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

The final report of the Deer Working Group.

Section 2 National Distributions, Populations and Culls

1 In the 60 years since the Deer (Scotland) Act 1959 came into effect, there have been substantial increases in the distributions and numbers of Scotland’s four species of wild deer. The number of deer shot in Scotland has also increased considerably over that time. This Section outlines those trends from the information available at a national level to provide an overview and context to the more detailed discussions later in the Report.

2.1 National Distributions

2.1.1 Background History

2 Wild red and roe deer are naturally woodland species and they have been in Scotland for around 10,000 years since the land was colonised by forests following the last glaciation. Their distribution had already been greatly reduced by forest clearance and hunting by 1,000 years ago. The development of feudalism in Scotland from that time included the establishment of a system of hunting forests and other enactments to restrict the hunting of red deer.[1]

3 The continuing loss of tree cover and pressure from hunting meant that wild red and roe deer only survived north of the Highland Boundary Fault by the 18th century.[2] That century is considered the low point for the numbers of both species in Scotland, with the main concentrations of red deer surviving in parts of the Central Highlands around Atholl, Black Mount, Glenartney, Glen Fiddich, Invercauld and Mar.[3]

4 By that time, the red deer had adapted to living on the open hill all year with little or no access to woodlands and, during the 19th century, their numbers and range increased as a result of the growing interest in deer stalking and the establishment of open hill range ‘deer forests’ on private estates in the Highlands.[4] The population of roe deer also grew significantly as its range expanded fairly rapidly on lower ground due to increased tree planting during the 19th century.

5 At the beginning of the 20th century, when the area of deer forests peaked, it is estimated that there were 150,000 red deer on the open hill range.[5] Red deer were also colonising new areas by that time, including the re-establishment of woodland populations of red deer for the first time in many centuries. It appears that the first of these was when red deer colonised the Water Board plantations on the Cowal peninsula in the first decade of the 20th century.[6]

6 Scotland’s two non-native species of wild deer, fallow and sika, had also become established at a number of locations by the 20th century due to escapes and deliberate releases from the deer parks kept by some land owners. Fallow deer are native to mainland Europe and have a long history in Scotland, having first been introduced to Scotland as park deer in the 13th century.[7] By the early 20th century, the locations where wild populations had become established included Dumfriesshire, Argyll, along the Tay Valley, at Dornoch in Sutherland and on Mull.[8]

7 Sika deer from Asia were, in comparison, only introduced into Britain in the second half of the 19th century. However, by the early 20th century, there had been escapes and releases at a range of locations in Scotland, including in Peebleshire, Fife, Argyllshire, Inverness-shire, Ross-shire and Sutherland.[9]

2.1.2 The Last 60 Years

8 While each of the four wild deer species have continued to expand their range in Scotland since the early 20th century, the extent and rate of the continuing expansion has been particularly marked since the 1950s.

9 A dominant factor in this expansion has been the increase in tree cover in Scotland creating more woodland habitat for the deer to colonise. The maps in Figure 3 show the increasing percentage of tree cover in the different parts of the country from 1947 to 2011, during which time Scotland’s tree cover increased from 6.6% to 18.0% of the total land area.

Figure 3 Woodland cover in Scotland by county (1895-2011)
Figure 3 Woodland cover in Scotland by county (1895-2011)

10 The maps in Figure 4 show the distribution of the four wild deer species in Scotland by 1990, shortly before the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 replaced the 1959 Act.[10] By that time, the range of red deer had spread out around their previous range in the Highlands, with particular expansions into the Eastern Highlands and southwards in the Central Highlands towards the Central Belt. The isolated population in Dumfries and Galloway had also expanded its range as it increased from Fraser Darling’s estimate of around 415 animals in 1954 to approximately 10 times that number by 1990.[11]

11 The maps also show the major spread of roe deer, while the scattered distributions of the fallow and sika populations reflected the patterns of their original escapes or releases.

Figure 4 Distributions of wild deer in Scotland in 1990
Figure 4 Distributions of wild deer in Scotland in 1990

12 Since the 1970s, distribution maps for deer species have tended to be based on the presence or absence of deer in 10 kilometre squares. Maps at that scale showing the distribution of all four species in Britain in 1972 have been compared to show the expansions in their respective ranges by 2002.[12] The total number of squares occupied by each species in Britain in 1972, 2002 and 2007 have also been compared to show the on-going expansion in the distribution of each species.[13]

13 The main distribution maps for deer in Scotland are currently those that result from the five-yearly 10 kilometre square surveys carried out by the British Deer Society (BDS) in 2007, 2011 and 2016. The 2016 Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) report on Deer Management in Scotland used BDS maps based on the surveys in 2007 and 2011.[14] In Figure 5, the maps have been updated as a result of the BDS’s 2016 survey to provide a more recent indication of the distributions of the species of wild deer in Scotland.[15]

14 The 2016 distribution maps show that red deer have continued to expand their range into the north-east of Scotland and south into the Central Belt, with the population in Southern Scotland also spreading further. Roe deer now occur more or less throughout mainland Scotland, including the colonisation of an increasing number of peri-urban and urban areas. The distribution of sika deer has increased significantly compared to its 1990 distribution and sika now occur in 40% of the red deer range.[16] Similarly, fallow deer have also expanded over that period with a number of previously localised populations coalescing over wider areas.

