Deer Management for Climate and Nature
The key points:
- Deer management is essential to Scotland’s role in tackling the climate emergency: it’s a last resort, but we have no choice if we are to enable natural carbon capture and storage on land (through woodland and peatland) and return biodiversity to our wild places.
- Deer management should be inclusive: Our society is progressive and contemporary, our land management should be as well. Deer management should be community-led, with benefits for wider society, not just a few individuals.
- Deer themselves are suffering due to overpopulation: There are too many deer, and not enough suitable habitat for them. Predators are a critical part of any healthy ecosystem, and without them, deer are suffering due to overcrowding - with food scarcity and inadequate forest shelter in winter. Humans need to take the place of the wolf to restore balance.
How many deer are there in Scotland?
- Nearly a million:
- Since red deer counts began in the 1960s, official estimates have suggested that the Scottish population has roughly trebled from 150,000 to between 360,000 and 400,000 (with a further estimated 200,000-350,000 roe deer, 25,000 fallow deer and a smaller number of sika deer).
- A more recent report by SNH in 2019 estimated that the overall deer density in Scotland has remained broadly stable over the past 20 years (i.e. at an all-time high).
- Deer are highly mobile and spread across tens of thousands of kilometres of rugged terrain, so the process of obtaining an accurate estimate of numbers is costly and complex (all figures are estimates). We cite the official figures provided by NatureScot.
Why is this density a problem?
- High deer numbers come at the expense of almost all other species:
- Deer are browsers, and feed on grass, tree shoots and shrubs. This means that native woodlands in Scotland struggle to expand, because new shoots are eaten before they’ve had a chance to grow.
- Deer also strip the bark from mature trees with their antlers (fraying). The debarking that occurs can lead to mortalities of large-sized trees.
- Deer browsing also promotes the dominance of less palatable species, reducing the quality and composition of the plant litter that can in turn affect the nutrient balance and influence changes in plant communities.
- Scotland has lost a huge amount of its native woodlands, and along with it a huge diversity of native plants and animals that need woodland to survive.
- Out of a list of 240 countries and territories, Scotland is ranked 212th for biodiversity intactness. We are one of the most biodiversity-poor nations in the world.
- High deer numbers mean we will not reach our climate and nature recovery targets:
- Each year, 12m tonnes of CO2 are absorbed by Scotland’s forests and woodlands; reducing deer numbers would allow expanding woodland to absorb even more carbon and improve the density and diversity of species.
- It is estimated that herbivores annually remove 80,000 ± 100,000 tonnes of carbon from global forests through consumption of plant biomass. They are removing vegetation that would otherwise photosynthesise and store carbon.
- Changes engineered by deer browsing in turn affects litter production, litter decomposition and therefore the allocation of above and below-ground carbon. Below-ground carbon stores represent a significant proportion of the total forest carbon pool – up to 97% in some Scottish Forest Alliance Sites, however we acknowledge that more research is needed in this area to establish the scale of the threat.
- Excessive deer numbers can lead to trampling and compacting of soil, this can cause increases in soil temperature, salinity, water, and oxygen content which has the potential to effect carbon cycling.
- Deer faeces and urine are a source of nitrogen which some decomposers may benefit from, further affecting the structure and functioning of the decomposer communities and nutrient cycling.
- Deer fraying in commercial forests can reduce the timber value and often results in the logs being processed into pulp, reducing the longevity of the stored carbon. For example damaged and stained logs are unsuitable for construction which stores carbon in timber long-term. Instead logs that are pulped for paper or used for biofuel.
- Peatlands also have a critical role in climate change mitigation: healthy peatlands act as reservoirs of carbon and a sink for greenhouse gases, while degraded peatlands (trampled by excessive deer numbers) actually release CO2.
- The role of woodland and peatland in capturing and storing carbon from the atmosphere cannot be overstated. If Scotland is to achieve its climate targets, it must place an emphasis on expanding native woodland, and protecting peatlands.
- As well as damaging existing and emerging woodlands and peatlands, Scotland’s red deer produce methane. Farmed deer produce around 5,200 tonnes of methane each year; the equivalent of 145,600 tonnes of CO2, the number for wild deer is likely to be higher due to poorer quality forage available.
