The management of wild deer in Scotland: Deer Working Group report

The final report of the Deer Working Group.

Section 16 Natural Heritage

1 This Section considers the damage that wild deer can cause to Scotland’s natural heritage. Wild red and roe deer are, as native species, a natural part of that natural heritage. Sika and fallow deer are non-native species that have become naturalised as wild deer in Scotland. The particular issues relating to non-native deer species are considered in the next Section of the Report.

2 Prior to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) being established in 1991, references were generally to Scotland’s natural environment rather than its natural heritage. The two terms can be regarded as essentially synonymous. However, human influence on Scotland’s land during history means that there is little left now that might actually be considered a ‘natural’ environment, while the use of natural heritage conveys that the focus is on the environment that current generations have inherited from the past.

3 In the Act that established SNH and in Scotland’s current deer legislation, the definition of natural heritage is that “’natural heritage’ includes flora and fauna, geological and physiographical features, and the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside”.[1] This list of components can seem a limited definition. However, as the work of SNH reflects, the interpretation of the definition includes the physical and biological processes associated with the relationships between these components in functioning ecosystems.

16.1 1959-1996

4 The Nature Conservancy (NC) was SNH’s original predecessor as the government body responsible for nature conservation in Scotland. The NC was set up in 1949 with Britain-wide responsibility for implementing parts of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.[2] This included establishing the new statutory system of sites designated for their nature conservation interest, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), as well as the power to establish National Nature Reserves (NNRs).

5 The NC was concerned from the beginning of its work in Scotland, with the need to reduce the damage being caused by open hill red deer to the natural environment in the Highlands. The key to this was seen as having improved information, so that the management of the deer populations could be based on scientific knowledge. As was commented 50 years ago, the sporting estates in the Highlands had since Victorian times developed a strong hunting code “but failed to develop a system of management based on the ecology (population dynamics, habitat relationships) of the quarry”.[3]

6 In the early 1950s, the NC commissioned the pioneering ecologist Fraser Darling to carry out a census of the open hill red deer to provide basic information on the numbers of deer and sex ratios of populations. The approach of open hill counting used then was subsequently adopted by the Red Deer Commission (RDC) when it was established in 1959, and SNH continues to undertake an annual open hill counting programme.

7 In 1957, the NC bought the island of Rum to manage it as a NNR for longer term ecological studies. By 1958, scientific research had started on the population of red deer on the island and that research is still ongoing at the current time. As a result, the research into the red deer on Rum “has become one of the longest and most complete scientific studies of a wild population of vertebrates in the world”.[4] The research on Rum, together with the associated research that was done in Glen Feshie in the Eastern Highlands in the early decades, has been the foundation of current understanding of the biology, population dynamics and ecology of open hill red deer in the Highlands.

8 When the Deer (Scotland) Act 1959 established the RDC with the 12 Commissioners appointed from the nominees of different sectoral interests, the NC and Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) were each responsible for nominating one Commissioner. This continued until the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996, during which time the legislation contained no powers to protect the natural environment from damage by deer. The role of the NC and NERC nominees was, however, to help make sure that the RDC’s work was based on a scientific approach.

9 The NC had both advisory and research staff. However, these functions were split in 1973, when the advisory side became the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) and the research side became part of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (ITE).[5] At that juncture, and drawing on the NC’s research into red deer over the previous 20 years, a major review was published of research relevant to the management of red deer in Scotland.[6]

10 By the mid 1970s, concern over the damage being caused to the environment in the Highlands by red deer was an increasingly prominent issue. There was particular concern over high densities of red deer preventing the natural regeneration of Scotland’s surviving native Caledonia Pinewoods and other remnant native woods.[7] By the 1990s, after over three decades in which the population of red deer in the Highlands had continued to increase, the concerns over their impact on the environment had increased further.

11 SNH replaced the NCC in Scotland as the government’s nature conservation body in 1991.[8] In 1994, SNH published a major report on ‘Red Deer and the Natural Heritage’. The report reviewed the scientific knowledge and other information available on red deer in Scotland and concluded that “There is an urgent need for a fresh appraisal of the way in which we manage our red deer to ensure that both deer and those elements of the natural heritage on which they depend are sustained in a balanced and healthy state”.[9] The report highlighted, amongst other points, the need for the restoration of native woodlands through lower deer densities.

12 The wider environmental concerns by the 1990s were also reflected by the European Council’s Habitats Directive in 1992. This included the designation of sites as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) because of their importance for nature conservation under the Directive’s criteria.[10] The European Council’s Birds Directive had previously introduced Special Protection Areas (SPAs).[11] Following the Habitat Directive, SACs and SPAs were identified as Natura 2000 sites.

13 Natura sites were given strict protection under European Union law, and those requirements were transposed into Scots law by the Conservation (Natural Habitats Etc.) Regulations 1994. This included the requirement to maintain the sites in a favourable condition. While SACs and SPAs were additional to the existing system of SSSIs, most are co-designated as SSSIs.[12] The size of areas covered by these designations tend to be more extensive in the Highlands and Islands than in the rest of Scotland.

