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

The final report of the Deer Working Group.

Section 18 Deer Welfare

1 The standards of deer welfare that should apply to deer management in all circumstances, including those related to factors such as how and when deer can be killed, were considered in Part Two. This Section considers the issues that can arise over deer welfare in particular circumstances.

18.1 Legislative Background

2 A concern for the welfare of wild mammals, including deer, has resulted in a number of Acts of Parliament intended to prevent them experiencing unnecessary suffering by making various deliberate or reckless actions illegal. These Acts currently include the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981,[1] the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996[2] and the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002[3].

3 Scotland’s deer legislation since 1959 has also included measures to prevent unnecessary suffering by wild deer and these measures have developed over the years. As discussed in Part Two, these measures initially included setting basic standards for how and when deer could be killed, for example, requiring the use of a firearm for killing deer and having close seasons for female deer. They also included the provisions now in s.25 of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 Act, providing exemptions to various provisions in the Act to enable a person to prevent suffering by a deer in specified circumstances.

4 These ‘welfare measures’ in the Deer (Scotland) Act 1959 only covered red deer until the Deer (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 1982 expanded the scope of the legislation to include sika, fallow and roe deer. The word ‘welfare’ did not, however, appear in the legislation until the 1996 Act, which included the word in ss.1 and 3 of the Act.

5 In the 1996 Act, s.1, which deals with the Deer Commission for Scotland (DCS)/Scottish Natural Heritage’s (SNH) functions under the Act, includes “and keep under review all matters, including their welfare, relating to deer”. Section 3 deals with enabling powers to facilitate the exercising of the DCS/SNH’s functions, with s.3(1) listing these powers such as giving advice and conducting research. Section 3(2) then “for the avoidance of doubt”, makes clear the enabling powers in s.3(1) can be used “in relation to the general welfare of deer”.

6 Deer welfare was subsequently given more prominence in the 1996 Act through amendments by the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 (‘the WANE(S) Act’). These amendments included, firstly, the addition of ss.17A and 17B. These introduced the scope to establish a register of persons competent to shoot deer under s.17A, and the requirement under s.17B for SNH to review the competence of those who shoot deer, if the register had not been established through secondary legislation by 1st April 2014. As part of the review, SNH was specifically required to consider the effects of levels of competence on deer welfare, as discussed earlier in Section 8 of this Report when considering the review produced by SNH.

7 Secondly, despite the references to deer welfare in the 1996 Act since it was passed, there was no scope for the DCS/SNH to use its regulatory powers to protect deer welfare until 2011. The WANE(S) Act 2011 added deer welfare to the interests covered by those powers. The 2011 Act added damage to deer welfare to the interests covered in s.7 Control Agreements, where “deer or steps taken or not taken for the purposes of deer management have caused, are causing or are likely to cause” damage.

8 The WANE(S) Act also amended s.10 Emergency Measures of the 1996 Act to include circumstances where deer “are causing damage to their own welfare or the welfare of other deer”. Subsequently, when the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 amended the 1996 Act to include the additional regulatory power s.6A Deer Management Plans, damage to deer welfare was included in that new section in the same terms as in s.7.

18.2 Interpretation of Welfare

9 The development of the position of deer welfare in Scotland’s deer legislation to become one of the interests covered by the regulatory powers in the 1996 Act, can be considered to reflect the evolution in how deer welfare is perceived more generally. Previously, deer welfare was considered simply in terms of reducing unnecessary suffering by a deer at the time of its death, with attention focused on wounding, injury and the orphaning of dependent juveniles.[4] Now, deer welfare is seen in more holistic terms as encompassing a deer’s “physical and mental well-being”.[5]

10 Wider concepts of deer welfare and the welfare of other wildlife species have been based on the long established ‘five freedoms’ developed in the 1960s for farm livestock.[6] They are: freedom from hunger, thirst or inadequate food; freedom from thermal and physical discomfort; freedom from injuries and diseases; freedom from fear and chronic stress; and the ability to display normal species-specific behaviour patterns.[7]

