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

The final report of the Deer Working Group.

Section 26 Scottish Natural Heritage

1 Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) became the deer authority under the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 in 2010 and a range of SNH’s statutory and non-statutory involvements with deer management have been covered in previous Sections. This Section starts by examining both the changes associated with SNH becoming the deer authority and the enabling powers in the 1996 Act to facilitate the implementation of SNH’s functions under the Act.

2 The Section then describes SNH’s division of deer management in Scotland into upland deer management and lowland deer management, before considering SNH’s approach in upland and lowland areas. There is further consideration of SNH’s management of its role as the deer authority in Part Six.

26.1 The Deer Authority

3 The Deer (Scotland) Act 1959 established the Red Deer Commission (RDC) as the public authority responsible for implementing Scotland’s deer legislation and government policy for deer management in Scotland.

4 In 1989-90, when the UK Government was re-organising the countryside and nature conservation organisations in Scotland, the Secretary of State for Scotland consulted on merging the RDC into the new body to be created. However, the RDC was amongst those arguing against the change as it considered this “would be counter-productive to its work and its independence”.[1] As a result, the merger was not included in the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991 that established Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

5 The RDC was subsequently converted into the Deer Commission for Scotland (DCS) by the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996. The DCS continued in the same headquarters building in Inverness that the RDC had occupied since 1959. However, in 2007, the DCS moved into office space in SNH’s new headquarters in Inverness, Great Glen House. Then in 2008, 20 years after the original merger proposal, the Scottish Government proposed merging the DCS into SNH as part of the Scottish Government’s approach to “simplifying and streamlining the public bodies and public services delivery landscape”.[2]

6 The Scottish Government established a Merger Programme Board to plan the merger, which was enacted through the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010. The Act amended the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 and the Natural Heritage Act 1991 so that, since 1 August 2010, SNH has been the public authority responsible for implementing Scotland’s deer legislation and government policy for deer management. In contrast to the RDC and DCS, SNH also owns land and carries out deer culls on its own behalf as a land manager.

7 SNH established a Transition Deer Panel in 2009/10 for three years to manage the merger of the DCS into SNH, including the transfer of most of the DCS’s staff (c.20) into SNH with a staff complement of c.600.[3] As concerns had been expressed about the merger, the Scottish Government made a commitment to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee of the Scottish Parliament to evaluate the merger.[4] SNH submitted the Final Evaluation Report in December 2012.[5] The Report concluded that the Merger Board’s key objectives “had been partly or wholly met”.

8 Cost savings had been one of the key objectives of the merger and the Evaluation Report concluded that there had been average efficiency savings of £189,000 per year. The DCS’s annual expenditure varied, but was generally around £1.7 million in its latter years.[6] In 2016, SNH’s reported its average annual expenditure on carrying out its role as the deer authority as £1.5 million.[7] SNH’s expenditure on that role has since reduced due to budget constraints affecting SNH and was £1.3 million in 2018/19.[8] The adequacy of SNH’s current allocation of funds for deer management from its overall annual budget, is discussed further in Part Six.

9 The Evaluation Report also commented favourably on the integration of the DCS into SNH to create “a single organisation responsible for deer and natural heritage policy, advisory and regulatory functions”, noting that it will take time for some of the benefits of the merger to fully emerge.[9] The Group considers that conclusion remains the case.

10 The Group supports the benefits to be gained from the merger of the DCS into SNH as Scotland’s main public sector wildlife management organisation. Over and above efficiency savings, the benefits include access to the wider services within SNH and the scope for more integrated consideration of deer management issues with staff involved in other land uses and wildlife management issues. However, there has also been the risk that the responsibilities of the deer authority would become submerged within SNH and that there could be a loss of focus.

11 When the Group started its work, it had difficulty in understanding where deer management responsibilities lay within SNH. These had been dispersed into a complex pattern of responsibilities involving a wide range of individuals. This appears to be reflected in SNH informing the Lowland Deer Panel for its 2019 report, that SNH had 40 individuals involved in deer management in SNH’s South of Scotland Area.[10] SNH manages its operations through seven Areas covering Scotland (Argyll and Outer Hebrides, Forth, South Highlands, Southern Scotland, Strathclyde and Ayrshire, Tayside and Grampian, Northern Isles and North Highlands).

12 During the period of the Group’s work, however, SNH carried out an internal “line-of-sight restructure” that resulted in most of SNH’s deer work being consolidated under Wildlife Management Activity and the Head of that part of SNH.[11] The Group hopes that the change will provide greater clarity over where SNH’s responsibilities as the deer authority lie for both staff within SNH and for those outside dealing with SNH over deer management.