14 The requirement to be able to protect designated nature conservation sites from damage by deer and the lack of progress since 1959 in reducing the damage by red deer to the natural heritage more generally, provided impetus to amend the Deer (Scotland) Act 1959 to include powers to be able to protect the natural heritage from damage by deer.

16.2 1996-Present

16.2.1 Deer (Scotland) Act 1996

15 One of the basic tenets of wildlife and game management which had been recognised throughout the period of the 1959 Act, is that the species involved should be managed within the capacity of its range to sustain its population without damage to that habitat.[13]

16 The fact that powers to protect the natural heritage from damage by deer were only added to Scotland’s deer legislation less than 25 years ago, can be considered a reflection of the influences constraining the regulation of deer management in Scotland. These constraints included the difficulty of securing time at Westminster for Scottish deer legislation and the influence of the House of Lords on any legislation brought forward.

17 During the passage through Westminster of the Deer (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill that led to the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996, the House of Lords had a particular influence on amending the powers to be introduced to protect the natural heritage. The Government had to bring forward amendments to its original proposals to satisfy the concerns of members of the House of Lords with deer stalking interests in Scotland.[14]

18 The result of the amendments in the Lords was that the powers in the 1996 Act to protect the natural heritage were particularly constrained compared to other interests. This remains the case and is considered in detail later in Sections 23 and 24 of this Report, dealing with ss.10 and 11 (Emergency Measures) and ss.7 and 8 (Control Agreements and Control Schemes) of the 1996 Act. The Group has also recommended in Section 6 that the scope to protect natural heritage interests by night shooting should be added to s.18(2) and also added to the rights of occupiers under s.26.

19 The Group considers that revising the powers in the 1996 Act to protect the natural heritage is an essential requirement to enable the effective protection of natural heritage interests in Scotland from damage by deer. While the debate has traditionally been dominated by concern about the impacts of open hill red deer in the Highlands, all four species of wild deer have the ability to cause damage to the natural heritage across Scotland.

16.2.2 Designated Sites

20 The 1996 Act replaced the RDC with the Deer Commission for Scotland (DCS). In 2002/03, the DCS adopted a priority site policy to focus its limited resources on tackling the most pressing cases of damage caused by deer.[15] As described earlier in Section 13, that policy soon became focused on designated sites where deer were causing damage.

21 SNH started monitoring the condition of these designated sites in 1999 using its system of Site Condition Monitoring. The DCS’s focus on these sites reflected the legal requirement on the Scottish Government and its agencies to protect them and ensure their special features are managed in a favourable condition.

22 The shift in the DCS’s focus to designated sites was reflected in its use of voluntary control agreements under s.7 of the 1996 Act. As described later in Section 24, while the DCS’s use of these agreements had initially involved the protection of agricultural and forestry interests, this changed so that the use of the agreements was very largely to try to protect natural heritage interests. Since 2010, when SNH replaced the DCS in the 1996 Act, SNH has continued the focus on designated sites.

23 Under its natural heritage responsibilities, SNH has continued its Site Condition Monitoring of designated sites from 1999 to the present, although SNH is currently considering whether the monitoring could be carried out by a more economic method.[16] SNH provided an analysis of the results of its Site Condition Monitoring and the influence of deer in its 2016 report to the Scottish Government on deer management.[17]

24 The designated sites, or protected areas as they are also known, include SSSIs, SACs, SPAs and sites designated under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.[18] On 1,866 protected areas in Scotland, SNH has monitored 5,355 natural features of which 1,606 are potentially affected by herbivores.[19] The nature of these 1,606 features is mainly upland (46%) and woodland (30%), with the proportion of them in favourable condition or unfavourable recovering condition is, at 75%, lower than for the full number of features at 81%.[20] SNH concluded that “Herbivores (deer, sheep, rabbits and hares) continue to be a major driver of unfavourable condition of natural features”.[21]

25 SNH’s analysis also showed that the proportion of the 1,606 features in unfavourable condition was higher in areas covered by the Deer Management Groups in the Highlands and by Lowland Deer Groups, with the proportion in favourable condition 10-12% lower than the rest of Scotland. The analysis also shows that the proportion of features in favourable condition in protected areas covered by s.7 Control Agreements under the 1996 Act, was 7% lower than areas not covered by s.7 Agreements.

26 SNH’s explanation of the worse position in areas covered by s.7 Control Agreements, was that it “is likely, at least in part, to reflect that Section 7 Agreements are entered into in areas where there is a higher level of concern over features in unfavourable condition”.[22] However, the Group notes that at the time of SNH’s report, SNH had not established any new s.7 Agreement areas since it took over from the DCS six years before. The relatively limited success of s.7 Agreements in achieving the intended results and their limitations as an effective measure are discussed in Section 24 of this Report.