11 These freedoms are reflected in the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006. The Act places a duty of care on people responsible for ‘protected animals’ to ensure that the welfare needs of their animals are met, with ‘protected animals’ being animals “under the control of man on a permanent or temporary basis” and “not living in a wild state”.[8] The four welfare needs of an animal identified in the Act are: its need for a suitable environment; its need for a suitable diet; its need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns; and its need to be protected from suffering, injury and disease.[9] Suffering is stated to include “physical or mental suffering”.[10]

12 The application of welfare considerations to wild animals, while developed from the ‘five freedoms’ and the animal needs identified in the 2006 Act, places particular emphasis on the scope of wild animals to respond through adaptive behaviour to adverse welfare challenges.[11] The welfare of the animals is seen as a spectrum with the animals’ behaviour seeking to improve their own welfare status within the limits of their adaptive capacity.

SNH therefore considers the welfare of individual and groups of wild deer in terms of their freedom to react adequately to: “hunger, thirst or incorrect food; thermal and physical discomfort; injuries or disease; fear and chronic stress”.[12]

13 In contrast to the legal duties on the owners of animals under the 2006 Act, an owner of land has no legal responsibility for the welfare of the wild deer that may occur on the land. However, adult deer in Scotland have no natural predators and their numbers are regulated by the culls carried out using the hunting rights held by land owners.

14 An owner’s land management activities can also have direct impacts on the welfare of deer. This might be an adverse impact, for example, fencing off land which deer use regularly for feeding or shelter; or a positive impact, for example, opening up woodland for open hill red deer to use as shelter. SNH considers that the more that land management activities influence the welfare of deer, the greater the degree of responsibility that the land owner has for the state of the deer’s welfare.[13]

15 The distinction is clear-cut in the legislation between captive deer, which are covered by the 2006 Act, and wild deer, where a land owner has no legal responsibility for the welfare of deer on their land. However, the boundary between these situations can be less clear in practice. As the Group has commented in Section 12, there are some situations where ‘wild deer’ kept in deer parks and other enclosed areas might be more appropriately considered to be covered by the 2006 Act due to the level of management intervention and the restricted freedom of the deer. The relative nature of that boundary reinforces the view that there is a spectrum where “with increasing intervention (fencing, culling, feeding, etc) comes increasing responsibility for the welfare of wild deer populations”.[14]

16 The practice of providing supplementary feed to open hill red deer stags during winter is recognised as an intervention that increases a land owner’s responsibility for the welfare of the deer.[15] The practice has a long history in the Highlands and still continues, although there is no information on how common it is. The regular supplementary feeding of stags is different from other uses that might be made of food, for example, as a short term diversionary tactic to draw deer away from a site where they are causing damage.

17 Land owners provide supplementary winter feeding to red deer for a variety of reasons, for example, to improve body condition and antler size and to increase survival over winter. A research review found, however, that there was more or less no evidence to indicate that supplementary feeding was effective in achieving the reasons for which it is carried out.[16]

18 In contrast to the lack of evidence to justify supplementary feeding for red deer, there is evidence that the practice can lead to a number of deer welfare issues. These include, for example, the development of high parasite burdens and an increased risk of disease transmission, as well as a loss of condition amongst deer attracted to the feeding but excluded from feeding by dominant stags.[17] SNH, like the DCS before it, does not support the practice.[18]

19 While there is no obligation in the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 for land owners to have due regard to deer welfare, the welfare of deer is a prominent component of the Act. There appears to be no other type of wild mammal in the UK that has the same level of attention paid to their welfare in statutory provisions. These provisions include the reference to deer welfare in s.1 of the Act and the inclusion of deer welfare in the regulatory powers as described above.

20 These provisions in the 1996 Act go beyond SNH simply promoting standards of deer welfare and providing advice and training on them. The Group considers that these provisions place a duty or obligation on SNH to proactively safeguard deer welfare in the exercise of all its powers under the Act and to take action in the event of deer welfare being damaged or potentially damaged.

21 The Group considers that concern for the welfare of deer has been focused for too long on simply reducing acute suffering by a deer, and that the incorporation into deer management of the fuller interpretation of deer welfare outlined above is overdue. The Group supports the work to date by SNH of this, but considers that there is a need for clearer progress on the development and application of appropriate contemporary measures of deer welfare. The Group considers that these measures should make deer welfare a far more important factor in determining standards of deer management in Scotland than is currently the case.