2.1.3 Current Position

15 The distribution maps reflect the major change in context since the 1959 Act was introduced 60 years ago. That Act originally only dealt with red deer and was designed to protect agricultural and forestry interests from damage by marauding open hill red deer in the Highlands. Now, its successor, the 1996 Act, is intended to deal with all four species in a wide range of environments across the whole of Scotland to protect a much wider range of public interests.

16 Those many and varied environments where deer need to be managed might be considered to be broadly characterised by three basic types of landscape: the largely treeless hill and mountain areas north of the Highland Boundary Fault occupied by open hill red deer populations; the large proportion of Scotland where the landscape consists predominantly of a mix of woodland and farmland covering the full spectrum of possible balances between them; and the most recent environment to be colonised by deer - peri-urban and urban areas. While it has been roe deer that have moved into those latter areas so far, current expansion patterns and experience in England suggest that fallow and red deer will follow them in places.[17]

Figure 5 Distributions of wild deer in Scotland in 2016
Figure 5 Distributions of wild deer in Scotland in 2016

17 The Scottish Government’s continuing policy of encouraging the creation of new woodlands will provide further habitat for deer, and in an increasing number of localities in Scotland, the question is no longer whether wild deer occur but how many species of them occur.[18]

18 In considering the current distribution of each wild deer species in Scotland, the Group was surprised that SNH does not produce its own distribution maps. The Group recognises that SNH is one of the many contributors to the results shown in the BDS’s five-yearly surveys. However, the Group had anticipated that SNH might have considered those maps too coarse grained at 10 kilometre squares for its purposes. There is also a time gap between the BDS surveys and ambiguity regarding areas where a species has been recorded as present in a previous survey but not the current one. SNH is, for example, responsible for implementing a longstanding public policy of limiting or slowing the expansion of Scotland’s non-native deer species, and it might have been considered that distribution maps at a more detailed scale would be helpful as part of that.

19 The Group considers that SNH should develop more detailed distribution maps using the returns that it can require land owners and occupiers to submit of the species, numbers and sexes of the deer shot on their land. However, while that power has existed since 1959, SNH’s current use of cull returns covers less than half of the land area of Scotland and is very largely concentrated in the areas in the Highlands that have open hill red deer. The cull return system is considered in detail later in this Report.[19]

2.2 National Population Estimates

20 Estimates of the total number of a species of wild deer in Scotland can be helpful at a national level, as they can indicate the scale of the resource to be managed and also trends in the overall population. However, as is widely recognised, national estimates should only be viewed as indications because of the difficulty of measuring deer populations. While visual counts can be made of red deer on open hill range, indirect methods such as dung counting techniques have to be used in woodlands to try to assess deer numbers.[20]

2.2.1 1959 - 1996

21 When the Red Deer Commission (RDC) was established by the Deer (Scotland) Act 1959, Scotland’s population of red deer was estimated to be around 155,000.[21] The RDC then continued to produce national estimates from time to time based on the counts of open hill red deer range. After 30 years, the RDC estimated for a report published in 1990 that the national population of red deer had doubled to 300,000, with an estimated 30,000 or 10% of those living in woodlands.[22]

22 Shortly before the RDC had become responsible for all species of wild deer in 1982, it commissioned an estimate of Scotland’s roe population.[23] However, the report in 1990 appears to be the first occasion that it published estimates for all four species. The RDC estimated with the 300,000 for red deer, that there were 200,000 roe, 10,000 sika and 1,000-2,000 fallow deer.

23 In a wider review published in 1995 shortly before the 1959 Act was replaced by the 1996 Act, Harris et al gave a higher estimate of 347,000 for the number of red deer in Scotland.[24] This estimate took account of the estimates by Clutton-Brock and Albon (1989) for red deer in Scotland (297,000+/-40,000) and by Staines and Ratcliffe (1987) for the numbers of red deer in woodlands (27,000-50,000).[25] As a result of their review of available sources, Harris et al also gave a substantially higher estimate of Scotland’s roe population (350,000), while giving similar estimates to those of the RDC for sika and fallow.

2.2.2 1996-Present

24 Early in its work for this Report, the Group asked SNH for the figures that it currently uses for the estimated national populations of Scotland’s species of wild deer. SNH referred the Group to the estimates in its evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s RACCE Committee in 2013. These estimates are given in Figure 6. In SNH’s evidence, the estimates were not referenced but described as “the most recent population counts”.[26]

Figure 6 National population estimates for wild deer in Scotland (1990 – 2013)
Species 1990 Scottish Development Department 1995 Harris et al. 2004 Ward and Young 2005 Battersby 2007 Ward 2010 Putman 2013 SNH evidence to RACCE Committee
Red 300,000 347,000 301,500 347,000 381,600

(360,400 – 404,300)
347,000 (360,000 – 400,000) 360,000 – 400,000
Roe 200,000 350,000 >200,00 350,000 >200,000

(185,500 – 214,000)
200,000 – 350,000 200,000 – 350,000
Sika 10,000 9,000 25,000 9,000 25,000 Perhaps 25,000 25,000
Fallow 1,000 – 2,000 17,000 17,000 <8,000 20,700 (15,600 – 26,600) Uncertain: <2,000? 8,000
Total 511,000 – 512,000 710,000 543,500 714,000 586,500 – 669,900 574,000 – 777,000 593,000 – 783,000

The sources cited in this table can be found in the footnotes for this Section of the Report.