13 The Group considers that SNH needs to maintain a clear distinction between its natural heritage and deer management functions and responsibilities under the legislation. When the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 was amended in 2010 for SNH to replace the DCS, s.1(1) of the 1991 Natural Heritage Act was also amended to distinguish SNH’s responsibilities under the respective Acts. Overlapping staff responsibilities can cloud the difference.

14 The distinction can be particularly important in the use of SNH’s regulatory powers under the 1996 Act. SNH might consider, for example, that the impacts of deer on a particular natural heritage interest amount to damage under its natural heritage responsibilities. Different factors then need to be considered by SNH as the deer authority, in deciding whether the situation warrants the use of regulatory powers.

15 The Working Group recommends that Scottish Natural Heritage should ensure an appropriate level of distinction between Scottish Natural Heritage’s responsibilities under the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 and the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991 respectively.

16 The Group considers that one consequence of the merger of the DCS into SNH has been a reduction in the transparency and accountability over the implementation of the deer authority’s role under the 1996 Act. The Group commented in the previous Section on the lack of an available management plan for SNH’s work in the role, for example, for the next three years with measurable targets. However, the Group also considers that an important factor in the reduction in transparency and accountability has been the loss of annual reporting.

17 Under s.2(2) of the 1996 Act, the DCS had to submit an annual report to Scottish Ministers “on the exercising of their functions under this Act”. That report then had to be laid before the Scottish Parliament by Scottish Ministers under s.2(3). However, both those provisions were repealed by the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 that replaced the DCS with SNH as the deer authority.

18 The repeal of the reporting provisions might have been viewed as a procedural reform resulting from the differences in reporting to government of the DCS as a standalone Commission and SNH as a large government agency. However, the Group considers that there was no reduction in the need for the deer authority report annually on the exercising of its functions under the 1996 Act.

19 The Group considers that re-instating annual report provisions in the Act would, in addition to improved transparency and accountability, help add a clearer focus to SNH’s work as the deer authority. The main elements in such annual reports should be what SNH has done in that role in the year being reported, together with SNH’s plans for the coming year. The reports should also include a summary of SNH’s expenditure in its deer authority role.

20 The Working Group recommends that section 2 of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 should be amended to include provisions requiring, firstly, Scottish Natural Heritage to report annually to Scottish Ministers on the exercising of Scottish Natural Heritage’s functions under the Act and secondly, Scottish Ministers to present a copy of Scottish Natural Heritage’s report to the Scottish Parliament.

21 The Group considers that such annual reports should, in comparison to DCS reports, only be produced as electronic documents. The reports could also be shorter, given the scope to put associated material on SNH’s website. The Group considers that SNH has been slow to put more deer management statistics on its website since it took over from the DCS, although the position has been improving. The Group has already commented in Section 21 on the need for SNH to improve its deer management data handling with a new database.

26.2 Enabling Powers

22 In the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996, s.1 sets out the functions of SNH as the deer authority before s.2 which deals with advice to Scottish Ministers. The next two sections of the Act, s.3 ‘Power of SNH to facilitate exercise of functions’ and s.4 ‘Appointment of panels’ then set out what can be described as enabling powers. Another enabling power, s.12 ‘Power of Commission [SNH] to provide services and equipment and to make certain payments’ was discussed earlier in Section 23.

23 SNH’s enabling power under s.3 covers a wide range of activities. They include in s.3(1), for example, the power to issue guidance and advice, to conduct research and investigations and to carry out experiments or trials. The scope of the power in s.3 was spelt out more fully in the 1996 Act than the equivalent power in the 1959 Act and developed further in two respects by the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 (the WANE(S) Act).

24 The WANE(S) Act added s.3(1)(c) to provide SNH with the power “to assist any person or organisation in reaching agreements with third parties”. SNH might use this power, for example, to help neighbouring land owners settle a disagreement over the management of local deer numbers. The WANE(S) Act also added s.3(3) which requires that a public body or office-holder issued with advice or guidance under s.3(1) “must have regard to such guidance or advice”.

25 SNH, like the RDC and DCS before it, carries out the types of activities listed in s.3(1) on an on-going basis as part of its operations as the deer authority. However, the power to appoint Panels under s.4 of the 1996 Act has seldom been used by the DCS and SNH. The same was the case with the equivalent power in the Deer (Scotland) Act 1959, although the nature of that power was substantially different from the power in the 1996 Act.

26 The appointment of Panels was dealt with in s.2 of the 1959 Act, reflecting the more significant nature of the power in that Act. Under s.2(1), the RDC could set up a panel in any locality with the Secretary of State’s approval. The Panel was to consist of a chairman and four other persons, with two representing land owning and sporting interests and two representing agricultural and crofting interests. Under s.2(2), the RDC could refer any matter relating to its functions to a Panel for advice. However, under s.2(3) and (4), the RDC could also delegate authority to the Panel to exercise the RDC’s power to control marauding deer under s.6 of the 1959 Act.