22 The Working Group recommends that the Scottish Government should ensure that a fuller contemporary interpretation of the welfare of wild deer becomes a more important factor in determining standards of deer management in Scotland than is currently the case.

18.3 Assessing Welfare

23 A basic requirement for assessing deer welfare in terms of the 1996 Act, is to establish the biological parameters by which the welfare of deer will be judged. These parameters need to cover both the physical condition of the deer and their behaviour, with a positive welfare status considered to be when deer are in a good physical condition and exhibiting patterns of behaviour considered normal for the species. While the concept of ‘welfare’ is considered to apply at the level of individual deer, reference can also be made to the welfare of a herd or local population when the individual deer involved share the same welfare condition.[19]

24 In 2016, SNH published a report by Professor Green which reviewed the factors related to the welfare of deer in Scotland and identified nine practical indicators that can be used to assess the status of their welfare.[20] These indicators are listed in Figure 39. The last two in the list are based on examining the carcasses of dead deer, while the rest can be assessed in the field. Some of these field indicators may be assessed from a single observation and some may depend on observations over the course of a week or more.

25 The first indicator in the list, pelvic body condition score, is based on the system for assessing ‘body condition’ that has long been used with farmed livestock. In the SNH report, Green reviews its applicability to wild deer in Scotland and concludes that it can be a helpful indicator for visually assessing the welfare of wild deer. He identifies a score of two or less out of five as indicating a negative welfare state, with the deer likely to be conspicuously malnourished.

Figure 39 Indicators of deer welfare in wild deer

1 Pelvic body condition score of yearlings
2 Normal mobility, freedom from debility, injury, disease
3 Mortality rate
4 Normal activity, evidence of lethargy, sluggishness
5 Toleration of close approach or handling
6 Social interaction
7 Foraging behaviour and appetite
8 Kidney and coronary groove fat deposits of yearlings
9 Bullet placement in carcases

Source: Green (2016)

26 Four of the other indicators relate to the behaviour of deer (nos. 4-7) and while these can be difficult to observe in the wild, the types of abnormal behaviour used as indicators are likely to be or become conspicuous. Similarly, a deer suffering chronic debility due to injury or disease (no.2) is likely to be conspicuous. The remaining indicator in the list, mortality rate (no.3), is discussed further in Section 18.4 below.

27 The list of indicators is based on identifying signs of adverse welfare in contrast to the perceived normal body condition and behaviour for a species. SNH is currently converting the indicators into Wild Deer Best Practice (WDBP) guidance to assist land managers to avoid or address the adverse welfare conditions covered. SNH considers that the lack of such guidance explains the fact that, while Deer Management Plans (DMPs) produced by Deer Management Groups (DMGs) recognise the need to consider deer welfare, “there is little prescriptive action identified beyond the limited scope of preventing unacceptable wounding”.[21]

28 The development of biological parameters for deer welfare and providing advice on such parameters is, however, only the first aspect of assessing deer welfare in terms of the 1996 Act. SNH’s responsibilities mean that it also has to monitor deer welfare in Scotland and make judgements on the significance to be attached to the occurrence of deer with a poor state of welfare due one cause or another.

29 In assessing the significance of poor welfare and whether to act to remedy a situation, SNH has to take into account current social values or public perceptions in Scotland of the importance to be attached to the welfare of deer. The prominence of welfare in the deer legislation is one indicator of the social importance attached to the welfare of deer. Key organisations involved in deer management, such as the British Deer Society (BDS) and the Association of Deer Management Groups (ADMG), place particular emphasis on deer welfare in the statements they make about their organisations.[22] The WDBP guidance also has “taking full account of deer welfare” as one of its three central aims (with public safety and food safety).[23]

30 More widely, people tend to enjoy seeing deer and to dislike evidence of deer suffering, while red deer were voted one of Scotland’s favourite animals in a survey organised by SNH and Visit Scotland in 2013.[24] Subsequent surveys have also shown that deer are the wildlife species that the public most associate with Scotland and the species (along with red squirrels) remains that which people in Scotland are most concerned about.[25]

31 The evidence indicates that public views on deer can be considered to place a relatively high value on their welfare. The Group considers that this value should be reflected in SNH’s approach to deer welfare, including winter mortality as discussed below. The Group also considers that SNH’s approach should be moving further beyond simply identifying indicators of poor welfare, to developing a fuller interpretation of deer welfare or well-being that is based on a wider consideration of their biological performance. This is discussed further in Section 18.5 below.