25 The estimates given by SNH to the Committee have been widely quoted elsewhere, where they are also usually described as the “most recent population counts”. An example is the Scottish Government’s ‘Wild Deer: A National Approach’.[27] In that document and elsewhere, the estimates are referenced to evidence to the Committee, which then gives no further information on the basis of the estimates. The Group therefore investigated the topic further.

26 The month before SNH’s evidence to the RACCE Committee in 2013, in a written answer in the Parliament, the then Minister had also given national population estimates supplied by SNH.[28] The national totals were the same except that the fallow population was estimated at 2,000 compared to 8,000. As a result of that answer, a number of bodies including the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) subsequently published national totals with the 2,000 estimate for fallow deer.[29]

27 The Minister’s written answer did, however, give the sources of SNH’s figures as Ward (2007) and Putman (2010).[30] SNH confirmed to the Group that these were also the sources of its estimates to the RACCE Committee. The national population estimates given in those two sources are shown in Figure 6.

28 The national population estimates that SNH continues to use from those two sources can not realistically be described as based on the “most recent population counts”. The basis of the estimates in Putman (2010) and Ward (2007) are described below:

  • In Putman (2010), the estimate of 347,000 red deer was from Harris et al (1995), and the 360,000-400,000 range was from Ward (2007). Putman’s 2010 estimate of 200,000 roe was from Ward, and the 350,000 estimate from Harris et al. Putman’s estimate of 25,000 sika in Scotland appears to be a point selected between the Great Britain (GB) estimate of 11,500 made by Harris et al and the 26,600 estimate for Scotland and England made by Ward. The figure that Putman gives for the Scottish

fallow population appears to have been his best estimate from the estimated GB populations given by Harris et al and Ward.

  • Ward based his national estimates on the same methodology as used by Ward and Young (2004) and updated the figures in that paper (see Figure 6). National estimates were derived by calculating the average woodland density estimate for each species in nine regions of the UK in 2004 (including the regions of Northern Scotland and Southern Scotland). Information used for Scotland included the DCS red deer counts on open range in Northern Scotland and cull returns for all four species in Scotland, and data from the Forestry Commission. Local estimates were then applied in a Geographic Information System to areas of woodland within each 10 kilometre square in which each species was recorded from the BDS distribution surveys in each region. Figure 6 also includes, for comparison, the national estimates given in a JNCC/UK Mammal Tracking Partnership from the same period, which was based on considering a range of sources in 2002.[31]

29 The commentary above reflects, firstly, that the national populations estimates given by SNH in 2013 and since, are not based on “population counts” beyond incorporating the open hill red deer counts in the estimates for that species. Secondly, it reflects with the sequence of figures in Figure 6 that “most recent” might be considered misleading, given the dates of the two sources quoted by SNH and the earlier dates of some of the estimates used in those sources.

2.2.3 Current Position

30 SNH, in its 2016 report to the Scottish Government on Deer Management in Scotland, referred to the national estimate of 360,000-400,000 red deer given in its evidence to the RACCE Committee in 2013. However, in contrast to the sources quoted in the sub-section above for this estimate, SNH describe the figure in its 2016 report as based on an estimate by Clutton-Brock et al of the red deer on open hill range in 2004.[32]

31 A review commissioned by SNH for its 2016 report of the count data available on the open hill red deer population did not provide an overall estimate for the population.[33] However, the report concluded that, after decades of increases, the size of the open hill red deer population had levelled out during the last 10-20 years.[34] At the same time, SNH also commissioned a study that gave a “rough estimate” of the number of red deer in woodlands in Scotland as 85,000-105,000.[35] This compares, for example, with the RDC estimate of 30,000 in 1990 mentioned in 2.2.1 above.

32 In the 2016 report, SNH also referred to its 2013 estimate for roe deer of 200,000-350,000.[36] The total is described as the “most recent” estimate that “was documented in the report to RACCE in 2013”. In the next sentence in the 2016 report, SNH stated without further comment that “Previous estimates have included one from Shedden who reported a population of 305,000-400,000 in 1993”. However, Harris et al (1995) had based their estimate of 350,000 roe on Shedden (1993), noting that he “calculated a roe deer population in Scotland of 305,000-400,000 based on the number of stalkers, the estimated cull size, and the assumption that this represented 10% of the total roe deer population in Scotland. Despite the number of assumptions, this probably provides the most realistic population estimation for Scotland”.[37]

33 SNH did not mention national population estimates for sika and fallow deer in their 2016 report. However, it might be questioned whether the estimates given by SNH for these species remain realistic taking account of their continued range expansion, particularly sika, and factors such as the numbers of each species now shot each year in Scotland.

