June 8, 2021

This is why we need to re-frame the terms of the debate on the welfare of red deer.

Pictures by Nick Kempe and Lorraine Herbison

By Nick Kempe of Parkswatch

There is another side to the hullabaloo that the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) raised three weeks ago about a pregnant red deer hind that had been shot  out of season on Skye (see here).

Last week (see here), on the edge of the Fannichs, I saw and smelled more dead red deer than I have done for many a year.

Just round the corner from where we were camping, at an altitude of c.300m, there were eight red deer corpses at the bottom of a sheltered bank above the Dundonnell River. It appears they had taken shelter during the snow that closed the road last winter and either starved or frozen to death.

While there is  good grazing along the river in summer, the red deer had nowhere left to go in winter, with much of the lower ground around Dundonnell fenced off and new native woodland plantations restricting their traditional grazing grounds still further.

So, which is worse, shooting a heavily pregnant deer or allowing the red deer population to rise to such levels that other hinds,  some also no doubt pregnant, died like this?  A false question which would disappear if Scotland had predators like wolves.  There would then be no closed season and any deer not in prime condition would provide an easy meal.

It seems to me, however, that the Scottish Gamekeeper’s Association, in focusing attention on the hind that was shot on Skye, was distracting people from the wider issues.

Just over the hill from the Dundonnell River, walking along one of the two tracks that now grace the north shore of Loch a’ Bhroan, we were met every few hundred metres with the stench from a decaying red deer corpse.

Never, in 40 years of visiting the Highlands, have I felt less inclined to drink water from the local burns.

I encountered a similar stench along the road between Dundonnell and Corriehallie.

By all accounts there was a lot of snow in the north west this winter and the weather last year may have resulted in less grass surviving into the winter than usual.

Both will have contributed to the death toll.   But I saw plenty of other evidence to show that the red deer population in Fisherfield and the Fannichs is far too high and this is having a severe impact on biodiversity in the area.

A fine old birch wood in its final death throes under Creag a Chadha Christe on the northern slopes of Creag Raineach. Note how the trees on the slope opposite are flourishing in the deep gully. The pale patch on the left has been caused by muirburn.
It was the same in the beautiful alder wood pasture on the flood plain below, a favoured place for people to camp. The only re-generation we saw was in the small areas protected by gorse.  Hardly a flower survived.
Where alder was regenerating along the banks of Abhainn Gleann na Muice south of Larachantivore – the only example we saw was being destroyed by red deer.
A dozen miles to the east, red deer had been allowed into the native woodland plantation on the northern slopes of Beinn Liath Mhor a’ Ghuibhais Li, destroying almost all the native broadleaved trees that had been planted there.

While claiming to be non-political, the SGA used the incident on Skye to argue that the Scottish Government should not extend the hind shooting season as recommended by the deer working group (to the start of April, not May).

In doing so, they are playing the card of the landowners, who have consistently resisted any reduction in the numbers of red deer (not least because their estates are valued by the number of deer) and used welfare reasons (that its cruel to shoot deer at particular times of year) to help justify this.

Unfortunately NatureScot and Scotland’s two National Park Authorities, all of which should be dedicated to reducing red deer numbers in the interests of conservation, generally appear too feart to expose the hyprocrisy of the SGA or their landowning paymasters when it comes to their arguments about the welfare of red deer.

Hence, in part, the sad evidence I saw on my trip to the north west and the reason for writing this blog.

Comments on this article include this one from  Ian Malone, who wrote: “Not happy with the outcome at any point, but don’t believe controls on deer numbers is the answer.

“Large animals have always migrated, they naturally move pastures because of diseases and other things.

“Fencing and roads with no thought to this issue is the problem. Farming uses medication to allow animals to stay in one area.

“Need a major rethink about nature as a whole, not silly projects which later cause problems.”

Andy reminsced: “This post reminds me of a walk I took what must be 30 years ago in a long remote glen in Perthshire. It was at the end of winter and the place stank for over 2 or 3 km in distance of rotting deer carcasses- many were in watercourses where drifted snow was melting, revealing their bodies.

“When people argue about the cruelty of controlling deer numbers, I am always reminded of this.

“I have witnessed it several times since, though not on the same scale.

“I also recall standing on a ridge in the same area that is now in the Cairngorms National Park looking over to an 800 metre high hill with a pap like top. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing.

“I thought it was some sort of landslide as the whole top section of the hill was moving downwards. I then realised it was deer- so many (hundreds) that there were virtually obscuring the contours of the hill.

“Quite a sight, but I wondered how many would end up starving to death in a snow bank the following Winter.”

Deer are in danger of starving on estates in the Scottish Highlands.

A person with the nomdeplume Bimbling wrote: “After all the reports, inquiries, and public bodies set up to manage this natural resource over the past 60 years or so, we still have the same issues, neatly described here, as we’ve always had. Indeed arguably they have got worse.

“The SGA are an obstacle to progress, as are the landowners and agents. Quite why anyone has taken any notice of them for so long goodness only knows.

“NatureScot, SNH, DCS and RDC over the years have all failed massively to tackle the vested interests and latterly not without the support of ministers and parliamentarians some of whom have asked if the Public Body itself is not part of the problem…it is.

“Look at the Caenlochan S7. How many years? The owners are simply running circles around NatureScot. Endless ‘increased culls’ chasing deer from pillar to post untll the behaviour changes and the deer form one massive herd.

“Less cruel would be a substantial ‘step-wise’ reduction to a sustainable figure carried out over a few days by many professional stalkers. If this means taking out a third or more of the current population, then so be it.  This permanant review and monitor and survey is such a waste of resources.”



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