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

The final report of the Deer Working Group.

Section 27 Deer Authority

6 The Group’s remit quoted above is a statement of the Scottish Government’s aim for the management of wild deer in Scotland. The Group commented in Section 3 on the similarity between the two elements in the Group’s remit and the purposes in s.1 of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996. The aim is to ensure public interests are adequately protected from unacceptable damage by deer and then, against that background, to promote the sustainable economic and other benefits that can be derived from deer management. SNH’s role as the deer authority under the 1996 Act is to try to deliver that aim.

7 The need for collaboration has become a dominant theme in the Scottish Government and SNH’s approach to trying to achieve that public policy aim. The emphasis on collaboration is at both national and local levels, and intended to minimise the situations where the regulatory powers in the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 to control deer to prevent damage might need to be used.

8 At a national level, the only document representing the Scottish Government’s policy for deer management, ‘Wild Deer: A National Approach’ (WDNA), is a collaborative strategy for working with the deer sector. While the Group has commented in Section 25 on the need for a more direct statement of Scottish Government policy, there are clear potential benefits from a constructive relationship between SNH as the deer authority and bodies seen as representing the deer sector.

9 Many of these bodies represent hunting interests, including the Association of Deer Management Groups (ADMG), the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association. SNH works constructively with these and other bodies on a range of deer related topics including, for example, the implementation of WDNA and the development of Wild Deer Best Practice guides.

10 There is a traditional tension between hunting organisations and public sector regulators in many European countries, with the former wanting to maintain high levels of hunting opportunities and the latter trying to limit damage to other interests.[2] The situation might be considered no different in Scotland. The Group considers that it is important that SNH as the deer authority is seen to be appropriately independent and robust in representing and implementing public policy in its relations with hunting interests.

11 The other level at which there is a strong emphasis on collaboration, is the approach of encouraging land owners to collaborate together in local deer management groups. The aim of this approach has been and continues to be that local land owners would, by collaborating in voluntary local deer groups, reconcile any differences in their deer management objectives and reduce damage by deer to other land use interests, thereby benefiting public interests.[3]

12 The previous Section described how the Red Deer Commission (RDC), Deer Commission Scotland (DCS) and SNH have in turn over the last 50 years, supported the formation and operation of local Deer Management Groups (DMGs) as a mechanism to try to improve the management of open hill red deer in the Highlands. The previous Section also described how the continuing limited effectiveness of DMGs resulted in a series of assessments of DMGs over the last five years by SNH, to try to improve their operation as groups and ensure that they have suitable Deer Management Plans (DMP).

13 The results of the DMG assessments showed a very marked improvement in standards on both those accounts over the assessments in 2014, 2016 and 2019.[4] However, as SNH has commented, it is too early to judge whether this progress will be maintained.[5] Also, as the assessments were not about improvements in deer management in terms of outcomes on the land, it remains to be seen whether such improvements will follow the recent progress in the assessments.

14 Those two questions are discussed further in turn below. The Group has recommended that SNH should end its DMG assessment process and concentrate on measuring deer impacts.[6] It is the reduction of the damaging impacts of open hill red deer that forms the real test of the DMG structure’s ability to deliver deer management that protects the public interest.

27.1 Local Deer Groups

15 The shared experience for DMGs of going through the assessment process and developing increasingly shared standards through the criteria in the assessments, might be considered to have consolidated Highland DMGs as a component of the deer sector. Nearly all the DMGs in the assessment process are members of the ADMG and, as the ADMG’s Benchmark accounted for 45 of the 101 criteria in the assessments, the implication is that any new group would need to have reached that benchmark before the group was considered an established DMG by the ADMG.

16 One result of this situation is that the idea of a DMG has become heavily associated with one particular model of local collaboration and represented by the positions that the ADMG takes over deer management issues. It is notable that new local deer management groups on the edge of traditional open hill red deer range have adopted different names, for example, the Dunkeld Deer Management Forum. Local groups might avoid calling themselves a DMG if they want to have a different level or form of collaboration to the ADMG benchmark, if they want to avoid the risk of becoming involved in SNH’s assessment process or if they do not want to be represented by the ADMG.

17 Another consequence of the assessment process has been that a number of the larger DMGs sub-divided into several separate DMGs. This was because the production of a DMP for SNH’s assessment made little sense at their previous geographic scale as, for example, with the East Grampian DMG. The Group considers that there might still be some DMGs where sub-division and then liaison as neighbouring groups could allow more effective deer management, if deer management planning and implementation are to become more detailed.

18 The Group considers that the pattern of DMGs is also likely to continue to evolve due to other factors, in particular changes in land owners and land use. New owners may have different objectives for their land compared to previous owners. The expansion of forestry could also change the balance of interests in particular areas, with the Scottish Government increasing its planting targets for new woodlands as part of its climate change mitigation measures.

19 The Group considers that a key factor in the future of DMGs as a mechanism to help deliver public policy, is the extent to which they follow their progress in the assessments with improved deer management on the ground that protects public interests. That is considered further below. However, if DMGs are not making that progress, the Group considers that there is a risk that some land owners may leave or not join. Most DMGs have a range of land use types in their area and owners with different balances of objectives. However, most DMGs and the ADMG have tended to be principally concerned with the interests of estates that manage open hill red deer for sporting purposes.