- A 20% reduction in numbers would directly save the carbon equivalent of around 15 million car miles on Scotland’s roads each year.
- High deer numbers translate to poor deer welfare:
- High deer numbers cause suffering to the deer themselves because there is not enough food and shelter for them all, especially in harsh winters.
- It comes at an economic cost too:
- Inadequate deer management carries significant social and economic costs, such as damage to forestry and agriculture, increased road accidents, and the proliferation of disease-bearing ticks.
What deer densities are sustainable then?
- That depends on the area:
- Deer densities have different impact on different landscapes, so we really need to measure sustainable deer numbers by their impact on a particular area, rather than generalised numbers.
- It’s hard to estimate deer populations:
- Deer move across vast areas of land, and getting an accurate number for any given area is difficult as it depends on geography and season.
- As a broad rule of thumb, anything under 5 deer per square kilometre:
- As a broad rule of thumb, deer densities above 8 per square kilometre have the potential to damage peatlands, while natural woodlands regeneration requires densities of 5 or below per square kilometre.
- Scotland’s density currently sits at 10 red deer per square kilometre in the Highlands.
How did it get to this stage?
- Deer have no natural predators:
- In any balanced ecosystem, predators and prey help keep species numbers at sustainable levels.
- Humans have exterminated all large predators that once existed in the UK, which means deer now have no natural predators (such as wolves or lynx) and humans have to fill that ecological gap.
- Large areas of land have been managed to encourage high deer numbers:
- For years large sporting estates have managed land specifically to encourage high deer numbers for sport shooting.
What’s the solution?
- We are advocating for increased deer cull targets and community-led deer management for diversified rural economies, action against the climate crisis and the recovery of Scotland’s nature.
- Culling is our only option:
- Unfortunately, culling deer on a much larger scale, backed by legislation, is now the only option we have left if we’re to return deer numbers to a level that Scotland’s woodlands and grasslands can sustain.
- Because of the grave climate and biodiversity consequences of unnaturally high deer numbers, Scotland is at a point where deer culling is essential if we are to meet climate targets and meet nature recovery goals.
- Deer management should be more accessible:
- Scotland is unique in having the professional stalker as the primary hunter of deer. In most other countries hunting is done recreationally and/or with shooting guides, but these are not employed by the landowner. Scotland’s current model is exclusive and encourages high deer numbers. Exploring a community model of shooting would see wider benefits to society – where community-led deer management produces local and affordable food, more accessible tourism benefits, and a diversification of local skillsets.
What do you mean by ’community hunting’?
- Communities being directly involved in deer control – for food and communal land management
- Since the middle of the 19th century, the main model of red deer stalking on private land in Scotland has largely been based on wealthy paying clients and guests guided by professional stalkers.
- In many European countries, communities are directly involved in deer control and community models of hunting are widespread. In Norway, for example, over half a million people – almost ten per cent of the population – are registered hunters. Hunting is considered a communal source of sustainable food, and local people have priority use. Game meat is an important part of Norwegian food culture, rather than a by-product of trophy hunting as is often the case here.
- Closer to home, the community-owned North Harris Trust has opened up stalking, both for recreation and for responsible land management, to the wider community. Through the Harris Stalking Club, locals can participate and take on the responsibility for annual cull targets and this model appears to be working well. We would like to see pilot community projects where local people are trained and encouraged to be more involved in deer management.
- The Trust are exploring, piloting and developing community larder, accessible stalking and community hunting schemes on its land.
How are deer currently managed?
- Voluntarily by landowners:
- Because deer can freely cross ownership boundaries, a system of voluntary Deer Management Groups (DMGs) was encouraged by government agencies to try to get landowners to work together to address continued adverse deer impacts at a local level.
- These are entirely voluntary groups, mostly dominated by landowners whose principal objective is to ensure a plentiful supply of stags for sport shooting.
- Consequently, wider public interests, including the ecological condition of the land, tend to be secondary concerns and any culls ‘set’ are not enforceable.
How would managing deer differently benefit rural communities?