27 Over 20 years after powers to protect the natural heritage were added to Scotland’s deer legislation and over 15 years since the DCS adopted its priority site policy, deer are still causing significant levels of damage to protected areas designated for their natural heritage value, despite the degree of focus on these areas by the DCS and then SNH.

28 In considering the damage caused by deer to Scotland’s natural heritage, these protected areas are sites where the natural heritage features are of national and international importance and where there is a legal requirement on SNH and the Scottish Government to ensure they are in favourable condition. The responses of SNH and the Scottish Government to the current situation are discussed in Part 5 of this Report.

16.2.3 National Parks

29 Scotland’s two National Parks were established because of the special environmental qualities of the areas they cover. The legislation to enable national parks in Scotland, the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000, was amongst the first Acts of the Scottish Parliament. The Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park (LLTNP) was then established in 2002 and the Cairngorms National Park (CNP) in 2003. Each Park has a Park Authority (the LLTNPA and CNPA respectively) managed by a Park Board.

30 The LLTNP covers 1,865 square kilometres, while the CNP is more than twice that size at 4,528 square kilometres and covers around 6% of Scotland’s land area. Both Parks include designated nature conservation sites, particularly the CNP which has extensive designated areas covering a range of different types of interests. There is a clear expectation that standards of land management should be higher in National Parks than in the wider countryside because of their special status.[23]

31 Both Park Authorities recognise that adequate deer control is integral to achieving the outcomes in their current National Park Partnership Plans.[24] In the Park areas, SNH continues to be the public body responsible for deer management and the Park Authorities have no direct responsibilities or role in deer management. However, the Authorities aim to improve deer management by providing extra support to the voluntary Deer Management Groups (DMGs) of land owners and occupiers within the National Parks.[25]

32 The Park Authorities’ support to DMGs is part of the wider support services to land managers provided by the Authorities and which, under European state aid regulations, can include education, training and consultancy to provide technical support to land managers to deliver the statutory aims of the National Parks.[26] The Authorities’ support for deer management may include, for example, advice on habitat impact assessments and the production of Deer Management Plans.

33 In 2018, the CNPA published a Forest Strategy for the CNP to cover the next two decades, while the LLTNPA has recently consulted on a Trees and Woodland Strategy for the LLTNP.[27] Both documents set out the need to improve the environmental condition of existing woodlands and expand the extent of woodland in the Parks.[28] Both documents also highlight the need for reduced deer densities to achieve the Park’s woodland aims and, as part of that, a reduction in the need for deer fencing because of its environmental and financial costs.

34 The Cairngorms area covered by the CNP has long been a prominent part of the history of native woodlands and deer in Scotland. The Cairngorms were, for example, the core surviving area for both native woodlands and red and roe deer by the beginning of the 1700s. The area was subsequently influential during the 1800s in the development of ‘deer forests’ by Highland sporting estates with, for example, Prince Albert’s purchase of Balmoral Estate for Queen Victoria in 1852 and the painting at that time of Sir Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen with its association with Glen Feshie.

35 By the 1970s, the lack of natural regeneration since the 19th century in many of the surviving Caledonia Pinewoods in the Cairngorms due to high numbers of red deer, had become a prominent nature conservation issue.[29] The lack of progress in reducing deer numbers and regenerating the pinewoods was reflected in the purchase of estates by environmental charities, with the RSPB buying Abernethy Estate in 1988 and the National Trust for Scotland buying Mar Lodge Estate in 1995.

36 By the 1990s, the scale and significance of the wider extent of the native woodlands on Deeside and in Strathspey over and above the Caledonian Pinewoods, had been recognised.[30] The extensive, predominantly native forests in those areas were then an important factor in the work of the Government appointed Cairngorms Working Group and Cairngorms Partnership that preceded the establishment of the CNP and CNPA. This included the Cairngorms Forest and Woodland Framework published by the Cairngorms Partnership in 1999 and a precursor of the CNPA’s current Forest Strategy.

37 The CNP area currently has 16.4% woodland cover, compared to 18% for Scotland as a whole.[31] However, the area has the highest proportion of native woodlands of any equivalent sized area in Scotland, with over 75% of the tree cover consisting of Scots pine and birch.[32] The percentages of woodland cover and proportions of native species are also both significantly higher in the main Deeside and Strathspey forest areas.[33]

38 The CNP area also includes a major demonstration of the native woodland regeneration that can be achieved by reducing the densities of red and roe deer to five or less deer per square kilometre. This approach is being followed by a cluster of properties in Strathspey, involving a mix of private, public and charitable ownership and covering 90,000 hectares or one fifth of the CNP area.[34] Four of the land owners, Forestry and Land Scotland, SNH, RSPB and Wildland Ltd, have also formed a Cairngorms Connect project, the aims of which include establishing a native woodland connection with the National Trust for Scotland’s native woodland regeneration on its 29,000 hectare Mar Lodge Estate on Deeside.[35]

39 However, elsewhere in the CNP, there are still the highest densities of open hill red deer in Scotland.[36] In large parts of the Park, there are densities of 15-20 or more red deer per square kilometre.[37] The CNPA states in its Park Plan that “Where habitat enhancement is restricted by management objectives which seek to maintain higher red deer densities above 10 per km2, our aim is for the density to be reduced”.[38]

40 These densities tend to be calculated over large areas, such as a DMG area or SNH open hill counting block, which cover thousands and often tens of thousands of hectares. The deer are not spread evenly over these areas and tend to be concentrated in different parts of their range in summer and winter. Within those parts, the deer are then further concentrated in the more favourable areas, for example, for feeding and shelter. The impact of the deer on the vegetation therefore depends on the numbers of deer occupying a particular place and the amount of time they spend on that ground.