20 The ADMG has always encouraged its members to improve their deer management in the public interest. However, the Group considers that there could be a risk that the newly consolidated DMG sector could become a factor slowing the delivery of public policy, rather than a mechanism to help delivery public policy sooner. The concentration at the DMG scale reduces the attention on individual properties, when it is particular properties and not the DMG that should be the focus of attention when regulation is being considered by SNH to reduce damage by deer. The Group also knows of instances where undue pressure has been brought to bear on members of DMGs who wish to reduce deer numbers on their land in order to deliver environmental benefits.

21 SNH has a close working relationship with the ADMG and progress has been made through the assessment process. However, the Group considers that SNH should recognise more explicitly that there is scope for different forms and levels of collaboration, cooperation or liaison between land owners in localities within the substantial part of the Highlands that SNH’s maps show covered with DMGs. SNH already recognises that scope elsewhere in Scotland.[7]

22 SNH’s initial approach to paying more attention to deer management in lowland Scotland outwith the DMGs areas, was based on the same model of encouraging land owners to collaborate in local deer groups. However, as described in the previous Section, SNH now recognises that there is no necessary need for land owners in many parts of lowland Scotland to participate in groups to carry out effective deer management on their land. The Group considers that SNH should also recognise clearly that this can equally be the case with properties within the wide area in the Highlands shown as covered with DMGs.

23 While the Group recognises the contribution that the DMG structure has brought to the management of open hill red populations, the Group considers that SNH should avoid the danger of repeating that land owners need to collaborate in formal groups to manage open hill red deer. Liaison with neighbours can be essential in managing such populations and collaboration is desirable in certain circumstances. However, it is important for SNH not to lose sight of the fact that the distribution of hunting rights is based on individual properties and as such, the individual property is the unit of regulation in the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996.

24 Collaboration is therefore not an end in itself, but can be a means in some situations of helping deliver the public interest in its broadest sense. However, collaboration in formal structures does not always bring benefits to the participants and so it is important for SNH to recognise this and to be flexible in its approach to this aspect of deer management.

25 The Working Group recommends that Scottish Natural Heritage should avoid over-emphasising the need for formal collaborative groups for deer management and adopt a more flexible approach to supporting other forms of liaison and collaboration where these develop, including in open hill red deer range.

27.2 Open Hill Red Deer

26 The RDC, DCS and SNH have argued for decades that there needs to be a reduction in the numbers of open hill red deer to reduce the damaging impacts they have on the environment and other land uses. The estimated population doubled in size and expanded its range between the Deer (Scotland) Act 1959 and the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996. While the population increase has levelled out since 2000, the average density of red deer on open hill range is still higher than in 2000.[8] The ‘culling effort’ (or level of cull per square kilometre) had also been declining since then, until a larger cull in 2017/18.[9]

27 The national cull of red deer from cull returns in 2017/18 was 79,568 and substantially higher than the cull of 62,910 in 2016/17.[10] Nearly all that increase came from higher cull totals in the 44 DMGs involved in the three DMG assessments carried out by SNH. The Group notes that the last time that the annual national cull of red deer was recorded as over 70,000 was in 1989/99 and 1999/2000, which was when the Deer Commission for Scotland undertook an assessment of DMGs similar to the ones recently carried out by SNH. The annual national cull total then fell back after 1999/2000 to lower levels, with the cull less than 60,000 in seven of the 17 years to 2017/18. It remains to be seen if culls will reduce again in the years following SNH’s assessments.

28 Figure 55 shows the annual cull totals for the 44 DMGs from the start of the assessment process in 2013/14 to 2017/18. There was no apparent increase in the level of the annual red deer cull total until 2017/18, when the cull total increased nearly 16,000 to 62,785 compared to 46,803 in 2016/17. Figure 56 shows the distribution of the 2016/17 red deer cull in the 44 DMGs by size of the cull recorded in the cull returns, excluding the culls on National Forest Estate land.

29 The analysis in Figure 56 reflects that the majority of the cull in the 44 DMGs was carried out on less than 250 properties and much of it on a smaller number of properties. A similar analysis of the estate sector red deer culls 30 years ago in the late 1980s showed the same broad pattern. At that time, the number of returns for red deer was around 500 each year and there were around 120 estates that shot over 100 red deer a year.[11] Those estates accounted for over half of the total estate sector cull and less than 30 estates accounted for a third of it. The position remains similar now to the extent that a relatively small number of properties can have a marked influence on the annual red deer cull totals.

30 SNH has commented that the higher red cull in 2017/18 is encouraging as it reflects DMGs carrying out reduction culls as part of implementing their DMPs.[12] The 2017/18 figures are the most recent available at the time of writing. It remains to be seen whether the higher culling effort will be sustained to reduce the still high average densities of open hill red deer in parts of open hill deer range and the current levels of damaging impacts in places. The cull targets in the DMG DMPs were set by the groups themselves and are not cull targets advised by SNH.

31 The current average density of red deer on open hill range across the whole of the Highlands is estimated to be around 10 red deer per square kilometre.[13] This is based on the densities of deer in the Deer Management Areas (DMAs) used by the researchers responsible for the figure, with DMAs closely related to the areas covered by SNH’s open hill red deer counting areas and by DMGs. The distribution of the 53 DMAs is shown in Figure 57 with the estimated density of red deer in each in 2019. The researchers did not publish the size of the DMAs or the extent of land within DMAs over which their DMA density figures were calculated.