32 The Working Group recommends that Scottish Natural Heritage should be developing a fuller interpretation of the welfare of wild deer that is based on a wider consideration of their biological performance.

18.4 Winter Mortality

33 There is a long history in the Highlands of significant numbers of open hill red deer dying during the winters from a combination of exposure and starvation. This dates from the increase in the numbers of red deer on the open hill with the expansion of ‘deer forests’ in the 19th century.[26] There has also long been concern about the regular occurrence of this winter mortality. A hundred years ago, when commenting on the high numbers of red deer on the open hill, Professor Ritchie wrote that “there can be little doubt that in many areas the number exceeds what the ground could naturally bear. else can we account for the great mortality that occurs from natural causes every season?[27]

34 The high levels of winter mortality amongst open hill red deer was a continuing concern to the Red Deer Commission (RDC) and DCS, which regarded large scale die-offs as a failure of management. They both monitored levels of winter mortality on an ongoing basis and had a standing item in their Annual Reports on the topic until 1998. The only year for which an overall total appears to have been published was 1993, when a survey of 315 estates by the RDC recorded a minimum winter mortality of 7,545 red deer.[28]

35 The continuation of significant levels of winter mortality amongst open hill red deer resulted in the inclusion of a question on it in the annual cull return form from 2009/10. Figure 40 shows the reported annual winter mortality over the last nine years. The only source these totals are based on are the numbers reported in cull returns in response to the question about winter mortality.[29] The totals are therefore only a minimum.

36 There are some properties with open hill red deer range that do not make cull returns and, while some properties that do make returns may search for carcases to assess winter mortality, many do not. The totals in the table are therefore an under-estimate of the actual extent of winter mortality.

37 Previously, a breakdown by species of the winter mortality total each year has not been published. However, Figure 41 also provides the species composition for 2012/13-2017/18. The totals show that the large majority of the reported mortality consists of red deer, generally 75-90%. While winter mortality occurs amongst the other species, particularly roe deer, the numbers are at a substantially lower level than for open hill red deer.

38 While nearly all the red deer mortality is reported from areas in the Highlands covered by DMGs, the fallow mortality is very largely from outwith those areas. The red deer mortality is widely dispersed amongst the DMG areas and, while some areas have relatively low totals, a significant proportion of the areas have totals running into hundreds.[30]

Figure 40 Reported winter mortality of deer (2009/10-2017/18)
Year Reported mortality
2009/10 13,074
2010/11 4,395
2011/12 2,199
2012/13 1,946
2013/14 1,748
2014/15 4,929
2015/16 1,558
2016/17 1,224
2017/18 7,004

Source: SNH Reported Annual Deer Cull Data

Figure 41 Winter mortality of deer by species (2012/13-2017/18)
Year Red Roe Sika Fallow Total
2012/13 1,381 511 36 18 1,946
2013/14 1,346 358 26 18 1,748
2014/15 4,108 640 98 83 4,929
2015/16 1,186 325 34 13 1,558
2016/17 789 368 50 17 1,224
2017/18 6,225 502 251 26 7,004

Source: SNH Reported Annual Deer Cull Data

39 While the totals in Figures 40 and 41 are under-estimates, they indicate that there continue to be notable levels of winter die-off. Even excluding the higher total of more than 13,000 deer in 2009/10, the totals show that the average reported total for winter mortality during the last eight years has been just over 3,000 deer a year.