27 The RDC established three Panels in 1960 and 1961 to exercise the RDC’s s.6 powers in their respective localities, but the Panels were discontinued by 1963.[12] This was because, while reports of deer damage were declining, the RDC concluded that the level of supervision required meant that the RDC was better to exercise the s.6 power itself. The RDC never appointed any further Panels.

28 The power to appoint Panels was changed significantly in the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 by making the membership of a Panel more flexible and removing the scope to delegate control powers to a Panel. There have also been further amendments since. The size of the Panel for any locality can now be the number of persons that SNH considers appropriate,

with the members appointed after SNH has consulted persons and organisations considered to have an interest. SNH can refer any matter related to its deer function to a Panel and it is the duty of a Panel to provide advice. In addition, the functions of a Panel can now also include engagement over deer management with the local community in a Panel’s locality.

29 The DCS only ever appointed three Panels. They were set up in 2004/05 and 2005/06 to investigate mitigation measures at hotspots for deer vehicle collisions on three main roads and all the Panels reported in 2006-07.[13] Further information on these Panels was described earlier in Section 15.

30 SNH has established two Panels since it took over from the DCS in 2010. In both cases, the interpretation of “locality” in s.4 was set very wide. The first Panel, which reported in 2016, provided advice to SNH on the system of authorisations for out of season and night shooting in Scotland under the 1996 Act.[14] The second Panel reported in 2019 and provided advice to SNH on deer management in lowland Scotland, with that “locality” interpreted by the Panel as being Scotland outwith the areas covered upland Deer Management Groups. Both reports are referred to elsewhere in this Report.

31 The nature of s.4 means that a Panel is little more than an advisory committee that might be set up without the need for statutory provisions. However, the requirement in s.4 for the approval of Scottish Ministers to set up a Panel, gives a Panel and its advice an added importance. The Group discusses making greater use of Panels in Part Six.

32 The Group considers, however, that the role of Scottish Ministers in the appointment of a Panel should be clarified. Under s.4(1), SNH may appoint a Panel subject to the approval of Scottish Ministers. The Group considers the approval should cover the locality involved, the purpose of the Panel and the intended membership. However, the Scottish Government interprets s.4(1) to mean that Scottish Ministers should also appoint the members.[15] The Group considers that unnecessary and that allowing SNH to appoint members would reduce bureaucracy and improve the flexibility to changes in the membership, for example, with a replacement or additional member.

33 The Working Group recommends Scottish Ministers should no longer be responsible for appointing the members of a Panel under section 4 of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996.

26.3 Upland Deer Management

34 For the last 60 years since the Deer (Scotland) Act 1959, the work of the three public bodies responsible in turn for implementing Scotland’s deer legislation, the RDC, DCS and SNH, has been dominated by a focus on open hill red deer in the Highlands and Islands. The Highlands in this Report are defined as the mainland and islands north of the Highland Boundary Fault and west of the eastern edge of the Grampian Mountains.

35 The RDC was entirely focused on open hill red deer in the Highlands during its early decades and even after the RDC became responsible for management of all species of wild deer in Scotland from 1982, that remained very largely the case. Despite the expansion in the distribution and numbers of deer elsewhere in Scotland, it was not until 1993/94 that the RDS decided that “the Commission will be represented on a regional basis outwith traditional red deer range”.[16] In 1994/95, the RDC acquired an office in Stirling and established a South of Scotland team.

36 Following the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996, the DCS maintained and in part developed its involvements outwith the Highlands. However, the work of the DCS remained heavily focused on open hill red deer. This was reinforced by the DCS’s priority site policy and the requirement to ensure European designated Special Areas of Conservation were in favourable condition, with the extent of those sites concentrated in the Highlands.[17]

37 SNH’s work on deer management, since it became the deer authority in 2010, has also continued to be substantially dominated by SNH’s focus on open hill red deer. SNH’s approach has been to describe deer management in Scotland as consisting of upland deer management and lowland deer management.[18] However, SNH has equated upland deer management with open hill red deer range in the Highlands, with lowland deer management seen as covering deer management outwith that range in the Highlands and rest of Scotland.[19]

38 SNH has recently refined this approach by describing deer management in Scotland in terms of four land use types.[20] Upland deer management is sub-divided into open hill range and what SNH calls the “shoulder of the hill” consisting of commercial forestry and hill farms. Lowland deer management is sub-divided into mixed agricultural and woodland areas, and urban areas with a population over 10,000.

