Monarch or men­ace?

Scot­land’s largest land mam­mal is also one of its most con­tentious. The 'deer prob­lem' di­vides con­ser­va­tion­ists, land man­agers and the pub­lic like no other.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - Words Peter Cairns Pho­tos Scot­land: The Big Pic­ture

Does the UK have a red ‘deer prob­lem’? Find out why Scot­land’s iconic mam­mal is di­vid­ing con­ser­va­tion­ists, land man­agers and the pub­lic

The wind is straight out of the north and bites at my face. Crest­ing the whale­back ridge, a breath­tak­ing panorama emerges – a raw, wild moon­scape stretch­ing far be­yond a hori­zon I can barely dis­cern. This un­for­giv­ing land­scape is quintessen­tially Scot­tish. It’s the sig­na­ture land­scape of the High­lands, dom­i­nated by hun­dreds of thou­sands of acres of bare moor­land, rock and bog. In front of me lies In­ver­polly For­est, un­doubt­edly spec­tac­u­lar, but barely a tree, or even a bush, to be seen. This is a tra­di­tional hunt­ing for­est or, more specif­i­cally, a deer hunt­ing for­est, which by def­i­ni­tion con­tains few trees.

In 1851 when cel­e­brated artist Sir Ed­win Land­seer de­picted a royal stag against the majesty of the High­lands, he cre­ated an evoca­tive and en­dur­ing im­age of Scot­land’s hills and glens, thereby seal­ing a tra­di­tion in which wealthy Vic­to­rian in­dus­tri­al­ists came to the High­lands and paid hand­somely to shoot deer – par­tic­u­larly big tro­phy stags. Ap­proach­ing two cen­turies later, deer hunt­ing, or stalk­ing, re­mains at the cul­tural heart of the Scot­tish High­lands, con­tribut­ing to land val­ues, pro­vid­ing jobs and, for many peo­ple, bind­ing ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties to­gether.

Since the ad­vent of deer forests, the uniquely Scot­tish tra­di­tion of open hill stalk­ing has changed lit­tle and the bar­ren up­lands that cover around 1.5 mil­lion hectares of Scot­land’s wildest coun­try re­main em­blem­atic of a pe­riod that many wish to re­tain. For those landown­ers, deer­stalk­ers, game deal­ers and pay­ing ri­fles, red deer and their tree­less forests symbolise what Scot­land looks like. Or rather, what Scot­land should look like.

With wolves, lynx and bears long gone, red deer have had plenty of time to pro­lif­er­ate, cre­at­ing what is rou­tinely re­ferred to as the ‘deer prob­lem’. In 1959, when the Red Deer Com­mis­sion was cre­ated, pri­mar­ily to ad­dress dam­age to agri­cul­ture and forestry, red deer num­bers were es­ti­mated at around 150,000. Thirty years later, that fig­ure had dou­bled. To­day, in­formed es­ti­mates hover around 400,000.

Such a high num­ber of hun­gry mouths im­pacts not only on ground veg­e­ta­tion and emerg­ing wood­land, but also on the deer them­selves. Forced to adapt to a ten­u­ous life in the open and de­prived of ac­cess to their nat­u­ral wood­land habi­tat, Scot­land’s hill deer are stunted, many a third smaller than their for­est-dwelling cousins.

There are also other costs. Each year in Scot­land, 7,000 road ac­ci­dents are at­trib­uted to deer, and an in­creas­ing amount of fenc­ing is needed to man­age their move­ments.

The ‘deer prob­lem’ isn’t new. Ac­claimed ecol­o­gist Frank Fraser Dar­ling fa­mously de­scribed the High­lands as a “wet desert” and ad­vised the Red Deer Com­mis­sion that 60,000 might be an op­ti­mum pop­u­la­tion in Scot­land. No fewer than seven gov­ern­men­tap­pointed en­quiries have sought to ad­dress ‘the prob­lem’. Yet, de­spite re­peated calls for land man­agers and stalk­ers to rad­i­cally re­duce deer den­si­ties, the num­bers in many ar­eas re­main stub­bornly high.

Heated High­land de­bate

In re­cent decades, as the im­pact of over­graz­ing on the eco­log­i­cal health of the High­lands has be­come bet­ter un­der­stood, an ide­o­log­i­cal bat­tle be­tween tra­di­tional deer man­agers and those who lament the demise of Scot­land’s na­tive wood­land – now cov­er­ing three per cent of its nat­u­ral range – has be­come a seem­ingly in­tractable de­bate.

Our largest liv­ing land mam­mal is a pawn in what has be­come a po­lit­i­cal, rather than an eco­log­i­cal, dis­pute. How many deer there should be (and where) is not so much an ar­gu­ment over red deer but over dif­fer­ent vi­sions for the fu­ture of the High­lands.

