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The Highland Line: why there's a pressing need for change to deer management plans

It would appear that the Scottish Government is willing to consider intervening in the voluntary management of Scotland's deer, if landowners don't get their act together.

Environment minister Paul Wheelhouse certainly gives the impression of taking seriously the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee's unanimous call for the landed estates dominated voluntary Deer Management Groups (DMGs), to have proper plans for improved deer management in place by the end of 2016, or face further action.

The committee's report had followed the publication 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.

Mr Wheelhouse has now written back to the committee's convener Rob Gibson SNP MSP for Caithness Sutherland and Ross.

In his letter he says: "I recognise that the pace of progress has been too slow, in terms of DMGs developing and implementing deer management plans. I agree that the end of 2016 would be a suitable juncture to consider progress and look to take action if the current voluntary system has not produced a step change in the delivery of effective deer management."

But he welcomes the comments from Richard Cooke, Chairman of Association of Deer Management Groups (ADMG), mentioned recently in this blog, which indicated a recognition that the DMGs must change their approach and act in an inclusive manner or face the prospect of becoming subject to statutory control.

He obviously would prefer to avoid the need for government action, saying that Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) had announced further measures to support DMGs in this role, including the allocation of a considerable proportion of the SNH Deer Officer resource to support the development of deer management planning.

"In addition, I am also pleased to notify the Committee that I am able to make available further funding to support the development of deer management plans. The funding amounts to £100,000 per annum over the next two years. SNH have agreed to administer this funding which will be ring fenced to support deer management, in recognition of the number of DMGs that have still to progress a plan and will not be used to pay for SNH staff time." he said.

However the preceding section in his letter is also interesting. It is about the current powers available to SNH to order deer control schemes under section eight of the 1996 Deer Act and revised under the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011.

These include ordering a cull of deer to prevent serious damage to woodland or agriculture, serious injury to livestock, or danger to public safety.

Mr Wheelhouse says these amendments had streamlined SNH intervention powers: "Making them more usable and more timely. In particular, SNH can now proceed to impose a control scheme once a period of six months has elapsed since SNH giving notice to an occupier that deer are causing, or are likely to cause, damage etc."

He says that given that these revised powers were subject to Parliamentary scrutiny relatively recently he does not accept they should be reviewed, but goes on: "The Committee is correct in that these powers have never been used. It is for SNH to initiate the use of these intervention powers, although the legislation requires that such a control scheme be confirmed by Scottish Ministers.

"I do not wish to comment in respect of any particular case, but I am keeping a keen eye on developments and would like to assure the Committee that Scottish Ministers would be prepared to support SNH where there was a clear need to intervene on a compulsory basis."

So on two counts the minister is assuring the committee that the government is willing to take or support action, if the sporting estates don't take the committee's warnings seriously.

Meanwhile there is the issue of transparency. Mr Cooke is trying to encourage a new glasnost by telling the DMGs that SNH, Forest Enterprise and Police Scotland should be all be invited to attend their meetings. As already highlighted, local communities were not included on this list.

But Mr Wheelhouse is clear: "As for transparency, the Code (The Code of Practice on Deer Management ) already stipulates that deer managers engage with neighbours, the local community and relevant national organisations. But, SNH will continue to impress on ADMG the importance of transparency in all their member DMGs' activities and take this forward accordingly."

Mr Cooke has clearly recognised the pressing need for change in the face of increased scrutiny from Holyrood and now the Scottish Government. It remains to be seen if all the sporting estates do.

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