34 In the 2016 report, SNH’s estimates for the numbers of deer living in Scotland’s woodlands do include a combined total for roe, sika and fallow deer of 125,000-145,000.[38] It is not clear how this estimate relates to the higher estimates for roe quoted above. There are also indications that there has been a significant increase in the abundance of roe deer in recent decades. Anecdotal evidence indicates that roe deer in particular appear to have been benefiting from the climate change trends towards milder winters.[39]

35 Those climatic trends are illustrated in Figure 7, while Albon et al writing about red deer

Figure 7 Climate trends for Scotland - annual mean temterature change (1910-2013)
Figure 7 Climate trends for Scotland - annual mean temterature change (1910-2013)

on open hill range commented in 2017 that “climate warming has seen earlier springs, longer growing seasons, and hence higher plant productivity, as well as more benign winters, all of which should enhance birth rates and survival”.[40]

36 These climatic factors and the increases in the area of woodland both suggest that Scotland will continue to improve as a habitat for wild deer. While national population estimates will continue to be useful, the difficulties of estimating the number of deer in woodland will mean national estimates are only very approximate estimates.

37 SNH did identify in its 2016 report that “Up to date national population estimates for red and roe deer are required”.[41] The Group’s view is that the statement should also have included sika and fallow deer. The Group considers that SNH should be much more accurate meantime in reporting the dates and sources of the national population estimates that it currently uses. While the estimates shown in Figure 6 indicate that the overall population of wild deer in Scotland could be up to around 750,000, there are also indications discussed in Section 2.3 below that there could now be approaching a million wild deer in Scotland.

38 As mentioned previously, while national population estimates are of value, the main issue is the impacts of deer rather than their overall numbers. The Group also considers that, as with information on deer distributions, greater use by SNH of the cull return system to cover more of the country would help give clearer indications of the numbers of deer in different areas and identify trends both locally and nationally.[42]

2.3 National Cull Statistics

2.3.1 1959-1996

39 In the Deer (Scotland) Act 1959, s.5 empowered the RDC to serve notice on an owner requiring them to submit a ‘return’ recording the species, numbers and sexes of the deer that had been killed or taken on their land during a specified period not exceeding five years.

40 When the RDC was established, it started requiring annual cull returns from a growing number of land owners. However, it did not publish the total annual red deer culls recorded by the returns in its Annual Reports until 1973.[43] The total red deer cull was reported as 24,273 that year and the total recorded from returns continued on an upward trend until the RDC was replaced by the Deer Commission for Scotland (DCS) in the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996. In 1995/96, the total was 53,789.

41 While the RDC had responsibility for all four wild deer species from the Deer (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 1982 and did start to publish annual cull totals for sika deer in addition to red deer, it appears never to have published tables giving the annual cull totals for all four deer species in its Annual Reports.[44]

2.3.2 1996-Present

42 When the DCS took over from the RDC in 1996, it also continued to publish only the annual cull return totals for red and sika deer. However, this changed in 2000, when the DCS included totals for all four species for that year, as well as previous annual totals back to 1996/97 as the first year of the 1996 Act.

43 The annual totals recorded for each species from cull returns have continued to be published since 2000. The species totals and overall cull totals are shown in Figure 8. The annual total cull has been over 100,000 deer in a majority of the 21 years shown and has averaged over 100,000 during the period. These cull totals represent a substantial wildlife management operation every year.

44 Red deer have made up over 50% of the recorded cull each year. However, increases in the culls of the other species while the red cull has tended to remain relatively level, have meant the other species have accounted for a growing proportion of the annual cull. A factor in this has been the increase in the number of cull returns obtained from land owners by the DCS and then SNH over the period.[45]

Figure 8 National cull statistics (1996/97 to 2017/18)
Figure 8 National cull statistics (1996/97 to 2017/18)
Figure 8 National cull statistics (1996/97 to 2017/18)
Season Red Roe Sika Fallow Total
1996/97 53,950 23,794 3,429 548 81,721
1997/98 59,894 27,307 4,515 569 92,285
1998/99 71,536 29,668 5,010 691 106,905
1999/2000 70,962 30,222 5,308 878 107,370
2000/01 66,931 26,214 3,863 1,025 98,033
2001/02 67,282 29,392 4,515 1,195 102,384
2002/03 57,363 31,117 4,192 1,172 93,844
2003/04 61,957 32,913 3,900 1,645 100,415
2004/05 68,685 31,781 4,735 1,352 106,553
2005/06 63,611 33,597 5,110 1,634 103,952
2006/07 62,625 31,787 5,765 1,398 101,575
2007/08 61,354 32,058 5,167 1,818 100,397
2008/09 58,496 32,626 5,465 2,306 98,893
2009/10 58,185 28,076 3,733 1,828 91,822
2010/11 56,328 31,322 6,528 1,923 96,101
2011/12 53,010 31,953 6,235 2,008 93,206
2012/13 57,764 33,573 6,099 1,696 99,132
2013/14 61,860 35,846 6,679 1,662 106,047
2014/15 68,443 38,692 6,781 2,465 116,381
2015/16 58,919 39,426 6,017 2,677 107,039
2016/17 62,910 42,619 6,312 2,284 114,125
2017/18 79,568 44,917 7,911 3,319 135,715