Figure 55 Annual cull totals for the 44 DMGs in the SNH assessment process (2013/14-2017/18)
DMG in assessement process Red Sika Fallow Roe
13/14 14/15 15/16 16/17 17/18 13/14 14/15 15/16 16/17 17/18 13/14 14/15 15/16 16/17 17/18 13/14 14/15 15/16 16/17 17/18
1 Ardnamurchan 38 353 45 289 75 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 10 0 5 11 5 7 5
2 Arran 255 313 462 429 583 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
3 Balquhidder 1,301 1,221 772 669 1,099 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 109 140 97 167 279
4 Blackmount 1,383 1,465 1,050 1,233 1,549 1 0 1 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 151 135 125 123 170
5 Breadalbane 3,151 3,026 1,747 1,736 2,498 1 0 0 2 4 0 4 1 0 0 98 111 105 100 137
6 East Grampians (4 DMGs, 3 in assessment 5,648 5,079 4,932 4,009 5,722 0 1 0 0 8 19 17 30 38 0 1,584 1,760 1,659 1,620 755
7 " "
8 " "
9 East Loch Ericht 864 1,193 1,075 729 938 2 6 1 2 4 5 11 11 5 7 49 48 45 58 131
10 East Loch Shiel 686 471 275 510 546 0 0 3 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 25 37 31 25 38
11 East Sutherland 2,104 2,225 2,259 1,883 3,423 193 256 251 228 205 0 0 0 0 0 108 100 119 86 113
12 East Ross 211 276 293 349 385 12 20 28 31 17 2 0 0 0 0 29 27 20 9 9
13 Gairloch Conservation Group 317 325 172 237 471 4 0 6 5 11 0 0 0 0 0 35 19 31 29 37
14 Glenartney 1,045 558 781 889 1,236 1 0 0 0 1 1 1 3 6 2 74 68 87 70 77
15 Glenelg 596 604 517 684 798 12 12 16 17 14 0 0 0 0 0 40 45 60 129 32
16 Harris/Lewis 426 265 368 429 383 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
17 Inveraray/Tyndrum 1,651 1,496 1,348 1,401 1,762 9 23 13 11 20 0 0 0 0 0 80 95 159 128 197
18 Islay 345 353 483 531 504 0 0 0 0 0 14 34 49 33 58 37 4 31 63 54
19 Knoydart (2 DMGs) 1,744 1,849 1,300 1,297 1,811 35 21 22 14 20 0 0 0 0 0 78 74 105 79 82
20 Knoydart
21 West Lochaber 784 759 284 675 741 5 7 4 2 6 0 0 0 0 0 10 14 0 10 13
22 Mid West Assoc 1,516 1,978 1,681 1,723 3,160 22 13 35 71 122 0 0 0 0 0 181 245 261 279 414
23 Moidart 358 391 208 327 377 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 5 0 2 5
24 Monadhliaths 3,221 4,240 3,881 3,788 5,536 911 1,150 954 1,052 1,855 2 0 0 0 0 776 731 647 821 875
25 Morvern 571 717 542 724 800 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 39 37 31 27 60
26 Mull 1,419 1,459 1,106 1,362 1,346 0 0 0 0 0 0 36 18 16 0 0 0 0 0
27 North Ross 2,294 2,654 2,191 2,158 3,067 1,180 1,086 1,131 695 993 1 0 0 0 1 394 372 301 391 337
28 North West Sutherland 1,885 2,007 1,384 1,396 2,322 139 55 43 46 94 0 0 0 0 0 62 18 16 29 35
29 Northern 1,684 2,171 2,103 2,548 2,909 25 30 22 8 12 0 0 0 0 0 268 370 235 216 187
30 South Perthshire 1,212 1,375 1,282 1,215 1,371 0 0 0 0 0 271 216 208 203 272 552 667 722 671 783
31-35 South Ross (5 DMGs) 4,266 4,796 3,537 5,554 6,446 507 440 359 326 398 2 2 0 1 1 452 416 463 465 685
36 South West Ross 541 619 447 499 632 4 2 3 6 1 0 0 0 0 0 2 3 3 2 7
37 Cairngorms Speyside 1,252 2,887 2,945 1,384 2,633 0 1 0 0 4 0 0 0 0 0 946 1,091 1,440 1,088 1,118
38 Strathtay 484 610 691 678 699 0 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 137 183 152 159 215
39 Tayside West Grampians 2,684 3,066 3,124 2,646 3,504 0 0 0 1 4 9 14 18 5 30 266 337 336 309 424
40-43 West Sutherland (4 DMGs) 1,023 1,580 1,300 1,840 2,096 175 255 214 639 816 0 0 0 0 0 14 30 21 136 186
44 West Ross 1,298 1,669 714 982 1,363 122 121 66 122 133 0 0 0 0 0 14 5 11 26 19
Totals 48,257 54,050 45,299 46,803 62,785 3,361 3,503 3,173 3,281 4,743 326 335 338 317 371 6,618 7,198 7,318 7,324 7,479

Source: SNH Information Response 38


1. The information is drawn from Deerline. The way the database is set up, the DMGs of East Grampians (East Grampians sub area 1, Upper Deeside & Donside, Birse Parish and South Deeside & North Angus) are all recorded together. However, East Grampian Sub area 1 was not part of the DMG assessment process although it was assessed in 2016. Accordingly, only 3 DMGs in East Grampians are included in the 44, although the cull figures for all four combined are shown.

2. Knoydart figures are for 2 DMGs - East & West Knoydart. South Ross figures include the 5 DMGs - Strathconon, Glenstrathfarrar, Lochalsh, Affric & Kintail and Glenmoriston. West Sutherland includes 4 DMGs - North, South, East and West (Assynt Peninsula). All of these DMGs are part of the assessment process.

