever-increasing deer numbers, spiralling costs to the public purse, and the ceaseless march of deer fences across Scotland’s hills and glens. It’s a tale of environmental damage wreaked in pursuit of antlered trophies for the wall – damage that includes declining mountain woodlands, the near extinction of natural tree lines, trampled blanket bogs, and the steady loss of biodiversity. The deer are an innocent party in all this, of course. They’re doing what comes naturally – feeding, breeding and seeking shelter. Native red deer are an essential part of Scotland’s ecology, but since their natural predators (wolves, lynx and bears) have been exterminated, their population number lies entirely in the hands of landowners. Across most of Scotland, any incentive to mimic nature and her natural predators has long gone. The Victorian rise of the shooting estate ensured that the emphasis was placed on increasing numbers. Today this is encouraged by estate agents who add £40-50,000 to the valuation for each ‘shootable’ stag. Inevitably this has led to growing populations. Since red deer counting first began in the 1960s, the estimated Scottish population has nearly trebled from 150,000 to over 400,000. As well as exerting an environmental toll, this rising population comes with a heavy price tag. Increasing numbers of vehicle collisions, damage to environmental protected sites, and kilometres of deer fences all cost the public purse tens of millions of pounds annually. For the deer, there is also a high price to pay. Thousands of deer die every year from starvation and exposure, the result of confining ever larger numbers to ever smaller unfenced areas.

of the year (not something natural predators would recognise). In Scotland, unlike most of Europe, cull targets are entirely voluntary and there is no sanction for failure to meet them. Even where an internationally protected environmental site is being damaged by deer, the authorities can only ‘encourage a voluntary management agreement’. And within such an agreement, any deer reduction must be balanced against its potential socio-economic impact on the hunting interests of neighbouring estates. Calculating such socio-economic impact is an interesting exercise. There is not one estate owner in Scotland who would claim to have made their wealth from deer shooting. But Scotland’s natural environment – woodlands, peat bogs, heaths – have been heavily impacted and damaged by deer for centuries. They are way out of balance. Yet when any attempts are made to reduce deer populations, they are met with howls of protest from neighbouring shooting estates. Dramatic claims that a ‘traditional’ way of life is threatened and that local jobs will be lost are spun in local and national media. Such stories have swirled around Creag Meagaidh, Glenfeshie, Mar Lodge and Quinag over recent years. Such claims ignore three inconvenient truths. First, any reductions merely bring populations back to

where they were a few decades ago. Second, estates involved in these reduction culls wish to retain deer, not exclude them through fencing. Third, not a single job has been lost, with estates involved in reduction culls retaining or increasing their deer management employment. As to ‘tradition’, it is unlikely the Victorians would recognise the way shooting estates operate today: high deer densities, hills covered with deer fences and bulldozed hill tracks, and off-road vehicles taking stalkers and their guests to remoter areas previously only accessible on foot. Similarly, any attempts by governments to impose more sustainable management on sporting landowners have met with stiff resistance. The latest attempt in 2010, to introduce a statutory code for deer managers, was watered down amid claims it would infringe the property and even the human rights of shooting estate owners. Instead they argued for the retention of the ‘voluntary approach’, the right to manage deer as they wanted. Meanwhile the deer population continues to rise, more land continues to be fenced off, and damage to the natural environment goes on. If we want more trees, we need fewer deer. It is time to admit that the voluntary system doesn’t work, that self-regulation is failing, and that we need to rethink the way deer are managed in Scotland.

Incredibly, this situation is underpinned by legislation. Close seasons restrict when deer can be culled, to maximise trophy value and prevent ‘disturbance’ the rest © FCS

Red deer stag in winter woodland. © Peter Cairns / 2020VISION

The Geographer sample article: 'Deer Management - Getting Out of the Rut!'  

Our Autumn 2013 edition of The Geographer covered many issues related to forestry and was supported by The Forestry Commission Scotland as p...

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