There was an announcement from Holyrood earlier this week which appeared pretty low key. But it may yet prove highly significant in what happens to the Highland landscape and the place within it of the iconic red deer. It also may well herald a pretty robust debate or rather dispute on the subject.
The news item was that the Scottish Parliament's Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment committee '....has agreed to scrutinise the issue of the impact of deer on Scotland's natural heritage. This work will begin with three evidence sessions to be held by the end of the year. These will be initial sessions to aid the committee's understanding of the issues and the range of views and to scope out potential further work on the issue'.
This is an important first step for the committee's convener Rob Gibson SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross. He wants the 60 plus Deer Management Groups (DMGs), which have been set up voluntarily over the last 30 years, ultimately to be brought under parliamentary control.
He says of DMGs that they are not statutory and neither is their code of good practice for deer management. Their meetings are rarely, if ever, held in public and opinions other than those in support of traditional elite deer stalking are unwelcome, he claims.
He contrasts DMGs to District Salmon Fisheries Boards, which had been subject to Acts of Parliament since the 1860s and are about to be made more accountable by the Scottish Government.
Red deer numbers have increased dramatically from about 150,000 animals in the mid 1960s to around 300,000 today in the Highlands. It is thought there could be around 500,000 roe and sika deer across lowland and upland Scotland. Wild deer are not owned by anyone, only those that are farmed are somebody's property.
Welcoming the committee's decision, Mr Gibson said that deer management raised strong feelings in many rural communities. He continued: "I am glad that the committee has agreed to look into this important issue. Deer undoubtedly have impacted on the environment of much of the Highlands and other parts of both urban and rural Scotland.
"It is important therefore that the committee looks in detail at the type of impact that deer have had and are having. I think that no one is in any real doubt that there needs to be a transparent debate on the future of deer management and practises. At present the deer management seems to be rooted in a 19th century mind-set. So a fresh approach is needed to solve some of the problems fit for 21st century outcomes for biodiversity and climate change pressures.
"The announcement from the committee that it will look into the impact of deer on the natural heritage of Scotland is a step forward in better understanding the situation. I look forward to listening and interrogating the range of evidence to be presented to the committee."
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) describes the DMGs' role as providing "a mechanism whereby land managers and other interested parties can collaborate on a voluntary basis to plan deer management in a locality."
But Rob Gibson and others believe that the DMGs, which comprise local land owners and land managers, too often act in their own narrow interests of trying to keep as many deer to be shot for sport only. Hence their outspoken opposition to deer culls.
He says this can seriously damage much needed environmental work such the restoration of native tree species.
When he raised the issue last month he gave the example of the wild land charity the John Muir Trust proposing a red deer cull for its 9,000 acre Quinag estate in north west Sutherland last year.
He said this was only after SNH had agreed that the balance in the local habitat was badly skewed towards deer numbers and against the regeneration of native woods.
"Open hostility, personal threats and conflict were reported in the media between supporters of traditional deer stalking and the growing concern among environmental workers for the poor state of the Special Area of Conservation at Ardvar and Loch a'Mhuillinn on the southern shores of Eddrachillis Bay.
He said "Save our deer from the John Muir Trust was one slogan. The NW Sutherland Deer Management Group backed the traditional approach of deer stalking first with the environment trailing behind."
He said he had walked over the area: "I saw with my own eyes how current practices in deer management are failing the biodiversity of the area. I saw the SAC, a European environmental designation in poor condition."
He said the NW Sutherland Deer Management Group had backed the traditional approach of "deer stalking first with the environment trailing behind."
He insists there are other ways and pointed to the more enlightened approach of the community-led North Harris Trust, which owns 62,000 acres on the island.
"Not least of wider interest has been the replanting of native woodlands and the creation of the Harris Stalking Club. This has offered community members for an annual fee of £10 training in best practice and at £175 per head a kill of sixteen stags. Also on average forty hinds are the annual kill for home consumption. The club leaves the kill of another twenty-five to thirty hinds per annum on the hill as additional food for golden eagles between November and February."
He also points to the pioneering work being done at Creag Meagaidh by SNH and in Glen Feshie by Anders Paulson to balance woodland and deer interests.
But those who own or work on sporting estates most certainly do not agree with him. The Scottish Gamekeepers Association has already made its feelings clear, opining that the controls of DMGs that Mr Gibson is seeking would be a further move towards strangling the countryside with further red tape.
The fact that conservation groups such as the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the John Muir Trust are publicly backing Mr Gibson, will only strengthen gamekeepers' and sporting estate owners' resolve.
Despite apparent progress in recent years, there is still a profound suspicion of environmental interests amongst some who make their living from the land.
We have just had a stark reminder of that from Donnie Ross from Strathspey. The 77-year-old was one of the first six crofters to be elected to crofting's regulatory body the Crofting Commission last year. But he has just resigned, taking a fair swipe at SNH and the environmental lobby as he went.
So there could yet be impressive fireworks if Mr Gibson makes further progress on the deer front.
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