41 The current high densities of open hill red deer over large parts of the Park result in damaging impacts on the vegetation in many places, including designated sites and elsewhere.[39] The Group considers that the CNPA identifying a 10 red deer per square kilometre threshold is a welcome step. The threshold is qualified by “where habitat enhancement is restricted”. However, as the CNPA guidance paper that was part of deciding that threshold illustrates, most types of habitats will be restricted by densities of 10 deer per square kilometre or above.[40]

42 The Group considers that the CNPA should be setting the 10 red deer per square kilometre threshold across all the open hill red deer range in the National Park, when measured at the scale of DMG areas. The Group considers that the CNPA should also have SNH’s support in this aim, recognising the special environmental status of the Park.

43 Given that threshold, the Group considers the CNPA should then be prioritising the areas where the deer densities should be lower to improve habitats and their biodiversity. For example, ensuring that “deer densities are compatible with the need to allow woodland regeneration is a conservation priority” in the current CNP Forest Strategy.[41] That is generally recognised to require densities of five or less deer per square kilometre.[42]

44 Woodland regeneration requires attention to the densities of roe deer, as well as red. Roe deer numbers generally have increased markedly over recent decades and the CNPA acknowledges in its Park Plan that more attention needs to be paid to their management.[43] This is expressed in terms of more cooperation, for example, using dung counting techniques to calculate densities across estate boundaries. However, roe deer can have a particular impact on limiting the natural regeneration of native broadleaved trees. The Group considers that many properties could be taking higher roe deer culls in woodlands to limit both high densities and dispersal to other properties.

45 In the Park Plan, after mentioning roe deer, the CNPA states that “all deer species including red, roe, fallow, sika and reindeer continue to be monitored”. While the reindeer in the Cairngorms are not wild deer, the mention of fallow and sika deer populations is surprising. The CNP is very unusual in Scotland for an area of its size in still having no established populations of either of these two non-native deer species.[44]

46 The Group considers the fact that the wild deer in the CNP are all native red and roe deer to be an important aspect of the area’s natural heritage. The Group notes that the CNPA’s documents do not contain a policy against the establishment of non-native deer populations in the CNP area, although the Group’s understanding from the CNPA is that that is the Authority’s policy.[45] The Group considers that the CNPA should make this policy explicit in relevant documents, communicate this policy to land managers in the CNP and secure SNH’s support in implementing the policy if the need arises.

47 The Working Group recommends that the Cairngorms National Park Authority and Scottish Natural Heritage should adopt and enforce a clear policy against the establishment of any populations of Scotland’s two non-native deer species, fallow and sika deer, in the Cairngorms National Park.

48 While the CNPA documents neglect non-native deer species, they do set out the public interest benefits that flow from the restoration of native woodlands and other habitats, when the densities of red and roe deer are reduced to appropriate densities. To that extent, the Group endorses the CNPA’s aim “to continue the current direction of travel in which deer numbers and consequent impacts are reduced, where deer welfare is improved and sport stalking in a high quality environment continues to make a valuable economic contribution to the National Park”.[46]

49 However, the Group is not convinced that the CNPA has been having much effect on improving deer management in the National Park. The cluster of properties on Strathspey and other examples that are reducing deer densities are doing so because of the owners’ objectives, while elsewhere red deer densities continue at high levels and there is a lack of attention to roe deer densities. This is despite the fact that, as the CNPA states, “There has been a longstanding policy ambition in the Cairngorms to manage deer at levels that protect and enhance habitats, from the Cairngorms Working Group (1992) through to current National Park policy”.[47]

50 The Group acknowledges that the CNPA’s land use advisers are engaged with the DMGs in the Park and that the CNPA has also taken a number of initiatives in relation to deer management, including the former Cairngorms Deer Advisory Group and the Deer Framework for the CNP that it produced.[48] The Group also recognises that the CNPA has no powers in relation to deer management, has limited resources and needs to maintain a pragmatic relationship with land owners in the Park area.

51 However, the Group considers that the CNPA has been giving relatively little attention to deer management, given the key importance of reducing deer densities to many of the CNPA’s environmental aims for the Park. The Group considers that the CNPA should have a clearer focus and deliver clearer messages on the topic. The Group also considers that the current climate change context, as discussed later in this Section, adds a further imperative for the CNPA to adopt a more direct approach over deer management and to increase its woodland and montane scrub expansion targets.

