The economic importance of red deer to Scotland’s rural economy and the political threat now facing the country’s iconic species
Peter Fraser, Vice-chairman, Scottish Gamekeepers Association
Angus MacKenzie OBE CA
Donald MacKenzie BSc CA
By Peter Fraser
A national scandal is playing out on Scotland’s hills. And while our wild red deer are the immediate casualties of the nation’s indifference, the price will ultimately be paid by the decline and decay of remote rural communities the length and breadth of this country.
Our society is allowing exceptional animals to be destroyed: mown down like vermin in the night. It is permitting valuable carcasses to be abandoned to waste where they fall and indiscriminate night shooting to infringe animal welfare codes. Is this the way to manage Scotland’s iconic animal, the celebrated Monarch of the Glen? We’re laying our greatest wildlife assets to waste without considering the consequences. And it may already be too late in some places to prevent the devastation from being permanent.
I believe the threat to the future wellbeing of Scotland’s red deer herd has reached a tipping-point. After spending more than half a century spying, stalking, discussing and managing these wild animals I fear that we are on the point of destroying for ever a precious national resource which attracts nature lovers, walkers and sportsmen to our hills, brings employment to the glens, fine food to our tables and revenue to our nation.
Severe weather has had a natural impact on the deer in recent years, with the winter of 2010-11 resulting in severe mortality in many places. But natural events are phenomena the deer have had to cope with for centuries. What is now putting them - and fragile rural economies - at risk are the confused and conflicting aims for the land on which the herds roam.
Overambitious and ill thought through forestry or conservation projects are the longest running culprits and the most notorious crimes at Glenfeshie and Mar Lodge estates will go down in history as animal welfare atrocities. But carnages continue to be carried out in numerous locations in the name of protecting unfenced natural regeneration.
There is also pressure from new types of environmental degradation. One is what’s known as ‘trampling’, the presence of hoof-marks. These natural marks are being used on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and other protected areas as a reason to bear down on deer numbers. And while most unbiased observers would argue that deer-prints are inevitable on wild land, the habitat conservators at Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) claim such pressure discriminates against the growth and health of rare plant communities. And in many places SNH has insisted upon “corrections” in deer numbers in unrealistically short time frames, even when they previously accepted the relevant site conditions. In other words the pressure has been ramped up.
The impact of all these natural, environmental and economic pressures is that deer populations have taken extreme punishment in the last decade. And the omens are that it’s far from over because the Scottish Government has signaled its intention to plant trees on vast areas of the country, increasing afforestation from 17% to 25% of Scotland by 2050.
Food security concerns and the power of the farming lobby means the arable and sheep rearing ground won’t be easily given up, so what’s left? The deer lands, of course. And if the deer have nowhere to summer or winter, they’ll have to be culled.
I want to be clear that I don’t believe in deer at any price, and nor is my philosophy “the more the better”. This is a small country and there are many competing pressures on the land. In a few specific areas there are probably too many deer for the acreage of ground that they now have access to, and the last thing I ever want to see are animals starving because of lack of food.
What I’m worried about is the generally held perception that deer have become a widespread menace which don’t need our protection. The general message from conservation groups is the less deer that roam the hills the happier they will be. And such is their lack of respect they see no need on many occasions to bother taking the carcasses back to their larders. Certainly the John Muir Trust has adopted that attitude in Glen Nevis, leaving walkers to stumble across carcasses. And Forestry Commission Scotland left carcasses in the Skelpick Woods in Sutherland when they culled heavily during incursions two winters ago.
First hand knowledge
As a deer stalker all my life I know better than most people just how much a single stag or hind on the hill costs in terms of the number of man-hours spent spying and stalking.
Stalkers also recognise the importance of a balanced age structure within herds both locally and nationally which will guarantee the production of sustainable numbers of mature stags. It’s critical to have older hinds in the herds because they play an important role in leading the younger animals to wintering grounds and shelter and it can take years for the young to learn. And sporting clients want to stalk mature stags.
Because I live in a rural community I also know at first hand how the income from red deer stalking, and indeed deer tourism in general, impacts on the most remote and scattered regions of Scotland.
I know the families, businesses and professionals who rely on red deer for their livelihoods. They range from hoteliers and B&B owners, farriers, tweed companies, ATV retailers, vehicle dealerships, wildlife photographers and tour operators, venison processors, cooks and restaurateurs to countless others who have a role in the relatively unknown culture of rural Scotland.
Most folk assume deer stalking is sport confined exclusively to those who are wealthy enough to own large estates or can afford to rent a shooting lodge for a week. They imagine that there’s a huge profit to be made from selling a red deer carcass which is pocketed by the landowner and that’s the end of the story. Yet that’s not what my stalking colleagues and I have witnessed over the years during our work on large and small estates across the country.
I vowed to delve behind the assumptions and prejudices to find out more about the economics of deer stalking.