3. North Loch Arkaig (shown in the original spreadsheet) is an historical area comprising FCS Glegarry and is part of East Knoydart DMG, so figures have been added to the Knoydart totals.

Figure 56 Distribution of the red deer cull in the 44 assessed DMGs by size of cull recorded (2016/17)
Number of red deer killed Number of cull returns
0-20 251
21-50 150
51-100 122
101-250 100
251-500 20
Over 500 5
Total number of returns 648

Source: SNH Information Response 52

32 The 44 assessed DMGs cover just under 3 million hectares and with additional DMGs not included in all three assessments, there are DMG DMPs covering 3.2 million hectares or 40% of Scotland’s 7.9 million hectare land area.[14] SNH’s maps of DMGs, like the maps of DMAs in Figure 57, show them as contiguous areas covering a substantial part of the Highlands. However, within these areas, there is woodland, agricultural land, other land uses, open water and settlements. The 3.2 million hectares does not equate to open hill red deer range, but the Group was unable to find available information on the actual extent of open hill red deer range or the extent to which it has been reducing over time through forestry expansion.[15]

33 The overall average of 10 red deer per square kilometre has been more or less stable for the last 20 years.[16] The densities in the DMAs currently vary from less than two red deer per square kilometre to more than 25 red deer per square kilometre and there has a changing pattern over the last 20 years. In general, the density has decreased in 67% of the DMAs that had higher than average densities in 1999 and the density has increased in 68% of DMAs that had lower than average densities then. This indicates that lower densities are not being maintained as lower densities in many of the areas which had them.

34 Average open hill red deer density figures over large stretches of countryside such as DMAs and DMG areas, do not directly provide helpful information about impacts. The deer are not spread evenly over the areas. They are likely to be concentrated in different parts of the areas in summer and winter and within that wider distribution, will be concentrated in particular locations for feeding, shelter and other reasons. It is that pattern of occupancy in terms of how many deer spend how much time in a location, that is correlated with impacts.

Figure 57 Densities of red deer in the 53 DMAs (2019)
Figure 57 Densities of red deer in the 53 DMAs (2019)

Source: Albon (2019)

35 Most DMAs and DMGs cover tens of thousands of hectares, with the 44 assessed DMGs averaging over 67,000 hectares each. The Group considers, as discussed in Section 16, that with many habitats such as native woodlands and peatlands requiring densities well below 10 deer per square kilometre, the average density on open range across the Highlands of 10 red deer per square kilometre strongly indicates that deer will be causing damaging impacts within those DMAs and DMGs with densities above that average figure due to the patterns of occupancy.

36 The Group also reported in Section 16 that the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) has adopted a policy that the CNPA will aim to have red deer densities over 10 deer per square kilometre reduced where the deer are restricting habitat enhancement. Given the imperative of habitat enhancement for climate change mitigation, and the evidence of wider impacts of deer resulting from higher densities already considered in the Report, the Group considers that SNH should also adopt this upper limit of 10 red deer per square kilometre over large areas of open hill red deer range. The Group considers therefore that SNH should have a clear position nationally that densities over that threshold are unacceptable because of the high likelihood of damage or the risk of damage by the deer to public interests, recognising that the threshold will need reviewed from time to time in the light of developments in public policy and further information on the levels of damaging impacts by deer.

37 The Working Group recommends that Scottish Natural Heritage should adopt 10 red deer per square kilometre as an upper limit for acceptable densities of red deer over large areas of open range in the Highlands, and review that figure from time to time in the light of developments in public policies, including climate change measures.

38 The concern for SNH is not directly the numbers or densities of deer, but the impacts of the deer. As the deer authority under the terms of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996, SNH’s core role is minimising the impacts of deer that amount to unacceptable levels of damage to the public interests covered by the Act.

39 Now that DMGs are implementing their DMPs and the cull targets that they have identified, the priority for SNH should be to improve the information that it has on the impacts of the deer species in DMG areas. As discussed further later in this Section, this should not just be the impacts on designated sites, but on the natural heritage generally, woodlands and forestry, agriculture, other land uses and where relevant, settlements, together with the levels of deer vehicle collisions and the welfare of the deer including the levels of winter mortality.

40 There is relatively limited recent information available on the impacts of open hill red deer, despite the history of issues associated with them. Instead, SNH has continued to spend around £250,000 a year and thus a significant proportion of its expenditure on deer management, on its annual programme of counting red deer on the open hill. The Group considers that the value of the information obtained from these counts for SNH’s role as the deer authority, is very limited. The Group considers that SNH should be concentrating its resources on gathering and monitoring information on the impacts of deer, and combining this with more use of indirect methods of assessing deer densities where appropriate.

41 The Group recognises that many DMGs may want to carry out open hill counts to inform themselves about the red deer using their area. However, counts on one day by SNH in different areas that are repeated in an area after some years, provides very little practical information for the deer authority. The Group considers SNH has continued a tradition of carrying out an annual counting programme each year without any adequate evaluation and scrutiny of value of investing a large amount of money in it. This is despite SNH’s repeated comments in recent reports about the limited resources that it has for deer management.[17]

42 The Group recognises that there may still be situations where it might be particularly useful for SNH to carry out an open hill red deer count. However, SNH does not need to carry out such a count to use its regulatory powers, which are based on evidence of damage or the risk of damage and involve reducing the damage or risk of it. SNH has the level of culling by a land owner or owners or can require the information to be provided. If SNH has information on damage as well as culls, SNH can adopt an adaptive management approach by requiring or enforcing higher annual culls until the damage or risk of it is reduced to acceptable levels.