Source: SNH Information Response 7

Figure 9 National cull return coverage (2017/18)
Figure 9 National cull return coverage (2017/18)

45 The extent of coverage by cull returns is still less than half Scotland’s land area and mainly concentrated north of the Highland Boundary Fault, as illustrated by Figure 9. However, even on the basis of the cull totals from cull returns in Figure 8, it might be noted that the average annual culls over the last five years shown for sika (6,740) and fallow (2,481) are equivalent to culling 27% and 31% respectively of the estimated populations of these species in Scotland quoted in 2.2.2 above. The Group considers that these relatively high cull rates based only on the records obtained from cull returns, indicate that the national populations are larger than suggested in SNH’s estimates of 25,000 and 8,000 respectively.

46 The fact that the ‘national cull statistics’ published by SNH do not represent the actual total cull of each species in Scotland each year, is a significant distinction that appears often not to be recognised. The Group asked SNH for their estimate of the percentage of the actual total annual cull that might not be recorded each year by cull returns, recognising fully that SNH’s answers would be speculative figures. SNH’s view based on its experience and subject to appropriate caveats, was that the cull returns might cover approximately 90% of the red cull, 75% of the sika cull, 75% of the fallow cull and only 40% of the roe cull.[46]

47 The Group considers that SNH’s speculative estimates appear reasonable, based on its experience and other consultations. The Group therefore applied the estimates to the national cull statistics for 2016/17 to indicate how many additional deer might be involved. The results in Figure 10 suggest over 70,000 additional deer, which would indicate an actual total cull of over 180,000.

48 On top of the overall total in Figure 10, there will be several thousand deer killed in deer vehicle collisions each year and a further several thousand deer that die due to ‘winter mortality’ each year.[47] This could suggest that the number of wild deer that die each year in Scotland is approaching 200,000. This level of annual mortality could be considered to suggest that the overall population of wild deer in Scotland is higher than the previous estimates that SNH cites and could potentially be approaching a million.

49 The biggest variable in the figures above is the size of the estimate made by SNH for the extent of the roe cull not recorded by cull returns. However, even if the estimates for the percentages of the recorded/unrecorded roe culls are reversed to 60:40, the unrecorded cull remains a significant addition to the national cull statistics total. The notion that Scotland could sustain an annual roe cull twice the currently recorded level, seems a reasonable proposition to the Group. More generally, it might be expected that Scotland would have a higher cull of roe than red deer, given that roe are a significantly smaller species that can live in a wide range of environments and achieve high densities in favourable habitats.

Figure 10 National cull totals from cull returns as a percentage of the estimated total cull in 2016/17
Species Cull total from cull returns Estimated % of total cull % unrecorded Estimate of unrecorded cull Estimated total cull
Red 60,624 90% 10% 6,376 67,360
Roe 41,812 40% 60% 62,718 104,530
Sika 6,373 75% 25% 2,214 8,587
Fallow 2,282 75% 25% 761 3,043
Total 111,091 72,339 183,520

50 While the Group makes further references in the rest of this Report to the distinction between the cull return totals in the national cull statistics and the potential actual total culls, all the cull statistics quoted in the Report are based on the data collected through the cull return system.

51 The largest single contributor to the annual cull totals is Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), which manages Scotland’s National Forest Estate (NFE) on behalf of Scottish Ministers.[48] The NFE covers approximately 650,000 hectares or 9% of Scotland’s land area.[49] FLS publishes its annual cull totals and Figure 32 in Section 14 of this Report shows these totals for each deer species for 2009-2018, including the cull totals from its predecessor, Forest Enterprise Scotland, as a percentage of the national cull statistics. FLS generally accounts for relatively high proportions of the recorded roe and sika deer national culls, around 40% and 45-50% respectively each year, compared to red deer (c.15-20%) and fallow deer (c.20-25%).

52 FLS is a public body and culls around 30% of Scotland’s recorded cull total each year, while other public bodies generally contribute another few percent, for example, from SNH’s land and the Scottish Government’s crofting estates.[50] This indicates that the public sector is currently carrying out around a third of the recorded annual cull of wild deer in Scotland each year.

53 SNH does not publish any geographic breakdown of the annual national cull statistics. However, the distribution of the culls in Scotland can be illustrated by sub-dividing national statistics by Local Authority area. This is shown in Figure 11 with the overall level of cull per 100 hectares in each area.[51] While the Highland Council area dominates the statistics because it accounts for 33% of the total land area and 39% of the total cull, Figure 11 shows that some other areas such as Perth and Kinross have higher cull levels relative to their size.