With wolves, lynx and bears long gone, red deer have had plenty of time to pro­lif­er­ate, cre­at­ing the 'deer prob­lem'.

En­ter stage left: the rewil­der. In­creas­ingly, large chunks of the High­lands are be­ing man­aged not as tra­di­tional sport­ing es­tates but as sites for land­scape-scale eco­log­i­cal restora­tion. At the fore­front of this emerg­ing trend is An­ders Holch Povlsen, a Dan­ish en­tre­pre­neur, who bought the 42,000 acre Glen­feshie Es­tate in the Cairn­gorms 10 years ago and has sub­se­quently ac­quired sev­eral fur­ther land­hold­ings. This has given him cus­to­di­an­ship over 200,000 acres – all badged un­der his com­pany, Wild­land Ltd.

The his­tory of Glen­feshie is not so dif­fer­ent from that of other High­land es­tates. For 200 years or more, the land was val­ued ac­cord­ing to its po­ten­tial for deer stalk­ing, grouse shoot­ing and salmon fish­ing. Fenc­ing was widely used to keep deer away from com­mer­cial forestry plan­ta­tions but, on the floor of the glen, rem­nant age­ing Scots pines re­tained a toe­hold in the shal­low soils.

Dick Bal­harry, the em­i­nent countryman, recog­nised the im­mi­nent loss of these vet­eran trees back in the 1960s, and openly con­demned the ef­fect of high deer num­bers, point­ing to a com­plete ab­sence

of young trees. It wasn’t un­til the turn of the mil­len­nium, how­ever, that a grow­ing body of en­vi­ron­men­tal leg­is­la­tion fi­nally ig­nited change in Glen­feshie and a sig­nif­i­cant, but con­tentious, deer cull took place at the es­tate.

“The change on the ground hap­pened very quickly,” says Thomas MacDonell, Wild­land’s Con­ser­va­tion Di­rec­tor. “With a ready-made seed source from the age­ing trees, a young for­est quickly started to grow. Peo­ple talk about the trees creep­ing up the hill but I would sug­gest that, if you re­lieve them of graz­ing pressure, they sprint up.”

Povlsen’s am­bi­tion, to com­bine land­scape-scale habi­tat restora­tion with wider eco­nomic ben­e­fits for lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, is a model that is now en­tic­ing other eco-phi­lan­thropists. De­spite the huge size of these pri­vate es­tates, they re­main as rel­a­tive dots on the map. But in­creas­ingly, those dots are creep­ing closer to other dots.

Es­tab­lished wood­land re­gen­er­a­tion schemes, run by con­ser­va­tion groups and govern­ment agen­cies – such as those in Aber­nethy For­est, Creag Mea­gaidh in Lochaber and Beinn Eighe in Wester Ross – are cre­at­ing a grow­ing, in­ter-con­nected net­work of land­hold­ings, all com­mit­ted to a new model for High­land land man­age­ment. More­over, these ini­tia­tives have all shown that, de­spite long-held per­cep­tions to the con­trary, trees can grow in the High­lands with­out the need for in­tru­sive fenc­ing, as long as graz­ing pressure is con­trolled. But what does that con­trol look like? How many deer is too many? There is a size­able body of re­search that can now an­swer these ques­tions from an eco­log­i­cal per­spec­tive.

Mak­ing the num­bers work

It is gen­er­ally ac­cepted that to al­low ground flora and wood­land to re­gen­er­ate nat­u­rally, or planted trees to sur­vive, deer den­si­ties need to be no higher than five per sq km. The re­gen­er­a­tion of wood­land in Glen­feshie has taken place with red deer at around two per sq km. On some tra­di­tional stalk­ing es­tates, 40 an­i­mals per sq km isn’t unusual. Colin Mur­doch is an ex­pe­ri­enced deer­stalker on Scot­land’s west coast and laments the large-scale culls that have taken place in re­cent years. “I hate what has be­come the eth­nic cleans­ing of red deer,” he says. Colin is highly sus­pi­cious of the mo­ti­va­tions of con­ser­va­tion­ists and govern­ment agen­cies forc­ing their will on ru­ral life. “They want to see the end of sport­ing es­tates, although they’ll never ad­mit it.” Colin’s per­spec­tive is not un­com­mon amongst tra­di­tional deer man­agers and although his con­vic­tion re­flects a deep af­fec­tion for the an­i­mals that have shaped his life, it also re­veals a re­sis­tance to change – change that he sees as a threat rather than as an op­por­tu­nity.

An­other rewil­der who has at­tracted much me­dia at­ten­tion over the last decade is Paul Lis­ter, owner of Al­ladale Wilder­ness Re­serve in Suther­land. Al­ladale wants to re­gen­er­ate its na­tive wood­land, but is sur­rounded by

es­tates with high deer num­bers, all wed­ded to the tra­di­tional land man­age­ment model. Red deer are not go­ing to recog­nise es­tate bound­aries, and the man charged with re­duc­ing the re­serve’s red deer herd to an ‘ac­cept­able’ level, and there­fore finds him­self in the ‘crosshairs’, is Head Ranger, Innes MacNeill.