43 The Working Group recommends that Scottish Natural Heritage should very substantially reduce the extent to which Scottish Natural Heritage carries out direct counts of red deer on open hill range and refocus Scottish Natural Heritage’s limited resources on building up more information on the impacts that deer are having on the natural heritage, woodlands, forestry, agriculture and other public interests in Scotland.

44 The Group considers that SNH should not be waiting to see how DMGs get on with implementing and developing their DMPs. SNH should be acting to ensure that it has the information it needs on deer impacts, starting by prioritising the localities where SNH has most concerns that damage to public interests is occurring based on existing information. As part of improving that information, the Group considers that SNH should be making more use of surveys that combine gathering information on patterns of deer occupancy with habitat impact assessments.

45 The Group recognises that SNH has encouraged DMGs to carry out habitat impact assessments as part of their deer management planning process. The Group considers, however, that SNH should ensure as the regulator that it has its own independent assessments of the impacts of deer in different locations. The Group also considered the complex SWARD computer programme that SNH has been trying to develop as an aide to DMGs in interpreting the management implications of their habitat impact assessments. The Group considers on the basis of a report commissioned by SNH, that SNH should not be trying to develop this further due to the expense and its potentially limited application in practice.[18]

46 The Group also considers on the basis of its discussions with SNH, that SNH should be making faster and greater progress in recognising and following through the implications of climate change mitigation measures for the management of open hill red deer in the Highlands. The Climate Change Committee, which covers all of the UK and all devolved administrations, produced a report on land use in 2018 and two elements of the Committee’s recommendations have particular relevance for the management of open hill red deer range.[19]

47 The Committee’s recommendations call for the creation of more new woodlands and the potential for this in Scotland is concentrated in the Highlands, given the extent of open hill land in the region. The recommendations also highlight the need to protect and restore peatlands, with the distribution of existing peatlands in the UK also concentrated in the Highlands. The Scottish Government has adopted these measures in its own climate change mitigation measures, along with related measures including biodiversity targets and improving the condition of other types of semi-natural open habitats, native woodlands and the vegetation and associated wildlife more generally.[20]

48 Land use climate change mitigation measures are highly relevant to the management of wild deer across Scotland, as discussed further in Section 28. The Group considers that SNH should be providing clear advice on this to the Scottish Government, so that the importance of adequate deer control is more fully recognised in the Scottish Government’s mitigation plans, such as its Climate Ready Scotland: Climate Change Adaptation Programme 2019-24.

49 SNH has recently recognised that implementing the Scottish Government’s mitigation measures will involve “significant changes” to the management of wild deer, but without providing further details.[21] The Group considers that successfully implementing these measures within open hill red deer range in the Highlands will, while it also involves other factors, require reducing the densities of open hill red deer in those parts of the Highlands that currently have higher densities of 10 or more red deer per square kilometre.[22]

50 The Working Group endorses Scottish Natural Heritage’s identification of the need for significant changes in deer management as an important issue in climate change mitigation measures, and recommends that Scottish Natural Heritage treats this as a high priority.

51 SNH included criteria related to ecosystem services and climate change mitigation in its assessment of DMGs based on the aims in WDNA.[23] The Group recognises that habitats which have been suppressed by browsing pressure for a long time, can take several years before they start to recover fully once that pressure has been reduced. However, where a land owner is not making adequate progress in reducing browsing pressure by the red deer and not responding to further advice, SNH needs to be able and willing to use its regulatory powers.

52 One of the criticisms of SNH’s approach to deer management made by the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee in 2017, was that “SNH appears to have been unable, or unwilling, to enforce legislation to secure the natural heritage interests”.[24] The Group described in Sections 23 and 24 the inappropriate constraints in the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 that limit SNH’s ability to use its control powers to protect and enhance the natural heritage and recommended their removal. The Group has also recommended other amendments to those existing powers and considers the adequacy of SNH’s current control powers further in Section 28.

53 However, even with appropriate control powers, SNH needs to be willing to use them when required to reduce damage being caused by deer. As described in this Report, SNH has made little use of the powers so far. The Group appreciates that SNH is keen to maintain constructive relations with land owners and DMGs to be able to provide advice on improving standards of deer management. However, the Group also came across the view within SNH that, after SNH has continued to put so much emphasis on collaboration in its dealing with land owners and DMGs, the use of regulatory powers would seem like a betrayal of those relations.

54 The Group recognises that persuasion has benefits over the use of regulation. However, an appropriate balance needs to be struck. Advice is likely to be more effective if it is backed by an expectation that regulatory powers might be used. The Group also considers that SNH should be cautious about the extent to which it might displace issues that need to be addressed, on to the local DMG as a problem for it to solve. The unit of regulation in the deer legislation is individual landholdings not groups, and the Group considers that SNH should concentrate the use of its powers on the particular properties where higher culls are required to reduce damage by deer or the risk of it.