Figure 11 Cull Statistics by local authority area (2016/17)
Local Authority Area (ha) Red Roe Sika Fallow Total Total cull/ 100ha
Aberdeen City 18,571 0 130 0 0 130 0.7
Aberdeenshire 631,264 2,754 4,742 0 2 7,498 1.2
Angus 218,180 1,544 1,017 0 10 2,571 1.2
Argyll & Bute 690,833 9,115 2,784 1,329 68 13,296 1.9
Clackmannanshire 15,864 5 17 0 0 22 0.1
Dundee City 5,983 0 0 0 0 0 0.0
Dumfries & Galloway 642,596 1,357 8,359 40 792 10,548 1.6
East Ayrshire 126,212 29 718 0 0 747 0.6
East Dunbartonshire 17,449 11 287 0 0 298 1.7
East Lothian 67,918 0 258 32 0 290 0.4
East Renfrewshire 17,379 0   0 0 0 0.0
Edinburgh City 26,329 0 15 0 0 15 0.1
Falkirk 29,736 3 237 0 0 240 0.8
Fife 132,503 8 950 10 0 968 0.7
Glasgow City 17,468 0 58 0 0 58 0.3
Highland 2,568,393 32,449 7,064 3,884 11 43,408 1.7
Inverclyde 16,043 0 65 0 0 65 0.4
Midlothian 35,369 0 342 2 1 345 1.0
Moray 223,756 1,040 3,397 112 0 4,549 2.0
North Ayrshire 88,534 600 24 0 0 624 0.7
North Lanarkshire 46,989 0 121 0 0 121 0.3
Orkney 98,981 0 0 0 0 0 0.0
Perth & Kinross 528,541 8,348 3,077 6 1,345 12,776 2.4
Renfrewshire 26,194 0 155 0 0 155 0.6
Scottish Borders 473,174 6 4,295 768 29 5,098 1.1
Shetland Isles 146,664 0 0 0 0 0 0.0
South Ayrshire 122,198 419 1,262 73 2 1,756 1.4
South Lanarkshire 177,192 4 1,406 0 0 1,410 0.8
Stirling 218,704 2,934 1,589 1 11 4,535 2.1
West Dunbartonshire 15,883 0 36 0 0 36 0.2
West Lothian 42,774 0 130 0 12 142 0.3
Western Isles 305,617 799 0 0 0 799 0.3
Total 7,793,291 61,425 42,535 6,257 2,283 112,500 1.4

Source: SNH Information Response 42

Figure 12 Number of deer culled in each Local Authority area (2014/15)
Figure 12 Number of deer culled in each Local Authority area (2014/15)

54 The significance of each species in different parts of the country is also illustrated by the maps in Figure 12 (based on cull data for 2014/15). While the maps for red and roe culls show the level of culls per 100 hectares, the maps for sika and fallow show the actual cull totals because of the smaller numbers culled. These latter two maps illustrate the core areas for sika and fallow deer, as well as the areas into which they are potentially expanding. The impression of range expansion is reinforced by comparing the data shown in Figure 11, with the information available for the three years 2012/13-2014/15. That information was in a written answer to questions in the Scottish Parliament in 2016 and appears to be the only other time national cull statistics have been published at a Local Authority scale.[52]

55 A further perspective on the national cull statistics can be obtained by dividing them according to the land use types where the deer were culled. On the annual cull return forms used by SNH, it asks the respondents to record the numbers of deer they cull under one of three dominant land use types: agriculture, woodland or open range. SNH does not routinely publish this data. However, SNH has used it, for example, in a graph in its 2016 report to the Scottish Government which illustrated the relative cull levels of red and roe deer on open range and in woodland between 2006 and 2016.[53] Figure 13 shows the national cull statistics sub-divided by land use type for both each species and the overall cull for the five years 2011-16.

56 The land use types used by SNH are broad and undefined and, for example, most deer killed on agricultural land are likely to be resident in adjoining woodland. However, the percentages in Figure 13 illustrate a range of points about the national cull. They show, for example, that only a small proportion of the culls are on agricultural land, although there is a noticeably higher proportion for fallow. The majority of deer are shot in woodland environments (and the proportion would be significantly higher if the table was analysing the actual total cull, rather than just the numbers recorded in cull returns). Figure 13 also shows that a third of the recorded red deer cull is now in woodland, while it can be calculated from the tables in the Figure that red deer shot on open hill range accounted for 92-93% of all the deer culled in that environment.

2.3.3 Changing Context

57 This Section has reviewed the information available at a national level on the distributions, population sizes and annual culls of Scotland’s four species of wild deer, to provide an overview as part of the context for the more detailed considerations later in this Report.

58 Despite a succession of public bodies responsible for the management of all four species for nearly 40 years since 1982, the picture at a national level is still unclear. There is a long historical sequence of detailed information and analysis of the size of the population of red deer living on open hill range in the Highlands, but there appears to be limited information on red deer in the rest of Scotland and the other three species generally.

59 The Group considers that SNH should have its own more detailed maps of the distribution of each of the deer species in Scotland, showing established range and indicating areas or directions of current range expansion. While roe deer are now established across more or less the whole of mainland Scotland, the impression from the evidence available is that red, sika and fallow are continuing to expand their range in a significant number of areas of the country.

