Sustainable and integrated farming and crofting activity in the hills and uplands of Scotland: blueprint - report

Report from the Hill, Upland and Crofting Climate Change Group, one of the farmer-led groups established to develop advice and proposals for the Scottish Government. It focusses on how to cut emissions and tackle climate change, something that was re-emphasised in the updated Climate Change Plan.

8. Deer management

Deer populations of varying sizes can be found across the vast majority of Scotland's landscape and therefore need to be given strong consideration for the role they may be playing in terms of their potential impact on the wider ecosystem.

The HUCG understands that national deer numbers particularly across open hill areas have increased quite substantially since the middle of the twentieth century[8] and this has been identified as a particular area of concern by members of this group within the context of climate change abatement and habitat enhancement opportunities and limitations.

Where deer populations are too high, they can be detrimental to a range of sensitive and key upland habitats and can significantly compromise the success of any afforestation and regeneration projects. Damage cause by deer is typically associated with poaching and trampling as well as overgrazing, and this is a particular issue on peat hags where the natural herding behaviour of deer can exacerbate trampling damage within an already deteriorated habitat.

Although there are options to erect deer fences around woodland projects and fragile habitats, the cost of fencing can be very expensive and the carbon cost associated with the fencing materials should not be underestimated. Logistically, fencing off fragile and important upland habitats can often be impractical due to the large expanse of many of these habitats and the often challenging upland terrain which may not lend itself to fencing, for example due to shallow soils or particularly wet ground conditions. Displacement of large numbers of deer through fencing can furthermore lead to unintended consequences by concentrating populations onto other areas where a resulting higher density can also lead to habitat deterioration arising from trampling and overgrazing damage whilst impacting on other land uses including agriculture.

It can therefore be concluded that whilst there is a place for deer fencing in some situations, the control of deer numbers and a requirement to manage and maintain deer populations at a level that can be sustained and supported by the environment without any negative impacts on fragile habitats and other land uses is the only practical solution to address environmental and climate challenges in the longer-term. Outlining suitable policy to reflect this objective must be prioritised.

The HUCG notes that an extensive report on the management of wild deer in Scotland was submitted to Scottish Government by the Deer Working Group[9] in late 2019 and is still under review. The report contains a detailed set of recommendations, some of which are highly relevant to the review being undertaken by the HUCG group.

Based on the above comments, the HUCG wishes to put the following recommendations forward:

  • On the basis of the potential negative impact of high deer numbers on different key and fragile habitats, appropriate guidance needs to be outlined by the relevant authorities with regards to an acceptable upper limit to deer densities for different regions across Scotland and for different types of habitats (in line with recommendations presented to Scottish Government by the Deer Working Group). Such upper limits should be based on the deer numbers which can be sustained during the winter period when the risk of any damage arising from trampling and/or overgrazing is highest. It will be crucially important to ensure that optimum stocking densities are set at the right level, and some consideration will need to be given to facilitating some variances in stocking pressures (within reason) given the challenges associated with deer moving freely between and across vast areas.
  • Any future policy concerning deer management will need to be designed in such a way that it aids and encourages collaborative approaches between neighbours where important and fragile habitats such as (degraded) peatlands span across different Estates and require targeted and careful management to maintain deer numbers at sustainable levels
  • The HUCG notes that the movement of deer across different Estates, farms and crofts can be very challenging where different management objectives including environmental or sporting interests exist across deer management groups. Although equally legitimate, such interests can be in conflict with each other, especially where deer culling for environmental purposes causes friction with a neighbouring sporting Estate. It is important that future policy tries to address this issue where it is feasible to ensure that deer populations are maintained at environmentally sustainable levels without unnecessarily compromising the longer-term viability of sporting Estates
  • Any outcomes of a potential future policy aimed at reducing deer numbers to sustainable levels and maintaining these will likely take many years to be achieved on the ground and reflected in the condition of many (currently deteriorated or otherwise impacted) habitats. This can cause distinct issues and challenges in situations where tenant farmers and crofters have no rights to carry out deer control and where the landowner has not been managing deer numbers in a way that is sensitive to the needs of the habitats within the range. Given that future agricultural policy is looking to become more outcome-driven and results-based, and considering that sustainable upland and hill grazing management to protect upland habitats will likely feature in some form or another within future agricultural support schemes, it will be absolutely crucial to ensure that measures are put in place to recognise such situations where tenant farmers and crofters are or may be constrained in their ability to achieve meaningful scheme outcomes. This will also be of particular importance when considering liabilities, for instance where a farmland inspection is undertaken and the officer finds signs of overgrazing and/or trampling caused by deer. Who is liable if the farmer does not hold any rights to control deer but has applied for agricultural support payments, and how can a payment to the farmer be justified when the outcomes of upland habitat preservation have not been achieved even though the farmer has taken every possible steps within the bounds of his/her business?
  • It is important to note that where co-grazing occurs between wild deer and livestock and there are signs of negative impact on upland habitats, this cannot be simply resolved through a policy-driven requirement to reduce livestock numbers in an attempt to protect these habitats.
  • Whatever policy outcome is sought to address any issues surrounding deer management, it must ensure that it does not cause divisiveness between landowners and tenants.
  • Some attention will be required to consider how effective deer management can be achieved on common grazings.
  • Based on the above issues and concerns, the HUCG strongly recommends that options must be explored to encourage better deer management, for example through private sector involvement via delegation of greater powers to deer groups and through better and simplified wider community engagement. If such a voluntary approach can be made sufficiently attractive, this can deliver significant outcomes at a negligible cost to the public purse compared to the introduction of (further) statutory control which likely comes at a significant cost and can be ineffective and difficult to administer. However, where such voluntary approaches remain unsuccessful, then deer management as a whole needs to become more regulated to safeguard wider (public) interests that go far beyond those of individual landowners. This will partly recognise the work that is already being carried out by many well run and well managed Estates and should include the introduction of an obligation on the landowner to have to carry out deer management in order to maintain local populations at sustainable levels that do not have a detrimental impact on sensitive and important habitats including (degraded) peatlands and any afforestation and regeneration projects. Consideration should be given to the following:
  • The landowner should be given the choice to carry out deer management in-hand, lease the stalking rights to a contractor, or come to an agreement with a tenant farmer if the tenant wishes to take on the deer management himself/herself or via use of contracted stalker
  • The default responsibility to control deer numbers should remain with the landowner unless an agreement has been found with a tenant farmer or crofter to transfer the deer management rights to the tenanting party
  • The person(s) carrying out deer control must be suitably qualified



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