55 Another factor that needs to be considered in aiming to protect and enhance public interests by reducing the levels of damage caused by open hill red deer, is the public interest benefit to be attributed to shooting open hill red deer on a commercial basis with clients.[25]

56 The Group commented in Section 20 on the lack of information from recent decades on the number of properties undertaking commercial open hill red deer stalking or the proportions of the open hill red deer stag and hind culls that tend to be taken on a commercial basis each year. The economic importance of the commercial culls can also vary markedly between estates. Some estates view it as an important part of their management, even though its commercial value may be a small part of the overall economics of the estates.

57 The Group has also mentioned earlier that there still continue to be estates that have not responded to the research evidence provided over the years and that could maintain and improve their stag culls by reducing the number of hinds on their land.[26] The need to reduce red deer numbers in some situations also needs to be viewed in the context of the increases in numbers that have occurred in many areas over recent decades. As discussed in Section 21, wild deer are part of the public domain and land owners have no entitlement to certain numbers of deer on their land. All land owners have to adapt to changes in public standards and changes in management on neighbouring lands.

58 In considering the economic interests of estates carrying out commercial culls, the ADMG and SNH often refer to SNH’s ‘balancing duties’. These have been seen previously by the DCS and SNH in terms of the duty to take such account as may be appropriate in the circumstances of the interests listed in s.1(2) of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996, including the interests of owners and occupiers of land. Now, however, there is the Scottish Regulators’ Strategic Code of Practice.[27]

59 Under that Code, SNH is expected to adopt a number of “high level operational approaches” when applying or considering applying its regulatory powers. One of these approaches is that SNH should “In pursuing their core regulatory remit be alive to other interests, including relevant community and business interests; taking business factors appropriately and proportionately into account in their decision making processes”.[28]

60 SNH needs to apply that stipulation to the use of its regulatory powers in any situation. However, in consider the use of those powers within the cultural context open hill red deer stalking in the Highlands, the Group considers that it is particularly necessary for SNH to ensure that the SNH staff involved take an objective and well-informed public interest approach to any balanced judgement that might need to be made.

27.3 Scotland-wide Approach

61 The previous parts of this Section have been largely about open hill red deer in the Highlands. They remain a particularly important component of deer management in Scotland environmentally, economically and culturally. However, the time and resources that SNH has spent on its role as the deer authority since 2010, have continued to be disproportionally focused on the management of open hill red deer, as described in Section 26.

62 Most wild deer in Scotland live in woodland environments and most of the wild deer shot each year in Scotland are culled in woodland environments. The damaging impacts that all four species of wild deer can have in and around woodlands were described in Part Three. The Group considers, as described in Section 26, that SNH has been rightly criticised for the degree of its focus on open hill red deer and the relative lack of attention that it has paid to the management of wild deer in the rest of Scotland.

63 The Group considers that it is essential for effective deer management in Scotland that safeguards public interests, that SNH as the deer authority has a clear understanding of deer management in all parts of Scotland where wild deer occur. The Group considers that SNH should be systematically building up its knowledge of deer impacts and deer culls in different localities across Scotland outwith open hill red deer range. The Group considers that, as part of that, SNH needs to re-balance its time and expenditure on deer management away from the current concentration predominantly on the management of open hill red deer.

64 The Working Group recommends that Scottish Natural Heritage should allocate a significantly greater share of its resources as the deer authority under the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996, to the management of wild deer in Scotland outwith open hill red deer range.

65 The limited extent of SNH’s use of cull returns outwith the area covered by DMGs was described in Section 21. The Group recommended in that Section that SNH should start to increase substantially the extent of Scotland covered by cull returns, taking a targeted and prioritised approach to the localities where the coverage is to be increased first. The Group considers that approach should be linked to appropriately experienced member of SNH staff developing an understanding of the deer impacts and other factors involved in deer management in each locality, as discussed below.

66 The Group considers that SNH as the deer authority needs such appropriately experienced members of staff in each of SNH’s seven operational Areas covering Scotland. The Group refers to these members of staff here as ‘deer officers’ as they would be acting in SNH’s capacity as deer authority, to distinguish them amongst the Wildlife Management Officers (WMOs) that SNH has in its Areas. The Group recognises that some existing WMOs could act as deer officers.

67 The size of the area that a deer officer could cover at an adequate level varies with the character of the area and the various localities within it. Developing a systematic account of deer management in a locality would include a deer officer establishing the pattern of local land ownership, obtaining cull data from cull returns and using a range of sources to build up information on deer management and the impacts of deer. SNH’s Lowland Deer Management Project illustrated this type of locality approach, although the Project was designed with other objectives.[29]

68 An essential part of a deer officer understanding deer management in a locality, is engaging with land owners and occupiers, deer hunters and other relevant interests. A question about deer damage on cull return forms, as recommended in Section 21, would help target that engagement, as would applications to SNH for out of season or night shooting authorisations. The other interests might include local representatives of NFU Scotland and the Crofters Federation, and Forestry and Land Scotland and Scottish Forestry staff. While other SNH staff might have information, there should also be contact with Local Authority (LA) staff for relevant LA responsibilities, for example, for roads and information on local deer vehicle collisions.

69 A deer officer could also link information on deer impacts in a locality from the above sources, with other existing information. This might include other deer vehicle collision data for Scotland’s main roads as described in Section 15 and information from the Native Woodland Survey of Scotland described in Section 16. Other national data sources may become available.[30] There may also be existing habitat surveys by SNH and others in the locality, as well as surveys in some places of deer occupancy using dung counting analysis. Site visits by a deer officer to walk through woodlands and other habitats will also given an impression of deer impacts, while more detailed surveys could be carried out at sites where there is considered to be damage by deer.