Figure 13 National cull statistics by species and land use type (2011 – 16)
All Species
2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
Agriculture 5,241 (6%) 5,372 (5%) 5,436 (5%) 7,032 (6%) 6,305 (6%)
Woodland 52,006 (56%) 54,336 (55%) 57,953 (55%) 65,140 (56%) 61,881 (58%)
Open Range 35,959 (38%) 39,424 (40%) 42,658 (40%) 44,193 (38%) 38,799 (35%)
  2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
Agriculture 2,171 (4%) 1,907 (3%) 2,314 (4%) 3,110 (5%) 2,563 (4%)
Woodland 17,372 (33%) 19,453 (34%) 19,932 (32%) 24,398 (35%) 20,751 (35%)
Open Range 33,467 (63%) 36,404 (63%) 39,614 (64%) 40,919 (60%) 35,520 (61%)
2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
Agriculture 2,383 (7%) 2,679 (8%) 2,521 (7%) 2,833 (7%) 3,047 (8%)
Woodland 27,651 (87%) 28,617 (85%) 30,822 (86%) 33,260 (86%) 33,929 (86%)
Open Range 1,919 (6%) 2,277 (7%) 2,475 (7%) 2,599 (7%) 2,478 (6%)
2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
Agriculture 161 (3%) 224 (4%) 275 (4%) 165 (2%) 158 (2%)
Woodland 5,668 (91%) 5,271 (86%) 6,038 (90%) 6,064 (90%) 5,397 (90%)
Open Range 406 (6%) 604 (10%) 394 (6%) 552 (8%) 465 (8%)
2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
Agriculture 526 (26%) 562 (33%) 326 (20%) 924 (37%) 537 (20%)
Woodland 1,315 (66%) 995 (59%) 1,161 (70%) 1,418 (58%) 1,804 (67%)
Open Range 167 (8%) 139 (8%) 175 (10%) 123 (5%) 336 (13%)

60 Estimates of the national population sizes of the deer species are destined to be of limited accuracy and might be considered of limited value beyond a general indication of trends. However, the Group considers that SNH should have a clearer account of the current position with each species, rather than their “most recent estimates” being based on estimates made 10 years or more ago and some of which appear out of date. While SNH considers the overall population of red deer on open hill range in the Highlands to be no longer increasing, the evidence available suggests that the overall deer populations elsewhere in Scotland continue to increase due to more habitat availability, expanding range and climate change.

61 There is also the implication from the information on distributions and population sizes that, overall, the current levels of the annual culls of each species nationally are less than population growth. The only data that SNH publishes on national cull statistics was shown in Figure 8, while the Group has included Figures 11 and 13 to illustrate that SNH has other information about the national culls than its current simple table. SNH could be publishing such information as part of providing a clearer picture of the position.

62 A key distinction that should also be made more clearly by SNH, is that the ‘national cull statistics’ are potentially significantly less than the actual total number of wild deer culled each year in Scotland. In the speculative example using SNH’s estimates as described above, SNH’s national cull statistics may only be recording around 60% of Scotland’s national cull each year.

63 The Working Group recommends that Scottish Natural Heritage should develop its own more detailed distribution maps for wild deer in Scotland; that Scottish Natural Heritage should more accurately report the basis of national population estimates for wild deer which it publishes; and that Scottish Natural Heritage should make clear that the national cull statistics which it publishes are based only on the numbers reported through cull returns.

64 The circumstances where deer occur vary very considerably across Scotland and, as commented previously, information at a national level should be built up from information at a local level. That is considered further later in Part Six of this Report. However, it is now 60 years since the 1959 Act first introduced a statutory framework to regulate deer hunting rights to protect public interests. While that framework has evolved into the 1996 Act as amended, it is clear that there have also been major increases over that time in the distributions and numbers of wild deer in Scotland.

65 The 1959 Act was designed to cover red deer on the open hill and the legislation now has to cover all species of wild deer across the whole of Scotland, with two or more species present in an increasing percentage of the area. This Report considers whether that regulatory framework and associated non-statutory arrangements are delivering the public policy aim of effective deer management that safeguards public interests and promotes sustainable deer management.


1 Gilbert, J. (1979). Hunting and Hunting Reserves in Medieval Scotland. John Donald, Edinburgh.

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

3 Clutton-Brock, T. and Albon, S. (1989). Red Deer in the Highlands: Dynamics of a Marginal Population. BSP, London.

4 See Section 20.

5 Callander and MacKenzie (1991) Op cit.

6 Callander and MacKenzie (1991) Op cit.

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

8 Ritchie (1920) Op cit.

9 Ratcliffe, P. (1987). Distribution and current status of Sika Deer, Cervus Nippon, in Great Britain. Mammal Review, 17 (1), 39-58.

10 Scottish Development Department (1990). The Scottish Environment – Statistics. Government Statistical Service, Edinburgh. There are also maps of red deer distribution from around that time in Callander and Mackenzie (1991) Op cit and SNH (1994), Red Deer and the Natural Heritage.