39 One of the potential benefits of SNH replacing the DCS was SNH’s existing structure of six Areas and area staff covering Scotland. This provided scope for SNH to adopt more of a Scotland-wide approach to deer management than the DCS. However, SNH’s slowness to devote more attention to deer management in lowland areas drew criticism from the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment (RACCE) Committee of the Scottish Parliament in 2015.[21] That Committee’s successor, the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee, also added to this criticism in 2017.[22]

40 In response, SNH has started to devote more time and resources to lowland deer management as discussed further below. However, SNH work has continued to be predominantly on upland deer management. In a breakdown of SNH’s 2018/19 expenditure on deer management as the deer authority, the items that could be clearly attributed to either upland or lowland deer management accounted for £600,000 or close to half of the total expenditure of £1.3 million.[23] Of the £600,000 expenditure, 78% was upland and 22% lowland. A number of other main items in the list of expenditure that were not sub-divided into upland or lowland, are likely to reflect a similar approximate split.[24]

Figure 54 Deer management structures in 2019
Figure 54 Deer management structures in 2019

Source: SNH (2019)

41 SNH’s focus on open hill red deer in the Highlands has, like that of the RDC and DCS, mainly involved encouraging and supporting Deer Management Groups (DMGs). These are voluntary associations of land owners and managers in a particular locality with an interest in the management of the red deer and other deer species in that locality. The map in Figure 54 shows the current distribution of the DMGs and broadly reflects SNH’s division of Scotland into upland and lowland deer management areas.

26.3.1 Upland DMGs: Background

42 For over 50 years, the public sector has viewed DMGs as an important mechanism by which to try to improve the management of open hill red deer populations in the Highlands.

43 The first DMGs were formed in the 1960s with encouragement from the RDC.[25] The DMGs were initially only involved in sharing cull information, which had traditionally been confidential. However, the RDC also viewed DMGs more widely as a means by which more ‘progressive’ land owners could influence other owners. In the 1970s, the Highlands and Islands Development Board provided funding and specialist advice to encourage the formation of DMGs and by the 1980s the number of DMGs had doubled.

44 By 1990, there were approximately 39 DMGs, all in the Highlands except one in Galloway. The RDC had hosted annual meetings for DMGs in Inverness from 1982 and supported the setting up of the Association of Deer Management Groups (ADMG) in 1992. The main activities of the DMGs were coordinating local open hill deer counts and sharing cull information, while also providing a channel for the RDC to communicate information to deer managers. This included the results of the extensive scientific research that had been carried out since the 1950s into the management of open hill red deer.[26]

45 The research had shown that estates could maintain their sporting culls with fewer red deer by culling sufficient hinds, and thereby reduce the damage by red deer to agriculture and forestry.[27] However, the RDC made little headway with, for example, the culls of hinds being less than recruitment in more than 75% of the RDC’s open hill counting blocks in 1986.[28] By the 1990s, the size of the open hill red deer population had doubled compared to when the RDC was set up.[29] SNH commented at the time that, while the results of the research could have been communicated more effectively, “some people involved in estate management have clung to tradition, however misguided”.[30]

46 When the DCS took over as the deer authority in 1996, it continued the RDC’s work with DMGs based on promoting collaboration and providing information.[31] However, the DCS placed a greater emphasis on deer management planning. In 1999, the DCS published ‘Collaborative Deer Management - Guidelines for a Deer Management Plan’, in which the aim was “to manage populations of all species of deer at levels and in ways which will enable the achievement of sustainable land use”. At the same time, the DCS developed pilot Deer Management Plans (DMPs) with seven DMGs.

47 In addition, the DCS also commissioned a major review of DMGs from the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute (MLURI). The report of the study, ‘DMGs: Operation and Good Practice’, was published in 2001.[32] The study identified 45 DMGs, including two in the south of Scotland. Amongst the 43 DMGs in the Highlands, five shared a total of 16 sub-groups. The study asked each DMG 12 main questions each with a varying number of sub-questions. The nature of many of the questions means that they can be viewed as precursors to questions in the current assessments of DMGs by SNH which are discussed below.

48 The results of the MLURI study showed that only half of the DMGs in 1998/99 and a third in 1999/2000 achieved the culls that the DCS advised. The study also found that only 12 of the DMGs had DMPs, with seven of those following the DCS guidelines. However, the study concluded that the DMPs were inconsistent in providing quantitatively established targets and lacked any detailed analysis in formulating targets and actions, while few of them set out actions necessary for monitoring progress and achievement. A separate DCS study of seven pilot DMPs three years after they were established, found that they were neither being updated nor followed through.[33]

49 However, the DCS continued to place great emphasis on DMGs as central to addressing issues over open hill red deer numbers and impacts, encouraging DMGs to improve standards while providing them with information and developing tools intended to help them (e.g. the Hilldeer computer programme developed by MLURI).