52 The Working Group recommends that the Cairngorms National Park Authority and Scottish Natural Heritage should have a much greater focus on the need to improve the management of wild deer in the Cairngorms National Park, to reduce deer densities in many parts of the Park to protect and enhance the Park’s biodiversity.

16.2.4 Wider Environment

53 Around 80% of Scotland’s land area is neither part of a site designated for natural conservation nor within a National Park. One or more species of wild deer occur throughout most of that environment in mainland Scotland and many of the islands. These deer naturally have an impact on their environment through grazing, browsing, fraying and trampling. At appropriately low densities, deer can make a positive contribution to the natural ecology of the habitat where they occur. However, at higher densities, they can cause damage to the natural heritage of which they are a part.[49]

54 There has been a wide range of research studies in Scotland over the years that have documented the damage that deer can cause to different types of habitats and species. Many of these are included in a recent review of the studies that there have been done into the impacts of deer on the natural heritage.[50] These demonstrate how damaging impacts by deer on the ground vegetation can affect the overall ecosystem, for example, by damage to the plant species resulting in a reduction in the insects that use them with a consequential effect on birds.[51]

55 Many studies have examined the damaging impacts of deer on native woodlands in Scotland, showing how this can result in woods being in poor ecological condition and unable to regenerate naturally. A major insight into the current adverse effects of deer on native woodlands at a national level was provided by the Native Woodland Survey of Scotland (NWSS).[52] This was carried out between 2006 and 2013 and covered 319,000 hectares of native woodland across Scotland, representing 23% of Scotland’s total woodland area and 4% of its land area.

56 The results of the NWSS showed that deer were a significant presence in 73% of the native woodland areas, while they may also have occurred in others. This is in comparison to sheep in 15% and rabbits/hares in 3.5% of native woodlands.[53] More than a third of native woodlands were in unsatisfactory condition due to high or very high herbivore impacts, with around half of these in the areas covered by upland DMGs and around half in the rest of Scotland.[54] In addition, “few native woodlands had sufficient established regeneration to sustain them in the long term”.[55]

57 While the damage that deer are causing to native woodlands across Scotland threatens the future of many of them, it is also having a more immediate impact on their biodiversity and habitat value. The clear indication from the densities of deer in other woodlands, is that deer are also having a major impact on the natural heritage in woodlands more generally.

58 Grazing by wild deer also has impacts on peatland habitats, where overgrazing and trampling occur at much lower densities of livestock and deer than for other habitats. While low levels of grazing can provide biodiversity benefits by preventing scrub invasion on some shallower peats, high levels of grazing are likely to affect bog species negatively. This is because the associated trampling causes damage by breaking up the moss layer and exposing bare peat.[56] Scotland’s National Peatland Plan recognises the importance of “achieving appropriate grazing levels by livestock and deer” to avoid trampling and overgrazing.[57]

59 Taking account of the points above and the other information available, the Group agrees with SNH’s conclusion that the “evidence demonstrates that deer do have a major impact on the natural heritage of Scotland” and illustrates that “there is a need for more action to address the negative impact deer are having within protected areas and the wider environment”.[58]

60 This situation is at odds with the Scottish Government’s environmental policies, such as the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy.[59] The position is also at odds with the core principle of healthy ecosystems in the Scottish Government’s deer management strategy, Wild Deer: A National Approach (WDNA).[60] SNH has stated that the high densities of red deer in many parts of the uplands are a barrier to healthy ecosystems. The evidence from the NWWS illustrates how deer densities more generally are a barrier to achieving that aim.

61 Ecosystem health is now central to the Scottish Government’s land use policies and seen as key to delivering the Government’s long term goals.[61] This includes the ecosystem services that functioning ecosystems provide to human well-being. While there can be some variation in how these services are named, they are generally recognised as consisting of four types: regulating services (e.g. carbon capture), supporting services (e.g. genetic biodiversity), provisioning services (e.g. raw materials) and cultural services (e.g. recreation opportunities).[62]

62 Healthy ecosystems with their regulating and supporting services are a key part of the Scottish Government’s response to climate change. Functioning native woodland ecosystems exemplify the range of benefits those types of services can provide and the Scottish Government highlights in the WDNA that the damage by deer to native woodlands is impacting on its climate change measures. These woodlands and woodlands more generally capture and store carbon through the trees, other vegetation and the wildlife they support, while they can also provide other environmental benefits such as helping to protect against extreme weather (e.g. reduced flooding risk).

63 Improving the condition of existing woodlands and expanding the area of woodlands are both important climate change mitigation measures because of the regulatory and supporting services they provide. The need to reduce deer densities as a requirement of those measures, is not necessarily in competition with the other two types of ecosystem services, provisioning and cultural services.