11 DCS response to Freedom of Information Request about red deer counts in Dumfries and Galloway, 15 April 2010.

12 Ward, A. (2005). Expanding ranges of wild and feral deer in Great Britain. Mammal Review, 35 (2), 165-173. Pre- and post-1972 distributions are also shown in maps in the JNCC/Tracking Mammals Partnership report (2005): UK Mammals: Species Status and Population Trends. The expansions in range between 1960 and 1999 are also shown by the sequences of maps for each species on the Game and Wildlife Trust website (‘Changes in distribution of deer in Britain since 1960’).

13 British Deer Society (2016). How many deer are there in Britain and are numbers really increasing? BDS Journal ‘Deer’, Spring 2016.

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

15 The Group is very grateful to the British Deer Society for all its help in producing these maps.

16 SNH (2016) Op cit.

17 Watson, P., Putman, R. and Green, P. (2009). Methods for control of wild deer appropriate for use in the urban environment in England. Report to Defra.

18 At a rate rising to 15,000 ha per year from 2024/25 (Scotland’s Forestry Strategy, 2019-2029).

19 See Section 21.

20 Swanson, G., Campbell, D. and Armstrong, H. (2008). Estimating deer abundance in woodlands: the combination plot technique. Forestry Commission Bulletin 128.

21 Callander and MacKenzie (1991) Op cit.

22 Scottish Development Department (1990) Op cit.

23 The 1980 estimate was 150,000-175,000, cited in: Harris, S., Morris, P., Wray, S. and Yalden, D. (1995), A review of British mammals: population estimates and conservation status of British mammals other than cetaceans, JNCC report.

24 Harris et al. (1995) Op cit.

25 Harris et al. (1995) Op cit.

26 Written submission from SNH to RACCE Committee, 20 November 2013 (34th Meeting, Session 4, RACCE/S4/13/34/A).

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

28 Scottish Parliament, Written Answer Report, S4W-17132, 2 October 2013.

29 Edwards, T. and Kenyon, W. (2013). Wild Deer in Scotland. SPICe Briefing 13/74. Also see: Forestry Commission Scotland (2014), Deer Management on the National Forest Estate: Current Practice and Future Directions 1 April 2014 to 31 March 2017.

30 Putman, R. (2010). Ungulates and their management in Great Britain and Ireland. In: Apollonio, M., Andersen, R. and Putman, R. (eds.) European Ungulates and their Management in the 21st Century. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Ward, A.I. (2007). Trends in deer distribution and abundance within the UK. Presentation to ‘Deer, Habitats and Impacts’, the Deer Initiative Conference, Buxton, 23rd March 2007.

31 Battersby, J. (ed.) (2005). UK Mammals: Status and Population Trends. JNCC/Mammal Tracking Partnership.

32 SNH (2016) Op cit. Clutton-Brock, T., Coulson, T. and Milner, J. (2004), Red deer stocks in the Highlands of Scotland, Nature, 429, pp. 261-262.

33 Albon, S.D., McLeod, J., Potts, J., Brewer, M., Irvine, J., Towers, M., Elston, D., Fraser, D. and Irvine, J. (2017). Estimating national trends and regional differences in red deer density on open-hill ground in Scotland: identifying the causes of change and consequences for upland habitats. Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 981.

34 Albon et al. (2017) Op cit.

35 SNH (2016) Op cit, p.19, referring to Campbell, D., Marchbank, M., Watson, M. and Quin, S. (2017), Trends in woodland deer abundance across Scotland: 2001-2016, Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 948.

36 SNH (2016) Op cit, p.18.

37 Harris et al. (1995) Op cit, p.100.

38 SNH (2016) Op cit, p.19.

39 Recent research on Rum shows how red deer are responding to the changing climate: Bonnet, T., Morrissey, M.B., Clutton-Brock, T.H., Pemberton, J. and Kruuk, L.E.B. (2019), The role of selection and evolution in changing parturition date in a red deer population, draft paper shared with DWG.

40 Albon et al. (2017) Op cit, p.2

41 SNH (2016) Op cit, p.16.

42 Population numbers can only be estimated by making an assumption on the proportion of the population being culled, and this is an unknown in most cases. This is an approach used occasionally, for example by Harris et al (1995) Op cit, p.100.

43 The RDC reported cull return totals to 15 February each year until the early 1990s, with that date being the last day of the shooting seasons for female sika, red/sika hybrids and fallow.

44 It did publish annual tables for the number of sika culled from 1991, with the tables going back to 1986/87.

45 See Section 21.

46 SNH Information Response 39.

47 See Sections 15 and 18.

48 On 1 April 2019, Forest Enterprise Scotland became Forestry and Land Scotland.

49 The NFE covers 32% of Scotland’s woodland area (Forest Research, Provisional Woodland Statistics: 2019 Edition).

50 SNH Information Responses 7 and 9; Scottish Government Information Response 21.

51 SNH Information Response 42.

52 Scottish Parliament, Written Answer Report, S5W-00703 and S5W-00705, 29 June 2016.

53 SNH (2016) Op cit, p.29.



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