26.3.2 Upland DMGs: Recent History

50 The transfer of DCS staff into SNH when SNH became the deer authority in 2010, ensured that SNH continued the same approach with DMGs. However, a short inquiry into deer management by the Scottish Parliament’s RACCE Committee in autumn 2013 gave a new focus to SNH’s relationship with DMGs and the ADMG.

51 One of the Committee’s findings was that only 16 of the existing 40 DMGs had DMPs, while another 12 had DMPs in preparation. In a short report on its inquiry to the Scottish Government in early 2014, the Committee concluded that “the current and predicted pace of movement towards all DMGs having demonstrably effective and environmentally responsible management plans in place is too slow”.[34] The Committee therefore recommended that the position with DMGs should be assessed at the end of 2016 and if there was not sufficient progress, other powers should be considered.

52 In the Scottish Government’s response to the Committee, the Minister agreed that progress had been too slow in terms of DMGs developing and implementing DMPs, and that “the end of 2016 would be a suitable juncture to consider progress and look to take action if the current voluntary system has not produced a step change in the delivery of effective deer management”.[35] The Scottish Government also provided £200,000 extra funding spread over two years through SNH to assist DMGs with developing DMPs.

53 SNH’s publication ‘Deer Management Plans - Delivering the Public Interest’ provided

guidance to DMGs and SNH carried out an assessment of 44 DMGs against 101 criteria in autumn 2014 to give a baseline against which to measure change in 2016. The criteria were developed by SNH in dialogue with the ADMG, with 56 being public interest criteria and the other 45 being the ADMG’s benchmark for the operation of DMGs.

54 In 2015, when the RACCE Committee considered deer measures in the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, the Committee commented on concern at the lack of progress so far by DMGs as reflected in the results of SNH’s 2014 assessment. The Committee considered that the Scottish Government should be ready for action with further statutory measures to ensure effective deer control to protect public interests.[36] The Scottish Government agreed in its response to the Committee in early 2016, and commented that “if the position remains unsatisfactory we will look to bring in a statutory management system for deer”.[37]

55 In 2016, SNH used the same 101 criteria to reassess the same 44 DMGs and two further DMGs. SNH and the ADMG had continued to work together since the 2014 assessment to improve standards amongst DMGs and in 2016, as in 2014, the ADMG could be represented at a DMG assessment if requested by a DMG. SNH published the results of the comparison of the two assessments in a report to the Scottish Government in 2016. While SNH noted the progress that had been made, it concluded overall “that progress was too slow to allow the Scottish Government to meet some its targets”.[38] SNH also considered there was a particular lack of progress in linking planning to implementation.[39]

56 SNH’s 2016 report, which covered many topics over and above DMGs, was the subject of an inquiry by the ECCLR Committee. The Committee recognised in its report that there had been improvements between the two DMG assessments. However, the Committee considered that the performance was variable and that many of the DMPs “do not have an action plan that adequately addresses public interests”. The Committee concluded that “overall the Committee cannot be confident that the situation at present, without further significant action, is capable of delivering the required change on the ground’ and that the Scottish Government should be considering additional powers.[40]

57 The Scottish Government’s response to the Committee was a letter in June 2017 in which the Cabinet Secretary stated that “We will ask SNH to report on progress on deer management in 2019. We will be looking to see effective deer management that protects the public interest embedded across the upland deer range, with appropriate deer management plans in place and commensurate action being taken on the ground”.[41] At the same time, the Cabinet Secretary announced that the Scottish Government would appoint an independent deer working group and a Lowland Deer Panel as part of taking things forward.

26.3.3 Upland DMGs: Current Position

58 The ADMG, which had been urging DMGs to improve standards because of the risk that new powers would be introduced, stepped up its efforts following the ECCLR Committee report and Scottish Government response. SNH and the ADMG continued to work together in preparation for the 2019 DMG assessment, with DMGs due to be assessed on the same 101 criteria and scored red, amber or green on each of the criteria as previously.

59 SNH identified 37 of the criteria as priority criteria, with nine from the 45 ADMG benchmark criteria and 25 from the 56 public interest ones. SNH agreed the priority criteria with the ADMG and advised DMGs that “The overall progress of the upland deer sector as a whole in 2019 will therefore be measured by the number of groups scoring green in these specific criteria”.[42] SNH and the ADMG both provided support to DMGs in preparation for the assessment, with SNH informing DMGs that “The ultimate goal for both SNH and ADMG is for all DMGs to score green on all criteria”.[43]

60 SNH’s 2019 DMG assessment covered 48 DMGs. Before SNH had published the results of its assessment, the ADMG was in a position to pre-empt SNH by producing a detailed analysis of the assessment results for 45 of the DMGs and provide a commentary on the progress made since the 2014 and 2016 assessments.[44] SNH subsequently published the results for the 48 DMGs, with specific comparisons for the 44 DMGs that were part of the previous assessments.[45]