“We all want health­ier deer liv­ing in a bet­ter habi­tat,” Innes says, “but how do you tell a stalker, who has worked all his life to nur­ture his deer for­est, that he has too many? It’s like telling some­one their life’s work has been for noth­ing.”

So, does it all come down to num­bers? Deer are brows­ing an­i­mals and, at high den­si­ties, they will over­whelm the veg­e­ta­tion and eat all re­gen­er­at­ing saplings, leav­ing just older trees to die off one by one, over time. In the ab­sence of nat­u­ral preda­tors – for now at least – deer pop­u­la­tions need man­ag­ing if Scot­land’s wild places are to reach their full eco­log­i­cal po­ten­tial, and if, as a coun­try, Scot­land is to ex­pand its wood­land cover, which is cur­rently among the low­est in Europe.

The ex­per­tise and ex­pe­ri­ence of pro­fes­sional deer­stalk­ers is key to this, but the phi­los­o­phy be­hind deer stalk­ing will need to move away from the em­pha­sis on the tro­phy to a more rounded hunt­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in an in­creas­ingly nat­u­ral set­ting, in the com­pany of a well-paid pro­fes­sional guide.

Cher­ished land­scape

Flur­ries of snow come and go as I crest the sum­mit of Stac Pol­laidh and re­flect on the vast land­scape be­low me. A golden ea­gle cir­cles on a dis­tant ther­mal and the oc­ca­sional chat­ter of a red grouse car­ries on the breeze. This land­scape is se­duc­tive. It is raw and, su­per­fi­cially at least, it is wild. It is also loved by the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple who live and work in it – and those who visit it. Yet this land hides a his­tory of eco­log­i­cal wounds that few peo­ple see, sim­ply be­cause they’re not con­di­tioned to look.

Cen­turies of felling, burn­ing and over­graz­ing have led to end­less miles of tree­less moor­land, so of­ten held up as post­cards of a na­ture-rich Scot­land. As a so­ci­ety, we’ve some­how ar­rived at a point where we cel­e­brate, cher­ish and even ac­tively con­serve these eco­log­i­cal vac­u­ums that sup­port not only fewer species than they once did – than they could again – but, in many parts of the High­lands, fewer peo­ple. This land­scape could be more – so much more.

Break­ing through

I raise my binoc­u­lars and trace the path of a deer fence, which bullishly cuts across the moor­land into the dis­tance. The fence has been built to keep deer in, or per­haps to keep deer out. Ei­ther way, the fence it­self is sym­bolic, as it mir­rors the di­vi­sive de­bate over what this land­scape should be. The po­ten­tial for an eco­log­i­cally richer fu­ture, across much of the High­lands, is stuck in­side a cul­tural fence.

It’s a fence that has less to do with red deer and more to do with peo­ple and their deep-seated be­lief sys­tems. The deer prob­lem, if it ex­ists, is ac­tu­ally a peo­ple prob­lem, 200 years in the mak­ing.

There is com­mon ground. Ev­ery­one shares a de­sire to see healthy red deer in a healthy land­scape and most would pre­fer them to be viewed as nei­ther ‘monarch’ nor men­ace, but as an in­te­gral part of a nat­u­rally func­tion­ing ecosys­tem. If we’re to break out of the fence, how­ever, we need to see the Scot­tish land­scape dif­fer­ently. We need to recog­nise its short­com­ings and stretch our per­spec­tive fur­ther than land be­ing val­ued ac­cord­ing to how many an­i­mals can be shot on it. Per­haps then Scot­land’s deer forests will be full of trees.

Cen­turies of felling and over­graz­ing have led to end­less miles of tree­less moor­land.

Clock­wise from above: Loch Hope is just one area un­der­go­ing a ma­jor wood­land restora­tion project; deer are more likely to be seen on roads in May and June, as the young go in search of new ter­ri­to­ries; re­gen­er­at­ing Scots pines along the River Feshie; his­tor­i­cally, rich At­lantic oak­wood was of­ten cleared for an­i­mal graz­ing.

The Monarch of the Glen, painted by Sir Ed­win Land­seer.

Clock­wise from top left: Colin Mur­doch feeds deer in win­ter at Reraig For­est; deer fences are marked with anti-col­li­sion tape for wood­land grouse; roe, sika and fal­low deer are also stalked in Scot­land; the num­ber of antler branches in­crease with a stag's age; it is hoped that wood­land will cover 21 per cent of Scot­land by 2032.

In the Scot­tish High­lands, red deer tend to wan­der the hills dur­ing the day and make their way down to lower ground at night.

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