64 In 2016, after reviewing the social and economic benefits of deer, SNH concluded that “Available information suggests that if deer densities were lower across much of Scotland the benefits from deer could be largely maintained, and many of the costs (such as deer collisions and impacts on forestry productivity) reduced leading to overall enhanced delivery of public benefits”.[63]

65 Those costs also include the damage currently caused by deer to the natural environment through grazing and browsing. While there was already a need to reduce the levels of damage by deer as part of the Scottish Government’s climate change mitigation measures, that need has been given important extra impetus by the First Minister’s declaration in April 2019 that there is a climate emergency and by the Scottish Government’s subsequent statement on the topic to the Scottish Parliament.[64] The implications for the management of wild deer of the increasing importance of climate change mitigation measures are discussed further in Part Six.

66 In addition to the deer damage by grazing and browsing, another indirect cause of damage to the natural environment is the use of muirburn as part of deer management. Muirburn in Scotland is regulated by the Hill Farming Act 1946 and for some decades there has been a Muirburn Code providing non-statutory guidance on the standards of muirburn expected by the Government in Scotland. The recently revised version of the Code includes for the first time, in contrast to previous versions, references to muirburn for deer with the clear implication that it is a legitimate activity under the Code.[65]

67 The Code identifies the possible benefits of burning heather or grass for deer as being to provide “greater short-term grazing capacity” and to “attract deer to specific areas”.[66] This practice of burning off the existing vegetation to produce a fresh flush of growth is used for open hill red deer in some situations. The fires typically involve significantly larger areas in comparison to muirburn for grouse, where a mosaic of small areas is recommended to support higher densities of grouse. Where the purpose is deer grazing, small areas are liable to be subject to heavy grazing that can damage the re-growth.

68 There is no information available on the extent of muirburn for red deer, which tends to occur to the north and west of the main grouse moor management areas in the Eastern and Central Highlands. As muirburn is done for sheep as well as deer, the purpose in some situations may be unclear to an observer. However, the removal of sheep from many of the areas in the Highlands where muirburn for red deer has traditionally occurred, now makes muirburn for deer conspicuous in those areas. The larger fires used for deer management burn hotter than smaller fires for grouse. They also tend to burn longer and with greater severity as they are typically less closely managed than muirburn for grouse.

69 The wide ranging environmental impacts of muirburn have been the subject of many research studies and will likely be considered in the report of the Grouse Moor Management Group.[67] However, in the context of deer management, the research is clear that the larger the size, severity and duration of the fire, the greater its impact on the soil structure and above ground biodiversity.[68] This is also reflected in the Muirburn Code, which warns against large fires as they “burn indiscriminately, including areas that are suitable for burning and those that are not”.[69] In addition, there are the wider environmental effects of muirburn (e.g. particle emissions, increased water run-off).[70]

70 The Group does not consider that muirburn for deer is still particularly widespread. However, the Group considers there is no public interest justification for continuing to allow a general right of land owners and occupiers to carry out muirburn for deer. The environmental costs of these fires in upland environments is at odds with the Scottish Government’s healthy ecosystem approach and its measures to mitigate climate change.

71 The Scottish Parliament amended the Hill Farm Act 1946 to make climate change one of the reasons for which the permitted seasons for muirburn could be varied. The Group considers that the Scottish Government should now, firstly, remove references to deer from the Muirburn Code and, secondly, make it an offence under the 1946 Act to carry out muirburn for the purpose of deer management without a licence from SNH.[71] SNH is already responsible for licensing any out of season muirburn and the scope to licence muirburn for deer would retain that option if needed for a wider environmental purpose in some instance.

72 The Group also considers that the current use of public funds to support muirburn for deer should be ended. ‘Muirburn and Heather Cutting’ is included in the Rural Payments and Services Agri-Environment Climate Scheme, under ‘Management options and capital payments’.[72] On moorland, this item must be combined with the Moorland Management option if deer or livestock are present. The muirburn under the scheme needs to be carefully managed to receive the rate of payment per hectare. However, the Group considers, as argued above, that there is not a public interest case for muirburn for deer.

73 The Working Group recommends that the Scottish Government should remove the current references to deer from the Muirburn Code and end financial support for muirburn for wild deer through its Rural Payments and Services Agri-Environment Climate Scheme.

74 The Working Group recommends that the Hill Farm Act 1946 should be amended to make it an offence to carry out muirburn for wild deer without a licence from Scottish Natural Heritage.

75 Another factor that needs to be considered in the relationship between wild deer and climate change mitigation measures is their role as ruminants. Deer and other ruminants emit methane, which has a significantly higher global warming potential than carbon dioxide.[73] However, methane is relatively short lived in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide which lasts for centuries. As a result, with methane from ruminants, change over time in the numbers of ruminants is the key variable. More ruminants produce more warming, while reducing the number of ruminants has a cooling effect over a given period of time.[74]

76 There has been a very substantial increase in the numbers of wild deer in Scotland in Scotland over the last 50 years and the overall population appears to be approaching one million.[75] That compares with the 1.8 million cattle and 6.6 million sheep in Scotland in 2018.[76] While attention has focused on methane production by livestock, the numbers of deer also make them a component to consider. Achieving the reduced deer densities in Scotland needed to protect public interests and respond to climate change would itself be a direct climate mitigation measure by reducing the methane produced by deer to a lower level.