61 Following the effort and resources that SNH and ADMG invested into helping DMGs and work by DMGs themselves, SNH’s analysis of the 2019 assessment showed a statistically significant improvement compared to 2016. Overall, the average percentage of green scores against the 45 ADMG Benchmark criteria was 90% compared to 73% in 2016, while the average percentage for the 56 public interest criteria was 85% compared to 56% in 2016.[46] There was also a reduction in the variation in performance amongst DMGs, with lower performing DMGs in 2016 closing the gap with the better performing ones.

62 The notable improvement in the performance of DMGs against the 101 criteria over the five years 2014-19 would not have happened if the RACCE Committee had not raised the issue of deer management planning in the first place. The Group considers that the suggestions of the need for extra control powers in the Committee reports in 2014, 2015 and 2017 mentioned above and in responses by Ministers, also helped. The ADMG used the threat of more statutory powers to help galvanise private estates in the DMGs to engage with the process.

63 The shared experience of going through the DMG assessment process and developing increasingly shared standards through the criteria, can be considered to have consolidated upland DMGs as a component of the deer sector. Against that background, the ADMG has proposed and raised with SNH, that there could be an accreditation scheme for DMGs achieving a certain standard of deer management.

64 The improvement in the organisation of the DMGs and in their deer management planning comes after the history recounted above, including the focus on trying to improve these aspects of DMG performance started by the DCS 20 years ago. However, as SNH identify, a number of key public interests “are still the criteria where greatest progress remains to be made”.[47] These include actions in the DMPs to deliver protected area feature condition, to maintain and improve native woodland cover and condition, and to monitor and mitigate deer impacts in the wider countryside.

65 There are also other aspects of DMG performance that could have been included in the assessments. An example is the submission of cull returns to SNH by DMG members, given the importance of cull data to the DMP process. For 2016/17, SNH sent cull return notices to 1,002 properties in the 44 DMGs in the assessment process and received 909 returns.[48] The National Forest Estate land in 39 of the DMGs accounted for 82 of the submitted returns. Of the remaining 827 properties that submitted returns, only 32% submitted their return online and only 15% within the legal time limited for submitting returns.

66 In acknowledging the improved performance of the DMGs in the 2019 assessment, SNH commented in its report that “It has yet to be demonstrated if the progress will be sustained”.[49] Also, as the RACCE noted back in 2015, the assessments are only concerned with process issues, such as improving the effective operation and transparency of DMGs and ensuring they have a meaningful DMP in place.[50] They are not about outcomes on the ground. SNH also recognised in its 2019 report that “DMG assessments are not designed to quantify action on the ground” and therefore do not cover whether “commensurate action” is being taken on the ground as stipulated by the Cabinet Secretary in 2017.[51]

67 The Group considers that the focus for SNH and the DMGs should now become the standards of management on the ground. SNH has spent a substantial amount of effort over the five years 2014-19 in facilitating improvements in the operation and deer management planning of DMGs through the assessment process. The Group considers that SNH should now concentrate on monitoring the impacts of deer in the DMGs area, identifying the areas where the impacts are considered to amount to damage and taking appropriate action. This is discussed further in Part Six.

68 The Group considers that the sequence of assessments with their 101 criteria have served their purpose and should not be repeated again after another three years or after five years as the normal duration of DMPs. After five years, the nature of any assessment and criteria should be significantly different to reflect changes in circumstances and a clear focus on the standards of deer management on the ground.

69 The Working Group recommends that the sequence of assessments of Deer Management Group’s carried out by Scottish Natural Heritage in 2014, 2016 and 2019 should come to an end and that Scottish Natural Heritage’s focus should now be ensuring the standards of practical deer management implemented on the ground by land owners minimise the damaging impacts which deer can cause to public interests.

26.4 Lowland Deer Management

70 As described above and shown in Figure 54, SNH views the ‘lowlands’ in lowland deer management as covering the rest of Scotland outwith the DMGs in parts of the Highlands. Criticism of SNH’s lack of attention to lowland deer management compared to

its concentration on the DMGs and open hill red deer, has also been alluded to above.

71 SNH’s first notable initiative in the lowlands was the establishment of the Lowland Deer Network Scotland (LDNS) in 2012. This was a publicly funded joint initiative with the ADMG, to encourage collaborative deer management in the lowlands. The first LDNS Chair, also the ADMG Chair at the time, commented in 2012 that “Deer management groups also have an important role to play where there is an identifiable common interest and the LDNS is keen to encourage the formation of more low ground groups based on existing models”.[52]

72 The LDNS was formed at the time that the Code of Practice on Deer Management was published and in addition to encouraging collaboration, the LDNS aims included promoting the Code and the adoption of Wild Deer Best Practice guidance, facilitating information exchange and developing a better understanding of the deer and their impacts in lowland areas.

