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The Scottish Government's ‘blood thirst’ approach to deer culling is wrong

A common theme these days is the ongoing battle that the rural sector has with the Scottish Government. Everything seems to be a fight when all that is required is a bit of support and some sensible legislation. Is that really too much to ask?

One thing that we do agree on is that deer numbers need to be reduced so that the damage caused by over-population is limited and can remain at a manageable level. ScotGov have tree planting targets to reach and we need a well thought out planting plan in place, and the trees that are planted need to be protected. Over-grazing is an issue with the increase in deer numbers, as is the Tick population. Year on year Ticks seem more prevalent and this year is no exception. So how are we going to better manage deer numbers in Scotland?

Recently, rural stakeholder organisations were asked to comment on proposed legislation that is to be introduced in order to tackle the rising deer populations. Whilst this engagement is a very welcome step, parts of it seem to be way off the mark and verging on preposterous. There are three elements to be considered and the SCA responded with deer welfare at the forefront of the argument. 

The first, and by far the most controversial point is the opening up of the male deer season so that all male deer can be shot year-round in Scotland. There is a thought process that this will be an easy fix and an effective way of reducing deer numbers quickly. In reality, it will not have the desired effect and will only serve to increase pressure on the likes of the iconic Red Stag.

This proposal would allow the shooting of stags as they recover from the rut, where they will have lost a significant amount of weight and be in a relatively poor condition compared to just a few weeks before. This is a time when they need to be left alone so that they can build body weight and bulk up before the harsh conditions of Winter hit.

When venison should be promoted as a healthy, sustainable and organic meat, it will be presented to food outlets in a very poor condition, rendering it little more than a pest species to be culled. Allowing the year-round shooting will ensure that they never get a break and are pushed away from the ground that they know will provide shelter and food.

There may also be an increase in traffic collisions as stags are forced into unfamiliar areas seeking respite and the continued pressure will be moving the issue onto someone else’s ground, rather than it being effectively dealt with. What is required is a better approach to deer management. Better and more effective ways to manage female deer numbers as these are, afterall, the ones who add to the population.

It is key that ScotGov properly engage with deer management groups and draw on the expertise of those on the ground, rather than implementing what they perceive to be a quick, easy fix following a light-touch, paper exercise consultation. What ScotGov are proposing will only cause the deterioration of the health and welfare of the herd, undoing decades of hard work and wasting millions of pounds in the process.

Ironically, responsible for this blood thirst is Scottish Green Party Minister Lorna Slater, who often gives the impression that she wants to see an end to the killing of animals. I wonder what her constituents might make of this.

The UK is in a transitional period where ammunition is concerned. EU regulations mean we must seek lead alternatives for anything that may enter the food chain. This has proven to be a tricky process and complications have arisen with the UK’s most popular rifle calibre, the .243. As it stands, the minimum legal bullet weight to shoot deer in Scotland is 100 grains, but it has proven very difficult for this weight of bullet to be stabilised in flight. An alternative is to allow the use of a slightly lighter bullet that is more easily stabilised and widely available, so the proposal aligns with England and Wales in allowing an 80 grain bullet to be used. Some have concerns over whether this is enough to effectively kill large deer but, looking at the evidence south of the border, it is generally accepted as a solution to a difficult problem in Scotland. 

Shooting deer at night is another way that deer populations may be reduced. Current regulations state that you may only shoot deer in daylight hours, including an hour before sunrise and an hour after sunset, unless under licence. The advancements in technology means that we now have a number of options to enable us to shoot at night but, if implemented, this would have to be carefully regulated and planned. There is a general acceptance of night vision equipment being used, providing certain control measures are in place. Current thinking is that thermal scopes (which show heat signatures and less detail than night vision scopes) should not be widely used. Additional training should be introduced, such as a module in the existing DSC1 deer stalking course, a minimum level of competence (such as those registered on NatureScot’s Fit and Competent Register) and an addition to the Wild Deer Best Practice Guides, which are freely available online.

Government officials can’t ignore that this shows a willingness from the rural sector to work with the Scottish Government in achieving a common goal, with self-regulation, welfare and safety at the heart of the decision making.

This article first appeared in the most recent edition  of the Farming Scotland magazine.

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