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The Highland Line: landowners start to act on deer management under political pressure

There are early signs that the landowners who dominate Scotland's Deer Management Groups are taking seriously the recent threat from MSPs that, unless their stewardship of deer improves, Holyrood will intervene.

Members of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee unanimously called on these voluntary DMGs, to have proper plans for improved deer management in place by the end of 2016, or face further action.

It followed the publication of results of an eight-year survey by Forestry Commission Scotland which found that deer posed the biggest threat to Scotland's native woodlands and had caused significant damage in the last 40 years. This led to renewed calls from conservationists for greater control of deer numbers - that more should be culled.

Sporting estates are not opposed to shooting deer. It is their core business. But they prefer it is done by paying sportsmen. The last thing they want is for politicians to get involved.

The committee demanded action, and have made clear the days of the DMGs not being publicly accountable are over.

Litttle more than two weeks since the committee's report, the Association of Deer Management Groups has shown it has been listening, launching a consultation on "a benchmark" for DMGs. It recognises that the voluntary basis of management of Scotland's wild deer has been and is under scrutiny.

The association held its agm in Kingussie on Thursday and issued a statement: "The committee has recently sent its report to the Minister. This stops short of recommending a regulated approach and acknowledges progress by DMGs but states that bringing all groups up to standard is a matter of urgency, suggesting a deadline of the end of 2016."

So the benchmark is intended to provide detailed guidance to DMGs on how they should operate and effectively keep the MSPs at bay.

Association chair Richard Cooke was clear: "We are putting the draft Benchmark out to consultation to all our members because it is crucial that they understand what they need to do if the voluntary basis of deer management is to be considered fit for purpose and to continue into the future. It is targeted mainly at the Deer Groups that now exist across the open hill red deer range."

The benchmark outlines how DMGs should operate. It covers membership, meetings, constitution; a commitment to deer management planning, adherence to the Code of Practice on Deer Management and the ADMG Principles of Collaboration; counting, cull planning and habitat condition monitoring; also training and having a communications plan.

But Mr Cooke recognised that some will be more willing to change than others: "While many DMGs will have no problem in attaining what will be required, or indeed already do so, other groups have a lot of ground to make up and need to take on board that this cannot be ignored and that urgent action is required. We will provide whatever support is needed to help them do so by providing training, advice and mentoring."

And in case anyone was still in doubt, he concluded: "The crux of the situation is that unless we can prove that the voluntary system cannot only deliver the individual and collective objectives of DMG members but also meet the expectations of Government, then a statutory system remains a real possibility."

Despite his best efforts, there are some estates who will deeply resent what they see as an unwarranted intrusion into their business.

The benchmark going out to consultation advises that "relevant public bodies such as SNH, Forest Enterprise and Police Scotland should be invited to attend DMG meetings."

The very fact that they aren't already invited as a matter of course displays how far this sector has yet to travel in terms of public accountability; the more so that the local community apparently is still not to receive an invitation.

The estates could do worse than consider a recent letter to The Herald from Dr Michael Foxley, former leader of Highland Councill and crofter.

He wrote of how deer and conservation interests had worked together for more than 20 years on the Sunart Oakwoods Initiative to restore and plant thousands of hectares of Atlantic oakwoods as well as other native woodlands.

He concluded: "During the many years that I was their local Highland councillor, I urged that the deer management groups be opened up for other local stakeholders, especially the local community, to attend and that their deer management plans should be made public.

"This needs to happen now. Responsible landowners, as well as local stalkers, have nothing to fear and much to gain by doing so."

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