73 SNH’s relative lack of attention to lowland deer management was criticised, however, by the RACCE Committee in 2015. In advance of the report on deer management in Scotland that SNH was due to submit to the Scottish Government in 2016, the Committee commented that “The significant problems in many parts of Lowland Scotland therefore require specific consideration in the upcoming review”.[53] The Committee also recommended that “the Scottish Government seeks to address these issues as a matter of urgency, and also ensures they are taken into account when setting the remit for the 2016 review”.[54]

74 SNH identified some of the challenges related to deer management in the lowlands in its 2016 report. These included the damage to nature conservation interests, agriculture and woodlands, deer vehicle collisions, wildlife crime involving deer and public perceptions of shooting deer. SNH also considered the pattern of smaller scale land ownership compared to upland areas as a constraint on establishing collaborative groups, while recording that there were 11 Lowland Deer Groups.

75 SNH also acknowledged in the 2016 report that its “ability to undertake a full assessment of deer and deer impacts in the lowlands is limited due to insufficient data”.[55] SNH reported the development of a Lowland Deer Management Project to better understand deer management in the lowlands, while a review of research into deer management commissioned by SNH identified particular information and knowledge transfer gaps in a lowland context. These included an improved understanding of lowland deer populations and management issues, greater information exchange and improved use of the resource of local deer hunters.[56]

76 SNH claimed in its 2016 report that “The growth in development of deer management in the lowlands has been substantial in the last five years as a result of industry initiative and support from public bodies.”[57] However, when the ECCLR Committee held an inquiry into SNH’s report, the Committee concluded that “There are significant challenges for deer management in lowland Scotland and the Committee is disappointed that there has been so little progress”.[58]

77 The Scottish Government announced as part of its response to the ECCLR Committee, the setting up of a Lowland Deer Panel under s.4 of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 to provide advice on deer management in the lowlands. The Panel’s remit consisted of four questions about lowland deer management. These related to: the need for collaboration and the best approach to that; the knowledge and information needed to support that process and deliver public interests; the practical implications of public perceptions for deer management; and further action SNH could take within current frameworks.

78 The Group considers that the Lowland Panel’s report in 2019 was helpful in countering two aspects of SNH’s approach to lowland deer management that appeared a legacy of its concentration on open hill red deer. These were the degree of emphasis that SNH had been placing on the need for collaboration through local groups and the need for deer population information on which to base culls. [59]

79 The Panel concluded that collaboration was not a necessary component of deer management in many parts of the lowlands, depending on the species of deer and patterns of land ownership. The Panel also recognised the limited scope for deer population information away from the open hill in more wooded and complex lowland environments. The Panel instead emphasised the importance of adaptive management, where the level of culls is managed in response to the extent and nature of the impacts that deer are having in the local environment.

80 The Group also supports the Panel’s conclusion that SNH should take a systematic approach to gathering more information on deer impacts, culls and other local factors in lowland areas. In that context, the Panel commended SNH and Scottish Forestry’s joint Lowland Deer Management Project (LDMP) covering a study area of 950 square kilometres to the north of Glasgow and incorporating a range of deer management environments.[60] The Project has completed two phases with a third one planned.

81 The LDMP has focused on the types of data available for the area from different sources and the deer management approaches used in the area. This has identified gaps in information availability and scope for some types of information to be collected by more consistent approaches. The LDMP has also illustrated that there are different approaches to deer management that depend on the more diverse patterns of land use. This led SNH to the unsurprising conclusion that “the upland red deer range model is unlikely to be an effective delivery mechanism in most lowland areas”.[61]

82 SNH has recently commented on the Lowland Panel’s report, on the LDMP and on SNH’s other work on lowland deer management in its latest report on deer management to the Scottish Government.[62] Those other involvements include SNH’s work on deer vehicle collisions, which was considered earlier in Section 15, and SNH work with Local Authorities, which is discussed in Section 27.

83 SNH’s report reflects that SNH’s approach to lowland deer management is only to become involved in a locality if it is informed that there is damage or the risk of damage by deer. The Group considers that this limited, reactive approach will not deliver effective deer management that safeguards public interests.

84 While the Group has reservations about aspects of the ambitions and approach set for the LDMP, the Group considers that the Project was valuable for its focus on a locality and understanding the factors involved in the management of deer there. While the LDMP has been time consuming and expensive because of its wider ambitions, the Group considers that there is ready scope for SNH to develop a pragmatic understanding of deer management in the different localities in the lowlands. The need for SNH to take a more proactive and systematic approach to this is discussed further in Part Six.