70 With the type of approach described above, a deer officer could develop and maintain an understanding of deer management and deer impacts over a relatively wide area involving a number of different localities. The deer officer can provide advice to land owners and occupiers who should increase their culls to reduce damage by deer or the risk of it, with SNH’s control powers in the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 as back-up if necessary. The deer officer can also provide advice on deer management to other SNH staff in the SNH Area in which they are based, as well as to SNH’s headquarters on applications for authorisations and any possible use of SNH’s control powers.

71 While the size of area that a deer officer might cover adequately will vary with the character of different areas, the Group considers the areas covered by deer officers should be based on LA boundaries.[31] That might mean a deer officer covering several smaller LA areas or part of a larger LA, with SNH’s seven Areas based on LA boundaries except the Highland Council area, which is divided between two Areas. The Group considers that SNH should ensure there is adequate knowledge succession when there is a staff change involving a deer officer, so that the understanding of local deer management that is built up is not lost.

72 The Group is not aiming to be prescriptive over whether such deer officers might do other SNH work. However, while SNH staff are involved in implementing provisions in a wide range of legislation, the Group considers that SNH needs to be clearer that it has two different types of statutory functions as an organisation. These are set out in s.1 of the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991 and they are SNH’s natural heritage functions under that Act and SNH’s deer functions under the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996.

73 The Group considers that for SNH to fulfil its functions and responsibilities as the deer authority under the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996, SNH deer officers should cover all LA areas where wild deer occur (i.e. all except the Orkney and Shetland Islands). The Group recognises that, to some extent, SNH has WMOs who might be considered to be acting as deer officers in parts of the country. However, the Group considers that SNH needs to adopt a new approach with dedicated staff acting as deer officers in all SNH’s Areas and clear roles in relation to SNH’s functions and responsibilities under the 1996 Act.

74 The Working Group recommends that Scottish Natural Heritage should be using suitably experienced staff based in Scottish Natural Heritage’s seven Areas and acting for Scottish Natural Heritage’s responsibilities under the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996, to develop a systematic account of deer management and deer impacts in all parts of Scotland where wild deer occur.

75 The Group also considers that SNH should move on from its simplistic division of Scotland into upland and lowland deer management, based on open hill red deer range and elsewhere. Deer are shot in a range of different environments in Scotland and, for example, there is a continuity between the deer on open hill and the deer in adjoining environments including woodlands and agricultural land. The Group considers that the focus should be on geographic localities, some of which may or may not have open hill red deer to varying degrees.

76 The Group considers that SNH needs to change to presenting cull statistics, authorisation data and other information on deer management at a LA area scale. Currently SNH generally only publishes information at a national level. The Group considers that also producing information LA area scale will provide a valuable intermediate level between national statistics and deer management on the ground in different localities. This is discussed further in Section 28.

77 A range of other public sector land use statistics relevant to deer management are produced at a LA scale, while further development of the Scottish Government’s Land Use Strategy is also focused at that scale. LAs are also required, for example, to produce forestry and woodland strategies for their areas under Scotland’s planning legislation.[32] The proposed regional land use plans recently announced by the Scottish Government in its Programme for Government 2019-20, are also likely to based on LA boundaries.[33]

78 LAs also have responsibilities related to deer management, including roads and venison dealer licensing. In addition, since 2016, SNH has been engaging LAs to make them aware of their responsibilities under the Deer Code and encourage deer management planning. SNH’s gradual progress is described in SNH’s 2019 report to the Scottish Government.[34] The Group considers, however, that SNH itself should also be developing and implementing deer management strategies at a LA area scale. The Group considers deer management in Scotland should be considered at four main levels: landholdings, localities, LA areas and nationally.

79 The Working Group recommends that Scottish Natural Heritage should, in fulfilling its responsibilities for deer management under the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996, be developing Local Authority areas as an important intermediate level between national and local levels.

27.4 Leadership and Resources

80 SNH replaced the DCS as the deer authority in the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 in 2010. The Group considers that the change resulted in a loss of focus, momentum and accountability as the deer authority’s role became submerged in SNH.[35] SNH’s performance was subsequently criticised in the ECCLR Committee’s report in 2017, when the Committee concluded “that SNH has not provided the level of leadership in deer management that might have been expected and there has been a failure to adequately set expectations for deer management in Scotland”.[36]

81 SNH responded to the criticism by producing a paper for the SNH Board in 2017 called ‘An Enhanced Approach to Deer Management’. The paper set out “how we intend to take forward an enhanced approach to show more leadership on deer management”.[37] Updates to the Board followed and SNH concluded in its 2019 report to the Scottish Government that “The evidence presented demonstrates SNH’s proactive leadership role in deer management within a voluntary system. We have balanced our use of support, intervention and regulation to promote sustainable deer management and the protection of public interests”.[38]

82 The Group acknowledges that SNH manages to carry out a wide range of involvements with deer management each year. The Group considers, however, that the question is not so much one of ‘leadership’ as effectiveness in terms of not simply outputs, but tangible outcomes on the ground that are reducing the level of damaging impacts by deer that occur in Scotland. The Group recognises that SNH has a challenging role as the deer authority, but considers that the full benefits of the merger of the DCS into SNH will only emerge when SNH takes a refocused approach to that role. The Group considers that SNH needs a clearer sense of direction and greater intent to make progress.