- We would like it to lead to greater community involvement in the use of land and natural resources:
- The ‘traditional’ Victorian estate model across much of rural Scotland has contributed to economic stagnation and depopulation in many areas by closing down opportunities for greater community involvement in the use of land and natural resources.
- The spread of diverse woodland types across the red deer range would increase the availability of timber and other forest products, benefitting landowners and communities as well as the wider environment. Woodland nature-based tourism enterprises could flourish in areas that are currently off the beaten track.
Why can’t we just erect fences to keep deer out of woodland?
- This pushes the ‘problem’ elsewhere:
- To other, unfenced areas of land.
- We don’t actually want to keep all deer out of all woodland
- Deer are an important part of woodland ecology, and need the shelter that woodlands provide. It is simply that Scotland’s remaining woodlands cannot sustain the current deer numbers.
- They are visually intrusive and post a threat to other wildlife:
- Deer fences are visually intrusive in the landscape and can be a barrier to public access.
- They can also lead to bird deaths from collisions, particularly low-flying birds such as black grouse and capercaillie. Deer trying to jump fences in desperation for food can also get caught.
- They are really costly; financially and to the environment:
- Deer fencing costs around £10 per metre and requires miles of galvanised steel – the mining and transportation of which carries a significant carbon cost.
- Fences creates an artificial tree line:
- Which means the natural shrub habitat that occurs between forest edges and hillside can’t exist – and this is a habitat that supports a lot of unique biodiversity.
Why can’t Scotland reintroduce large predators to manage deer?
- People could, but not without community support:
- The reintroduction of large predators such as lynx and wolves would indeed have an impact on deer numbers. However, it would only be possible to bring back these species with national public and political support and, crucially, with community support in the relevant local and regional areas.
- Even then, reintroductions would need to be phased in over a prolonged period of time, and therefore would not be sufficient on their own to reduce Scotland’s deer numbers to sustainable levels.
- At least in the short-to-medium term, human management of deer would still be essential.
Deer are essential to the Scottish economy and culture, does increased culling threaten that?
- We’re not advocating to cull all deer:
- The roaring stag – the ‘Monarch of the Glen’– is a Scottish icon. Reducing deer numbers would not damage this element of Scottish cultural identity. In fact, it would lead to bigger and healthier deer.
- Red deer are a native species in Scotland and have an important place in our landscape and ecosystem – increased culling will sustain them at a population level which enables healthy natural regeneration of habitats.
- Increased deer culling would actually boost economies:
- Currently there are an extremely low number of jobs associated with deer stalking and gamekeeping (716 and 488 full time equivalent jobs respectively). Land management for conservation creates 736 full-time equivalent direct jobs and generates £26m - £106m for local economies, compared to the £12.4m that traditional deer stalking does.
- A more wooded and diverse landscape offers more opportunities for businesses, eco-tourism, mountain biking, increased health benefits for society, etc.
- There are living examples in Scotland where drastically reduced deer numbers have led to thriving ecologies with thriving rural communities and economies - Creag Meagaidh, Glenfeshie, Mar Lodge. Southwest Norway (similar to Scotland in climate and ecology) is also a fantastic example of how many parts of Scotland could look.
Would these changes mean an end to traditional stalking?
- Rather than ending deer stalking, we would like to see it benefit more people, restore more habitats and contribute more to public benefits, such as reducing greenhouse gases.
- Traditional deer stalking is an important part of local culture in some parts of Scotland and can bring economic benefits to fragile communities.
- That tradition has of course evolved over time, with the use of high velocity rifles, sound moderators, scopes, All Terrain Vehicles etc.
- We do not advocate banning traditional deer stalking rather we would like to see necessary stalking evolve and diversify to involve more people and to create additional economic opportunities.
- This in turn could help to revive fragile and remote communities and reverse long-term population decline in the Highlands.
Why can’t private estates just cull a bit more?
- There are few incentives for sporting estates to do this:
- Cull targets are voluntary rather than compulsory, with each individual landowner free to decide how many of their deer they will or will not cull.