40 Red deer, like Scotland’s other species of wild deer, are naturally a woodland species and the physiology of red deer predisposes them “to severe metabolic pressures” when the cold, wet and wind of winter on the open hill are combined with reduced bodily reserves and limited availability of forage.[31]

41 The level of winter mortality amongst open hill red deer varies year to year and area to area, depending on the pattern of the weather and the numbers of deer relative to the shelter and forage available to the deer. However, each year, a significant number of open hill red deer die from a combination of exposure and starvation. In contrast, the SNH report by Green recorded in 2016 that winter die-off of red deer in woodland or forest populations had not been reported to the BDS during the previous twenty years.[32],[33]

42 The SNH report by Green also placed the scale of the winter die-off of open hill red deer each year at the top of its list of challenges to standards of deer welfare in Scotland, and the Group considers that it is an issue that should receive greater attention to reduce the extent to which occurs.

43 SNH advises land owners to cull red deer on the open hill to minimise “winter starvation other than in exceptional weather conditions” and encourages them to cull the deer “most likely to suffer and die” over the winter.[34] The ADMG gives similar advice to its members.[35] However, both SNH and ADMG consider some winter mortality is “inevitable” amongst Scotland’s open hill red population and that the prolonged effects of “extreme weather can result in higher mortality than normal through starvation and malnutrition”.[36]

44 There has long been a debate between those who regard the red deer winter mortality in Scotland as ‘natural’ and part of ‘natural selection’, and those who regard it as a significant welfare issue that should be being addressed because land managers are responsible for the numbers of deer and the nature of the range available to them.[37] The Group considers that the issue is not whether some winter mortality is inevitable, but the levels at which it continues to occur amongst adult open hill red deer.

45 There has been recognition for a long time that “management culling undoubtedly reduces natural mortality” amongst red deer, particularly when it is targeted at deer in poorer condition.[38] However, a study for the DCS that reviewed the data available on natural mortality from across Europe, found that the levels of winter mortality amongst red deer due to starvation in Scotland were higher than amongst other managed populations, with the level in Scotland “within the range reported from unmanaged populations suffering resource limitation”.[39] The study concluded that the levels of culling in Scotland were not sufficient to manage the red deer within the carrying capacity of the available range. Ten years later, this appears to be still the case.

46 The death of open hill red deer each year from starvation indicates that there is not enough forage, particularly appropriate quality forage in late autumn, available in some areas relative to the number of deer. The relationship between deer densities and winter mortality rates is not, however, direct because of the influence of other range factors, in particular the availability of shelter from the weather during winter.

47 Open hill red deer can use topographical shelter and also relatively low vegetation such as long heather, to gain some protection from wind chill and exposure.[40] However, the most effective type of shelter against the elements is woodland cover and red deer, as a woodland species, will choose this in preference to other types of shelter.[41]

48 The Group considers that more attention should be paid to the extent that open hill red deer in different local areas have access to woodland shelter during winter. Improved access to woodland cover might reduce winter mortality in some areas at current densities, by improving the carrying capacity of the range due to the benefits from the shelter to the deer.

49 However, the Group considers that access to suitable woodland cover during winter should become a basic management standard for the welfare of open hill red deer in Scotland. While the current levels of winter mortality are continuing against the backdrop of the trend towards milder winters and reduced snow cover, the wind and rain during Scottish winters are also more challenging to the welfare of open hill red deer that do not have access to suitable woodland cover.

50 Statements from SNH and the ADMG about winter mortality tend to incorporate references to ‘exceptional’ or ‘extreme’ weather conditions. The weather is clearly a key factor, but the use of those terms can be taken to imply very unusual and particular severe weather. However, recognising that the totals in Figures 38 and 39 are only the reported winter mortality, there are significant levels of winter die-off each year with higher levels not infrequent. The winter die-off of red deer in Scotland is also not a short term event, but generally the terminal event after prolonged “nutritional and environmental austerity”.[42]

51 The Group considers that the evidence shows that the continuing levels of winter mortality amongst adult open hill red deer is very largely a product of how the deer and their range are managed. As discussed above, the owners of the range and hunting rights do not have a legal responsibility for the welfare of the deer, but SNH does through the 1996 Act. In particular, and in comparison to its predecessors the RDC and DCS, SNH now has regulatory powers that enable it to intervene to safeguard deer welfare.[43]