83 The Group appreciates that part of the challenge for SNH staff in making progress to improve deer management, is the amount of funding available within SNH to fulfil its role as the deer authority. SNH has highlighted working with limited resources in its reports on deer management to the Scottish Government in 2016 and 2019. Those resources were expected in 2016 to continue at an average annual expenditure of £1.5 million a year, but had reduced to an expenditure of £1.3 million in 2018/19 due to SNH receiving a reducing annual budget allocation from the Scottish Government.[39]

84 The Group has identified aspects of SNH’s deer expenditure that the Group considers could be spent more effectively, particularly by reducing the amount that SNH spends on its annual open hill red deer counting programme as described earlier. The Group also considers that, with the reallocation of the time and funds that SNH has been spending on some activities, the changes recommended by the Group to SNH’s approach as the deer authority could potentially be accommodated without an increase from SNH’s previous average expenditure of £1.5 million a year.

85 The Group recognises that all public sector budgets are under pressure and that SNH’s use of resources for its work as the deer authority needs to be more effective at achieving progress on the ground than at present. However, the Group considers that maintaining an adequate level of funding for SNH’s work as the deer authority is an important public investment, given the scale of the net cost of damage caused by wild deer to public interests.[40] The need to reduce that damage is now also particularly important in terms of implementing climate change mitigation and adaptation measures.

86 While SNH implements public policy for deer management, responsibility for the delivery of public policy rests in the first instance with the Scottish Government. The Group considers that the Scottish Government should ensure that there is an appropriate level of allocation from the annual budget allocation that it provides to SNH, for SNH’s functions under the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996. At present, SNH makes the decision over the allocations of funds between its functions under the Deer Act and SNH’s natural heritage functions under the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991.

87 The Group considers that the Scottish Government should distinguish between those two roles of SNH in its annual budget allocations to SNH. The Group also considers that the Scottish Government should base the allocation for SNH’s deer authority role on a forward plan from SNH that sets out the actions that SNH plans to take with targets for the improvements in deer management it intends to achieve. This approach should also be linked to the Group’s recommendation in Section 26, that s.2 of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 should be amended to require SNH to produce an annual report on the exercise of its functions under the Act.

88 The Working Group recommends that the Scottish Government should, in making its annual budget allocation to Scottish Natural Heritage, distinguish between the budget allocated to Scottish Natural Heritage for its functions under the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 and the budget allocated for Scottish Natural Heritage’s functions under the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991.


2 An example of an initiative to help address that tension is ‘The European Charter of Hunting and Biodiversity’ (Bern Convention 007).

3 DCS (1999). ‘Collaborative Deer Management’.

4 SNH (2019). Assessing Progress in Deer Management – Report from Scottish Natural Heritage to Scottish Government.

5 SNH (2019) Op cit.

6 See Section 26.

7 SNH (2019) Op cit.

8 Albon, S. D., McLeod, J., Potts, J., Irvine, J., Fraser, D. and Newey, S. (2019). Updating the estimates of national trends and regional differences in red deer densities on open-hill ground in Scotland. Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned
Report No. 1149.

9 Albon et al. (2019) Op cit.

10 See Figure 8 (National cull statistics) in Section 2.

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

12 SNH (2019) Op cit.

13 Albon et al. (2019) Op cit.

14 SNH Information Response 57.

15 While the extent of open hill red deer range previously increased due to expansion in the distribution of red deer, the Group considers that the degree of colonisation has meant there has not been scope for further expansion for some decades.

16 Albon et al. (2019) Op cit.

17 SNH (2016). Deer Management in Scotland: Report to the Scottish Government from SNH, October 2016. Also SNH (2019) Op cit.

18 Sylva Foundation (2019). Business analysis for scoping the roll out, platform and hosting of the SWARD (solving wide area range management for deer) application and database. Report to SNH.

19 Committee on Climate Change (2018). Land use: Reducing emissions and preparing for climate change. November 2018.

20 See Section 16.

21 SNH (2019). SNH’s Climate Change Commitments – towards a nature-rich future, p.4.

22 Other factors include, for example, the levels of sheep grazing and muirburn.

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

24 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, para 13.

25 Putman, R. (2012). Scoping the economic benefits and costs of wild deer and their management in Scotland. SNH Commissioned Report No. 526. PACEC (2016). The Contribution of Deer Management to the Scottish Economy.

26 For example, Buckland, S.T., Ahmadi, S., Staines, B.W., Gordon, I.J. and Youngson, R.W. (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.

27 Scottish Government (2015). Scottish Regulators’ Strategic Code of Practice.

28 Scottish Government (2015), Op cit, para 2.

29 The Project is described in Section 26. Mc Morran, R., Gibson-Poole, S. and Hamilton, A. (2019). Lowland deer management: assessing the delivery of public interests. Scottish Natural Heritage Research Report No. 1069.

30 For example, see Section 14 regarding the possible use of the Scottish Government’s annual agricultural census to gather information on damage by deer on agricultural holdings.

31 The Group considers that relatively few properties extend across LA boundaries. The Group recognises that there can be some deer movement across LA boundaries, particularly red deer. However, that is also likely to happen with open boundaries at other scales.

32 Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997, section A159.

33 Scottish Government (2019). Protecting Scotland’s Future: The Government’s Programme for Scotland 2019-2020.

34 SNH (2019), Op cit.

35 See Section 26.

36 ECCLR Committee (2017) Op cit, para 13.

37 SNH (2017). An enhanced approach to deer management. Paper to SNH Board.

38 SNH (2019), Op cit, p.5.

39 See Section 26.

40 See Section 20.



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