- There is little incentive to manage deer in the public interest. Instead, there is an incentive to keep deer numbers high because part of the capital valuation for an estate is based on the average number of stags shot over a five-year period. Every additional stag shot increases the value of an estate by around £50,000 when it is put up for sale.
Does fewer deer mean fewer jobs?
- No, actually it could lead to more jobs:
- Getting deer numbers down would require more stalkers, not less. Evidence suggests that estates which have reduced their deer population have retained or even increased their stalking staff.
- The Scottish Government’s plans for afforestation will provide further habitat for deer across a number of localities in Scotland, which will increase the need for deer management.
- A 2016 report commissioned by the Association of Deer Management Groups (ADMG) stated that the deer management sector supports 840 full-time equivalent jobs.
- ADMG claim that “many of the full-time employed resident deer management roles would be lost if the deer population became insufficient to support deer stalking businesses.” There are two misleading points here. First, the notion of ‘deer stalking businesses’ is something of a myth. The ADMG’s own 2016 report revealed that total direct expenditure on deer management in Scotland is £43 million (combined operational and capital) while the total direct income received from deer stalking was just £12.4 million. In other words, the entire industry is run at a £30 million a year loss and is not so much a business as an expensive hobby facilitated by wealthy landowners.
- The second point is that deer stalking has been a major activity on Scotland’s hillsides for many generations and was a source of employment in the Highlands when the deer population was a fraction of its current size. If anything, halving the population over a reasonable timescale would potentially create more jobs during that period and allow a transition period for sporting estates to move towards a more economically, socially and environmentally productive model of land management.
What are the ‘public costs’ of the current deer management system?
- Traditional sport shooting and stalking operates at a net loss:
- While sport shooting and venison sales bring in income, Scottish Natural Heritage reported in 2016 that “management of deer in Scotland results in a “net monetary loss” for both the private and public sectors.”
Surely not all wildlife thrives on woodland?
- We are not advocating for closed canopy, dense woodland. It’s about diversity:
- Woodland is a really broad term. In the UK we would expect to see oak forests in some areas, birch in others, montane scrub, bog woodland, meadows, pine forests etc. So we’re not talking about a single tranche of closed canopy. We are looking more for ‘woodland cover’ which includes scrub.
- Currently our woodland cover in Scotland is 14% and only 4% native woodland. At one time native woodland would have been 70-80%.
- Most conservationists would be delighted with doubling woodland cover which would bring us up to 30% and leave 70% unwooded.
Why isn’t the Scottish Government leading this?
- The Scottish Government is now getting a grip of this issue:
- In 2021, the Scottish government accepted either in detail or in principle 91 of the 99 recommendations made in an independent report – the Deer Working Group - agreeing in a statement that it will be necessary to introduce extensive legislative and regulatory change over the course of the next parliamentary session.
- Collectively, these changes have the potential to bring about an historic transformation in the way Scotland’s million-strong deer population is managed.
With more sheep than deer in Scotland, why not focus on the damage they do?
- It’s about geography:
- There are 6.7 million sheep in Scotland compared to 400,000 red deer; however, the highest concentrations of sheep are south of the Central Belt. According to the most recent Scottish Government statistics, the density of sheep in the Scottish Borders is eight times higher than in the Highlands; and five times higher than in Dumfries & Galloway.
- It is also the case that the impact of sheep grazing is more locally concentrated while red deer have a far wider range, and therefore a more extensive impact. One 2016 study, Quantifying the Grazing Impacts Associated with Different Herbivores on Rangelands, found that the geographical spread of the red deer population in the Cairngorms is six times greater than that of the sheep population; in West Sutherland, 12 times greater; in East Sutherland, 13 times greater; in the Mid-West Highlands, 43 times greater; in South Ross, 70 times greater; and in West Grampian 220 times greater.
Isn’t it cruel to kill animals even for worthy environmental objectives?
- In this situation - exactly the opposite:
- Humans long ago exterminated the natural predators of this natural woodland animal, and red deer were forced to adapt to open hillside – and became smaller as a result.
- This contrasts with their larger European counterparts. In areas where deer numbers are excessive, there can be a high mortality rate from starvation and exposure, especially in extreme winter conditions – with often thousands and sometimes tens of thousands starving to death each year. By reducing deer numbers, the condition of the habitats that deer depend on for food and shelter will improve, which in turn will result in large and healthy deer and reduce deaths from starvation.