52 SNH has no policy on winter mortality amongst adult open hill red deer. The Group considers that SNH should have a clear policy to reduce the levels of this annual mortality and the frequency of larger die-offs. At present, given the levels of just the reported figures, the Group considers that it is not unreasonable for people to claim that thousands of open hill red deer are regularly dying of starvation and exposure.[44]

53 The ongoing levels of winter mortality are not ‘natural’ or inevitable and can be considered at odds with the public voting red deer as one of their favourite animals. The report that SNH published on indicators of deer welfare also contrasts with the image of Landseer’s iconic ‘Monarch of the Glen’, bought for Scotland’s National Gallery in 2017, with the image of thousands of red deer dying in the hills.[45]

54 In addition, there seems to be a contrast between the amount of attention given by SNH and the deer sector to the orphaning of calves and wounding rates from shooting as deer welfare issues, and the apparent limited concern over the welfare of the numbers of adult open hill red deer that have a prolonged period of suffering before they die from starvation and exposure.

55 The Group recognises that SNH staff, as part of discussing DMPs as part of the DMG assessment process, “will have discussed mortality in reviewing the factors affecting plan delivery and population modelling”.[46],[47] However, the Group considers that reducing the levels and frequency of winter mortality should be explicit measures of the implementation of DMPs by DMGs.

56 The Group also notes that a significant proportion of the winter mortality that occurs is within some of the DMGs covering parts of the Cairngorms National Park area.[48] The Group considers that there should be an expectation of particular progress in reducing winter mortality in the National Park for the higher land management standards that it is intended to represent.[49] The Group also considers that, while it has not seen winter mortality figures for the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park area, the same principle should apply there.

57 A particular factor to consider is that the information which SNH currently receives on the distribution and levels of red deer winter mortality comes from the culls returns submitted by land owners. The land owners’ main motivation for supplying this information appears to be so that the numbers are taken into account in planning future culls.

58 The Group recognises there has been a concern, in the past at least, that making more of ‘an issue’ about winter mortality could result in some of the land owners who currently report it, either no longer doing that or under-reporting it. However, that is a question for the owners and the credibility of their approach to deer management. The Group considers that, if necessary in some locations, SNH could take other approaches to gaining a clear indication of likely levels of winter mortality.

59 The Working Group recommends that the Scottish Government should make clear that the ongoing levels of annual winter mortality amongst red deer on open hill range in the Highlands are unacceptable and need to be reduced.

18.5 Carcase Weights

60 The concept of ‘deer welfare’ has traditionally been considered in terms of reducing direct suffering to individual deer through wounding and orphaning juveniles. Concern for deer welfare is now expanding to cover other indicators of poor welfare, such those discussed above in terms of pelvic body condition score, mortality rates and abnormal behaviour.

61 The Group considers, however, that the absence of conspicuous indicators of poor welfare status should not be the limits to concern for deer welfare. These negative indicators are all about one end of the ‘welfare spectrum’ and more attention should be given to measures that reflect improving welfare status towards the positive end of the spectrum. The Group considers that these measures should encompass fuller consideration of the biological performance of deer and, in particular, the influence of deer densities on that.

62 The effects of density on the biological performance of red deer have long been recognised.[50] With increasing density, for example, body weights decline, the reproductive performance of hinds is depressed and mortality rates increase.[51] Correspondingly, with decreasing density, weights increase, reproductive performance improves and mortality rates reduce. These trends also apply to roe deer.[52] With both species, the effects from reducing the density of deer can be taken to reflect a reduction in the ‘stress’ experienced by the deer (e.g. less competition for food) and therefore considered to be an improvement in their welfare or well-being at an individual and group or population level.

63 The relationship between deer density and weights correlates with the food supply available and thus varies with local circumstances. However, in local circumstances, monitoring the average carcase weights of yearlings in the autumn can be used as an indicator of the welfare of the population. This approach is used, for example, in Norway.[53] When weights are considered low for the species and habitat, increased culling should lead to a gradual increase in the carcase weights as the food supply improves relative the number of deer (if the density is not maintained by deer moving into the area from other high density areas). The same links apply to all of Scotland’s deer species.