77 The Group considers that the need to respond to climate change should give an important new impetus to reduce the damage to Scotland’s natural environment by deer. While the Scottish Government’s 2016 Climate Change Plan did not include reference to deer, the Plan is currently due to be revised following the Government’s declaration of a climate emergency. The Group considers, as discussed in the later Parts of this Report, that reducing the current high densities of deer in Scotland should be an important part of climate change mitigation measures.

78 SNH concluded in its 2016 report on deer management to the Scottish Government, that “The scale of action needed to address deer impacts on the natural environment across Scotland, and thereby ensure its enhancement, is large”.[77] The Group considers that challenge is not as large as the important challenge of trying to mitigate climate change.

79 SNH has legislative responsibilities both for protecting that natural environment from damage under the natural heritage legislation and for regulating the management of wild deer to prevent damage to the natural heritage. At the end of its 2016 report as the deer authority, SNH raises significant issues over current funding and the existing statutory framework for deer management, concluding that “it is unlikely that the present approach to deer management will be able to make a significant contribution to addressing the specific challenges, such as habitat restoration and improved ecological connectivity ...which underpins the Government’s ambitions for the natural heritage”.[78]

80 The adequacy of Scotland’s current arrangements for the management of wild deer and the implications of a climate emergency for that management, are discussed further in Parts Five and Six of this Report.


1 Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 s.45(1).

2 The Nature Conservancy was established by Royal Charter to act as a government department.

3 McVean, D. and Lockie, J. (1969). Ecology and Land Use in Upland Scotland. Edinburgh University Press, p.67.

4 Isle of Rum Red Deer Project website, 2019. A summary of the Isle of Rum research can be found in: Pemberton, J.M. and Kruuk, L.E.B. (2015), Red deer research on the Isle of Rum NNR: management implications. SNH/University of Edinburgh.

5 Nature Conservancy Council Act 1973.

6 Mitchell, B., Staines, B. and Welch, D. (1997). Ecology of Red Deer - A research review relevant to their management in Scotland. Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, Cambridge.

7 For example, Bunce, R. and Jeffers, J. (1977), Native Pinewoods of Scotland. Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, Cambridge.

8 Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991. SNH was formed from the merger of NCC Scotland and the Countryside Commission for Scotland.

9 SNH (1994). Red deer and the natural heritage, p.1.

10 Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC).

11 Birds Directive (79/409/EEC)

12 ‘Natura Sites’. SNH website.

13 For example, McVean and Lockie (1969) Op cit.

14 See Section 1.

15 DCS Annual Report, 2002/03.

16 SNH correspondence with DWG, 25 April 2019.

17 SNH (2016). Deer Management in Scotland: Report to the Scottish Government from SNH, October 2016.

18 According to the SNH website, there are: 1,423 SSSIs, 241 SACs, 153 SPAs and 51 Ramsar sites.

19 SNH (2016) Op cit.

20 SNH (2016) Op cit, pp. 32-33.

21 SNH (2016) Op cit, p.31.

22 SNH (2016) Op cit, p.37.

23 DWG meeting with CNPA 6 June 2019.

24 LLTNP Partnership Plan 2018-23; CNP Partnership Plan 2017-22.

25 DMGs are considered in Section 26.

26 European Commission Regulation 702/2014.

27 Cairngorms National Park Forest Strategy, 2018; LLTNP Trees and Woodland Strategy consultation 2019.

28 The CNPA aims for 5,000 ha of new woodland by 2023, while the LLTNPA aims for 2,000 ha of new woodland by 2023.

29 Bunce and Jeffers (1997) Op cit.

30 For example, Callander, R. and MacKenzie, N. (1994), The Native Woodlands of Highland Deeside, SNH; and Dunlop, B. (1994), The Native Woodlands of Strathspey, SNH.

31 Cairngorms National Park Forest Strategy, 2018.

32 Cairngorms National Park Forest Strategy, 2018.

33 Bunce and Jeffers (1997) Op cit.

34 Hetherington, D. (2018). Conservation of Mountain Woodland in the Cairngorms National Park. British Wildlife, 29 (6), pp. 393-400.

35 Hetherington (2018) Op cit.

36 DWG correspondence with SNH 29 May 2019.

37 See, for example: CNP Partnership Plan 2017-22, Issue 2 ‘Guidance on Deer Densities’; Albon, S.D. et al. (2017), Estimating national trends and regional differences in red deer density on open-hill ground in Scotland, SNH Commissioned Report No. 981; and Hetherington (2018) Op cit.