Are there non-lethal methods of controlling deer (e.g. immuno-contraception)?
- There are, but they are not practical at this scale:
- As environmentalists and conservationists, we respect the work of animal charities and have an affinity with the underlying ethos that challenges animal cruelty and abuse.
- We have no problem in principle with immuno-contraception, but it is currently not available as a practical method to reduce deer densities to a level that would allow trees, peatland and other species to flourish.
- Immuno-contraception is only viable on a micro-scale – for example when dealing with small herds of deer around a village or town. It involves capturing and injecting hinds annually, or less reliably, firing contraceptive darts. It would be impractical to apply this method on a national scale across 30,000 square km of rough, mountainous and remote uplands, with a scattered, mobile red deer hind population of at least 200,000 individuals.
- We are very open to exploring other methods and technologies that are practical and cost effective to implement.
Why are the seasons set the way they are?
- They are set in the Deer Act 1959
- 3 statutory close seasons restricting the right to shoot male and female red deer at specified times of year were first introduced by the Deer (Scotland) Act 1959. While the purpose of the Act was to improve the protection of agriculture and forestry from damage by marauding red deer, the inclusion of close seasons was a key demand of sporting estate interests and the main contested issue in the protracted negotiations leading to the 1959 Act.
Does the John Muir Trust cull more deer than anyone else?
- JMT culls less than 1% of the total number of red deer culled in Scotland each year:
- The overall Scottish red deer cull is around 60,000 a year. The private sector, comprising mainly of sporting estates, culls the majority – nearly 50,000 red deer a year.
- The Scottish Government, through Forest Enterprise, culls over 10,000 red deer a year. Across the 60,000 acres JMT manages we cull around 500 red deer annually.
What does JMT currently do with the carcases?
- They go back into the human or landscape food chain:
- We extract the majority of carcasses for sale to game dealers, and on into the human food chain.
- Where extraction is difficult but still practical, we take the main venison cuts from culled deer for domestic consumption.
- We also leave some whole carcasses for eagles and other wildlife, as well as for soil nutrients.
- In some properties, the JMT and the crofting townships on our land receive payments from the government for leaving deer carcasses for eagles.
- We think carefully about the carbon impact of extraction, and weigh this up against the benefits of producing local food. There is an environmental impact to extraction where there are no vehicle tracks for example; an ATV will churn up carbon-rich soils and scar the landscape. Using helicopters has a carbon impact, as does extracting a carcass for a non-local game dealer which incurs food miles.
Could broadening participation in shooting cause any risk to the public?
- There are robust laws in place to prevent risk:
- There are rigorous laws in place around the licensing, use and storage of firearms in Scotland.
- We would like to see more stringent regulation, including compulsory training and certification of all hunters (which currently is not mandatory in Scotland, it is voluntary) and a ban on the use of lead ammunition.
- In developing broader participation in hunting, European models of training and assessment could be explored where potential hunters are trained and assessed on their own and public safety, and on deer welfare and habitat condition.
 according to Wild Deer in Scotland, which was published by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre in 2013
 Tanentzap, A. J. & Coomes, D. A. Carbon storage in terrestrial ecosystems: Do browsing and grazing herbivores matter? Biol. Rev. 87, 72–94 (2012).
 Perks, M., Nagy, L., Meir, P. & Auld, M. Carbon sequestration benefits of new native woodland expansion in Scotland. Scottish For. Alliance. https://www.futurewoodlands.org.uk/assets/downloads/CFCSFAcarbonsequestration.pdf.(2010).
 Gill, R., Webber, J., Peace, A. & Lodge, A. H. The Economic Implications of Deer Damage. (2000).
 Source: The Contribution of Deer Management to the Scottish Economy (2014); PACEC report for the Association of Deer Management Groups. And An Economic Study of Scottish Grouse Moors (2010); Fraser of Allander Institute report for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC)
 The Socio-economic Benefits of the Ownership and Management of Land by Environmental NGOs