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Horns of a dilemma over Monarch of the Glen cull

The most recent deer population estimates for Scotland suggest overall numbers of between 360,000-400,000 red deer; 200,000-350,000 roe deer; 25,000 sika deer and 2000 fallow deer.

The numbers on the open hill of red deer, without natural predators, have increased by some 75-80% since the 1960s.

In the past 40 years up to 14% of our ancient woodland and other native species have been lost, particularly in the upland areas, according to the eight-year survey by Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS). So it is hardly surprising that Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse connected the two: "The most widespread threat to native woodland health and regeneration is excessive browsing and grazing, mainly by deer."

Conservationists anxious to see the regeneration of native woodland and protection of older trees are calling for a reduction in deer numbers. Meanwhile, the owners of sporting estates and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association argue that deer stalking is too important an economic stimulus in rural communities to be undermined by such action.

They can point to the fact that numbers in some areas are dropping significantly and that around 100,000 deer are culled every year through voluntary agreements. But that would not appear to be enough to protect our woodlands.

Landowners can also reasonably argue that deer fences have a role to play but, again, there is an environmental price in the impact on birds, the landscape and public access.

Nor does 100,000 a year seem to be enough to meet domestic demand for venison. In the home of the Monarch of the Glen, we import from New Zealand and Europe. There have been calls for the creation of 500 more deer farms, which might have a role to play. But it would seem to make sense if the cull of the natural resource in the wild could be used to make a larger contribution to the market, with strict regulations on traceability in place.

More important is the protection of native ancient and more recently planted woodlands. Ministers are considering forming a working group to look at addressing the woodland loss highlighted in the FCS report. Consideration will also be given to Holyrood's Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee recommendations today.

Its convener, SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross Rob Gibson, has said he wants the 50 voluntary Deer Management Groups (DMGs), largely comprised of neighbouring estates, ultimately to be brought under parliamentary control. He contrasts DMGs with District Salmon Fisheries Boards which had been subject to Acts of Parliament since the 1860s.

Any such move would be resisted by sporting estates and gamekeepers. But it is clear something more now needs to be done as the natural environment is paying such a heavy price. Scottish Natural Heritage has the ultimate responsibility and needs to ensure more deer are killed, by landowners and or others; and not only when there are sportsmen willing to pay a premium price to do so. The voluntary agreements are not working properly.

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