Thursday 16 January 2020

The need to reduce deer numbers in Scotland

Deer are not the problem. We are the problem.

That deer numbers in the Scottish hills are far too high to allow forest regeneration has been known for many decades. The extermination of predators followed by the rise of deer stalking as a leisure pursuit of the wealthy are the causes. Stalking estates require large numbers of deer for their clients. With no predators other than humans it’s up to us to control the deer population. And we’ve failed, with numbers of red deer rising steadily from an estimated 150,000 in 1959 to 400,000 today. In 1955 in his  West Highland Survey the great naturalist Frank Fraser Darling, then official adviser to the Deer Commission, wrote that the optimum number might be 64,000. In the same book he also wrote “The bald unpalatable fact is emphasized that the Highlands and Islands are largely a devastated terrain, and that any policy which ignores this fact cannot hope to achieve rehabilitation.” 

Overgrazing by red deer is one of the main causes, perhaps the main cause, of this.
Deer didn’t destroy the forests. We did that. But deer are preventing their return because of their numbers. This is no fault of the deer. Red deer are magnificent animals. I love seeing them. But I don’t love seeing the devasted land they create. In Scotland red deer are creatures of the open hills and empty glens, but only because the forests where they would naturally live have gone. A balance is needed. Deer and forests. Deer in forests. There’s currently only one way to achieve this, sadly. Kill more deer. Fencing out deer can let some areas regenerate but not that many. Squeezing the deer into smaller and smaller areas that become increasingly damaged cannot be the answer. Fences are expensive, unsightly, a barrier to access, and damaging to wildlife and habitats. Reintroducing wolves would be the ideal solution but I can’t see this happening for many years. In the meantime it’s up to us. I strongly dislike the idea of shooting deer but I can see no other answer.

This issue has come to the fore now because of a report, Managing Deer for Climate, Communities and Conservation, compiled by eighteen conservation and recreation organisations* and published by Scottish Environment LINK that calls for major changes to the way deer are managed. The report gives ten reasons why change is needed. Apart from more trees these include healthier peatlands (trampling and grazing dry the peat), more rural jobs (landowning environmental NGOs employ five times more FTE staff per square kilometre than the commercial deer stalking estate), fewer ticks (it’s highly likely the rise in tick numbers is connected to the rise in deer numbers), and a cut in greenhouse gases (a 20 per cent reduction in deer numbers would save the carbon equivalent of around 15 million car miles on Scotland’s roads each year).

*Badenoch & Strathspey Conservation Group, Butterfly Conservation Scotland, Cairngorms Campaign, Froglife, John Muir Trust, National Trust for Scotland, Nourish Scotland, Ramblers Scotland, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Badgers, Scottish Raptor Study Group, Scottish Wild Land Group, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Trees for Life, Woodland Trust Scotland. Plus support from non Link members Forest Policy Group, North Harris Trust, Reforesting Scotland.

I’m a member of seven of these groups, and a Trustee of the John Muir Trust.


  1. I Agree. If we don't reintroduce the apex predators, WE need to be the apex predators. But I still hope wolves will be reintroduced some day...

  2. If we become the apex predator will that not reduce the current enthusiam/need for wolves and lynx?
    I do think so long as the meat/hides resulting from cull are used , every part, it m7ght be a necessary stop gap but not if it detracts from the wolf/lynx path. We lost these creatures because of competition for food so to become too fond of venison may be counter productive to 're wilding. Discuss!

    1. Is the habitat right for wolves and lynx at the moment though? :(

    2. We are the apex predator now and have been since wolves were exterminated. I think there are many difficulties in reintroducing lynx and wolves. I don't think an increase in liking for venison is likely to be one of them.

      The habitat is definitely right for lynx and in the Highlands, as shown by the excellent book The Lynx And Us, and almost certainly fine for wolves. It's human opposition that's the problem.

  3. I remember when salmon was an expensive gastromic treat, now it is readily available and probably the cheapest fish on the market. We need to do the same for red deer by letting humans become their biggest predator! Anonomous2