64 Low average carcase weights do not necessarily imply that deer welfare is in a directly negative state, unless the deer have low pelvic body condition scores (BCS) of two or less out of five and will thus appear clearly malnourished.[54] The deer may appear in good condition and, in terms of the other welfare indicators discussed above, the carcases of yearlings may have “renal and cardiac coronary groove fat deposits”.[55] However, as the report on indicators states, the presence of these fat deposits just “indicates that the welfare state of the deer at the time of death was not unacceptably negative”.[56]

65 The Group considers that rather than just the pelvic BCS and the extent of fat deposits, the size or weight of the deer could also be viewed as a welfare indicator. The small size and low average weights of deer in good condition indicate that they have experienced limited resources during their development. Monitoring the average weights in a local area can be seen as moving from the avoidance of harm to a measure of biological performance as part of a fuller assessment of the welfare of the local deer population.

66 Recent research that used data for red deer to study the relationship between density, bodyweight and reproductive performance, suggests that this relationship applies to other deer species where bodyweight is a driver of fecundity.[57] For all deer, while low carcase weights reflect poor biological performance and reduced welfare, low weights can also indicate the likelihood of damage being caused to the environment in which the deer live.

67 This other damage is likely to include the adverse impact of the deer on the vegetation of their environment due to the competition for food. The consequences may also include a higher level of dispersal of deer from woodlands and this may in turn contribute to DVCs, themselves a deer welfare issue in addition to the human costs. Thus, culling at levels that start to improve the average weights of yearlings, are likely to reduce other adverse impacts that can arise.

68 The contrast in size and average weights that can exist between red deer living on the open hill and those living in woodland is well recognised.[58] Woodland red deer in Scotland at appropriate densities for their habitat, can be twice the carcase weight of open hill red deer. The average weights of woodland deer in many areas are well below that potential due to relatively high local densities of red deer and reduced densities would be likely to lead to higher average carcase weights.

69 The biologically stunted size of open hill red deer compared to their genetic potential in their natural habitat of woodland, can be viewed as the deer adapting to the open hill environment.[59] However, relatively small size of the deer reflects the environment limitations during their development. Reduced competition for food and improved access to woodland shelter would reduce those limitations and be reflected in average body weights starting to increase.[60]

70 The Group considers that SNH should be giving greater consideration to developing the use of the average carcase weights of yearlings in the autumn as an indicator of the welfare of the local population of the deer species involved. Improvements from relatively low average weights to lower numbers of heavier deer can be considered to be promoting an increasingly positive welfare state, while also being likely to reduce other adverse impacts associated with high densities of deer.

71 The Working Group recommends that Scottish Natural Heritage should consider developing the use of the average carcase weights of yearlings in the autumn as an indicator of the welfare of the local population of the deer species involved.


1 The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, for example, made illegal the use of self-locking snares, bows, explosive or use of live mammals or birds as decoys, for the capture and killing of any wild animal.

2 The Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996 Act, for example, made it illegal to “mutilate, kick, beat,....crush, drown or asphyxiate any wild mammal” with the intend to inflict unnecessary suffering.

3 The Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 made it illegal to hunt wild mammals with dogs.

4 SNH (2016). Draft Review of Competence.

5 Wild Deer Best Practice Guidance, ‘Welfare definition’.

6 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. SNH Commissioned Report No. 963.

7 Ohl, F. and Putman, R. (2013). Applying wildlife welfare principles at the population level. SNH Commissioned Report No. 629.

8 Section 17 of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) 2006 Act.

9 Section 24 of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) 2006 Act.

10 Section 48 of the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) 2006 Act.

11 Holland et al. (2017) Op cit.

12 Wild Deer Best Practice Guidance, ‘Welfare: Definition and Principles’ (draft), citing Ohl, F. and van der Staay, F.J. (2012). Animal welfare: At the interface between science and society. The Veterinary Journal, 192, pp. 13-19.

13 Wild Deer Best Practice Guidance, ‘Welfare definition’.

14 Wild Deer Best Practice Guidance, ‘Welfare definition’.

15 Wild Deer Best Practice Guidance, ‘Welfare definition’.

16 Putman R. and Staines, B. (2004). Supplementary winter feeding of wild red deer Cervus elaphus in Europe and North America: justifications, feeding practice and effectiveness. Mammal Review, 34 (4), pp. 285-306.