1 RDC Annual Report, 1990, p.19.

2 Letter from Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Minister for Environment and Climate Change, to the Convener of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and the Environment (RACCE) Committee, 8 February 2013.

3 The Panel was not a panel of the type that can be established under s.4 of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996.

4 Letter from Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Minister for Environment and Climate Change, to the Convener of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and the Environment (RACCE) Committee, 8 February 2013.

5 SNH (2012). Final Report on the merger of the Deer Commission for Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage, December 2012.

6 DCS Annual Reports.

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

8 SNH correspondence with DWG, 30 August 2019 and 9 September 2019.

9 SNH (2012) Op cit.

10 Lowland Deer Panel (2019). Report to Scottish Natural Heritage, February 2019.

11 SNH correspondence with DWG, 20 November 2018.

12 Callander, R. and MacKenzie, N. (1991). The Management of Wild Red Deer in Scotland. Rural Forum, Scotland.

13 DCS Annual Report, 2006/07.

14 Deer Panel – Review of Authorisations (2016). Report to Scottish Natural Heritage, September 2016.

15 SNH discussion with DWG, 21 March 2018.

16 RDC Annual Report, 1994.

17 See Section 16.

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

19 SNH (2016) Op cit.

20 SNH (2019). Assessing Progress in Deer Management – Report from Scottish Natural Heritage to Scottish Government, Annex 1.

21 Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee (2015). Stage 1 Report on the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, SP Paper 845, 4 December 2015.

22 ECCLR Committee (2017). Deer Management in Scotland: Report to the Scottish Government from SNH 2016, SP Paper 117, 5th Report (Session 5), 3 April 2017.

23 SNH Information Response 27.

24 For example, SNH unattributed staff time on deer management and managing the cull return system.

25 Callander and MacKenzie (1991) Op cit.

26 As described in Section 16.

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

28 Clutton-Brock, T. H. and Albon, S. (1989). Red Deer in the Highlands. BSP Professional, Oxford.

29 150,000 in 1963, 300,000 in 1989 (Callander and MacKenzie, 1991, Op cit).

30 SNH (1994). Red Deer and the Natural Heritage.

31 This included further research showing that sporting culls could be maintained with fewer deer, for example, Buckland, S., Ahmadi, S., Staines, B., Gordon, I. and Youngson, R. (1996), Estimating the minimum population size that allows a given annual number of mature red deer stags to be culled sustainably, Journal of Applied Ecology 33, pp.118-130.

32 Nolan, A., Hewson, R. and Maxwell, T. (2001). DMGs: Operation and Good Practice. Macaulay Land Use Research Institute.

33 Evidence given to RACCE Committee by J. Milne, 20 November 2013, col.3019.

34 Letter and ‘Themes emerging from evidence’ from the Convener of the RACCE Committee to the Minister for Environment and Climate Change, 5 February 2014.

35 Letter from the Minister for Environment and Climate Change to the Convenor of the RACCE Committee, 5 March 2014.

36 RACCE Committee (2015) Op cit.

37 Scottish Government response to the RACCE Committee report, January 2016, para 208.

38 Press statement by Chair of SNH, 3 April 2017.

39 SNH (2016) Op cit.

40 ECCLR Committee (2017) Op cit.

41 Letter from the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform to the Convener of the ECCLR Committee, 29 June 2017.

42 Letter sent from SNH to all DMG Chairs and Secretaries, 14 August 2018.

43 Letter sent from SNH to all DMG Chairs and Secretaries, 3 July 2018.

44 ADMG (2019). Analysis and report on the 2019 Deer Management Group Assessment Process.

45 SNH (2019) Op cit.

46 SNH (2019) Op cit.

47 SNH (2019) Op cit, p.28.

48 SNH Information Response 37.

49 SNH (2019) Op cit, p.65.

50 RACCE Committee (2015) Op cit.

51 SNH (2019) Op cit, p.66.

52 LDNS News, Summer 2012, Issues No.1.

53 RACCE Committee (2015) Op cit, para 373.

54 RACCE Committee (2015) Op cit, para 374.

55 SNH (2016) Op cit, p.11.

56 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.

57 SNH (2016) Op cit, p.13.

58 ECCLR Committee (2017) Op cit, para 8.

59 Lowland Deer Panel (2019). Report to Scottish Natural Heritage, February 2019.

60 Mc Morran, R., Gibson-Poole, S. and Hamilton, A. (2018). Lowland Deer Management: Assessing the Delivery of Public Interests. SAC Commercial Ltd.

61 SNH (2019) Op cit, p.37.

62 SNH (2019) Op cit.



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