38 CNP Partnership Plan 2017-22, p.31.

39 A prominent example is the Caenlochan SAC – see Section 24.

40 CNP Partnership Plan Issue 2 Guidance on Deer Densities, 2016.

41 CNP Forest Strategy 2018, p.25.

42 For example: SNH (1994) Op cit; CNP Partnership Plan 2017-22, Issue 2 ‘Guidance on Deer Densities’.

43 CNP Partnership Plan 2017-22, p.31.

44 DWG meeting with CNPA, 6 June 2019. In addition, a study of red deer in part of the Park that could be affected by sika deer, has also shown no genetic introgression by sika – Smith, S., Senn, H., Pérez-Espona, S., Wyman, M., Heap, E. and Pemberton, J. (2018). Introgression of exotic Cervus (nippon and canadensis) into red deer (Cervus elaphus) populations in Scotland and the English Lake District. Ecology and Evolution, 8(4), pp.2122-2134.

45 DWG meeting with CNPA, 6 June 2019.

46 CNP Partnership Plan 2017-22, p.30.

47 CNP Partnership Plan 2017-22, p.30.

48 CNPA/Cairngorms Deer Advisory Group (2011). Deer Framework for the Cairngorms National Park.

49 See, for example, the collection of articles in the Special Issue of Forestry, Volume 74, Issue 3 (2001).

50 Holland, J., McMorran, R., Morgan-Davies, C., Bryce, R., Glass, J., Pollock, M., McCracken, D., Glass, R., Woolvin, A. and Thomson, S. (2017). Meeting the challenge of wild deer research to support delivery of sustainable deer management in Scotland. Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 963.

51 Holland et al. (2017) Op cit.

52 Forestry Commission Scotland (2014). Scotland’s Native Woodlands: Results from the Native Woodland Survey of Scotland.

53 FCS Information Response to DWG, March 2019.

54 SNH (2016) Op cit.

55 SNH (2016) Op cit, p.41.

56 Marsden, K. and Ebmeier, S. (2012). Peatlands and Climate Change. SPICe Briefing 12/28.

57 SNH (2015). Scotland’s National Peatland Plan: Working for our Future, p. 19.

58 Written submission from SNH to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment (RACCE) Committee, 34th Meeting, Session 4, 20 November 2013, p.9.

59 The Scottish Biodiversity Strategy includes the original strategy (‘Scotland’s Biodiversity: It’s in Your Hands, 2004) and the ‘2020 Challenge for Scotland’s Biodiversity’.

60 SNH (2014). Scotland’s Wild Deer: A National Approach (WDNA), Including 2015-2020 Priorities.

61 SNH (2014) Op cit.

62 Bonn, A., Allott, T., Hubacek, K. and Stewart, J. (2009). Introduction: Drivers of change in upland environments: concepts, threats and opportunities. In: Bonn, A., Allott, T., Hubacek, K. and Stewart, J. (eds.), Drivers of Environmental Change in Uplands. Routledge, London, pp. 1-10.

63 SNH (2016) Op cit, p.96.

64 First Minister’s Climate Emergency Statement 28 April 2019; ‘The Global Climate Emergency - Scotland’s Response’ Statement by Climate Change Secretary Roseanna Cunningham to the Scottish Parliament on 14 May 2019

65 SNH (2017). The Muirburn Code: Management of moorland by burning and cutting. SNH/Scottish Government, produced by Scotland’s Moorland Forum.

66 SNH (2017) Op cit, p.18.

67 The Grouse Moor Management Group was established by Scottish Government in November 2017 to examine the environmental impact of grouse moor management practices. The Group is due to report in late 2019.

68 Brooker, R., Hester, A., Newey, A. and Pakeman, R. (2018). Socio-economic and biodiversity impacts of driven grouse moors in Scotland: Part 2 Biodiversity impacts of driven grouse moors in Scotland. Report to Scottish Government.

69 SNH (2017) Op cit, p.17.

70 Brown, L.E., Holden, J. and Palmer, S.M. (2014). Effects of moorland burning on the ecohydrology of river basins. Key findings from the EMBER project. University of Leeds.

71 The Group recognises that it may not be possible to distinguish muirburn for deer in some situations where sheep use the same area. However, implementation of the measure could, for example, use satellite images and agricultural information on the distribution of hill sheep to identify potential instances of muirburn for deer.

72 Scottish Government Rural Payments and Services, ‘Muirburn and Heather Cutting’, last published 15 December 2017.

73 Pérez-Barbería, F.J. (2017). Scaling methane emissions in ruminants and global estimates in wild populations. Science of the Total Environment, 579, pp. 1572-1580.

74 Allen, M.R., Shine, K.P., Fuglestvedt, J.S., Millar, R.J., Cain, M., Frame, D.J. and Macey, A.H. (2018). A solution to the misrepresentations of CO2-equivalent emissions of short-lived climate pollutants under ambitious mitigation. Climate and Atmospheric Science, 1, Article 16.

75 See Section 2.

76 Scottish Government Agricultural Statistics, June Agricultural Census 2018.

77 SNH (2016) Op cit, p.97.

78 SNH (2016) Op cit, p.97.



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