17 Putman and Staines (2004) Op cit. Staines, B. (2000). Wild Deer: Issues concerned with deer welfare and public safety.
Report for DCS.

18 SNH correspondence with DWG, 14 August 2019.

19 Wild Deer Best Practice Guidance, ‘Welfare: Definition and Principles’ (draft).

20 Green, P. (2016). Practical indicators to assess the welfare of wild deer in Scotland. SNH Commissioned Report No. 944.

21 SNH (2016). Draft Review of Competence, p.12.

22 The BDS is a charity which promotes deer welfare, and the ADMG is “committed to the welfare of deer and their habitats through sustainable management practices” (ADMG website).

23 Wild Deer Best Practice guidance, Introduction.

24 Red deer were ranked third, behind golden eagles and red squirrels. BBC News website, ‘Golden eagle voted Scotland’s favourite wild animal’, 1 November 2013.

25 SNH (2016). Deer Management in Scotland: Report to the Scottish Government from Scottish Natural Heritage 2016.

26 The number of deer forests increased from nine in 1790 to 213 in 1912 (Green, 2016, Op cit).

27 Ritchie, J. (1920). The influence of Man on Animal Life in Scotland. Cambridge University Press.

28 RDC Annual Report, 1993.

29 SNH Information Response 44.

30 SNH Information Response 44.

31 Green (2016) Op cit.

32 Green (2016) Op cit.

33 Winter mortality amongst roe deer is generally on open hill range, but can occur sometimes amongst roe deer at high densities in woodlands in a particularly harsh winter.

34 Wild Deer Best Practice guidance, Welfare definition; SNH Information Response 44.

35 ADMG News Release, ‘Higher winter mortality expected in wild deer’, 7 March 2018.

36 SNH Information Response 44.

37 Staines, B. (2000). Wild deer: issues concerned with deer welfare and public safety. Dept of Zoology, University of Aberdeen.

38 ADMG, Op cit.

39 Putman, R. (2008). A review of available data on natural mortality in red and roe deer populations. Deer Commission for Scotland.

40 Putman (2008) Op cit.

41 Irvine, R.J., Fiorini, S., Yearley, S., McLeod, J.E., Turner, A., Armstrong, H., White, P.C.L. and van der Wal, R. (2009). Can managers inform models? Integrating local knowledge into models of red deer habitat use. Journal of Applied Ecology, 46(2), pp. 344-352.

42 Green (2016) Op cit, p.19.

43 In ss.7/8 and 10 of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996.

44 For example, Reforesting Scotland, ‘Why are deer dying in Scotland’s hills?’, May 2018.

45 Green (2016) Op cit.

46 See Part Five.

47 SNH Information Response 44.

48 SNH Information Response 45.

49 See Section 16.

50 Putman, R., Nelli, L. and Matthiopoulos, J. (2019). Changes in bodyweight and productivity in resource-restricted populations of red deer (Cervus elaphus) in response to deliberate reductions in density. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 65 (13).

51 SNH (1994). Red deer and the natural heritage; Staines (2000) Op cit.

52 Putman (2008) Op cit; Staines (2000) Op cit.

53 Solberg, E. J., Strand, O., Veiberg, V., Andersen, R., Heim, M., Rolandsen, C. M., Langvatn, R., Holmstrøm, F., Solem, M. I., Eriksen, R., Astrup, R. and Ueno, M. (2012). Moose, red deer and reindeer – Results from the monitoring program for wild cervids, 1991-2011. NINA Report 885, Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.

54 Green (2016) Op cit.

55 Green (2016) Op cit, p.33.

56 Green (2016) Op cit, p.33.

57 Putman et al. (2019) Op cit.

58 Mitchell, B., Staines, B. and Welch, D. eds. (1977). Ecology of Red Deer: a research review relevant to their management in Scotland. Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, Cambridge.

59 Ritchie, J. (1920). The influence of man on animal life in Scotland. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

60 Putman et al. (2019) Op cit.



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