LAND owners face fines of up to £40,000 if they fail to hit annual cull targets in a new crackdown on poor estate management that has seen deer numbers soar to its highest level in 1,000 years.

Estimates suggest the Scottish population has topped 750,000 with claims from conservationists that the number of red deer has tripled in the past 50 years.

It has sparked calamity for motorists with around 6,000 collisions taking place with deer every year in Scotland – an increase of 10 per cent in the last decade.

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Now a tougher approach is to be taken in dealing with landowners who are failing to manage deer herds properly as part of a new habitat protection plan.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has been encouraged to deploy its “full range of powers” to ensure Scotland’s deer population is brought under control.

The conservation agency is also ready to bring forward powers for the first time that would instruct landowners to keep deer populations at certain levels or face a £40,000 fine.

But the move has previously been criticised by those working on sporting estates for advocating mandatory deer management, which would mean shooting more of the animals.

Mike Cantlay, chairman of SNH, said “Our objective will always be to work with land managers to get the best possible outcomes for nature and people.”

There are an estimated 587,000 to 777,000 wild deer roaming across Scotland with about 100,000 culled annually.

According to the Forestry Commission of Scotland, the cost of damage caused by deer to plantations and other commercial woodlands is £4.5million every year.

There has also been a 50 per cent decline in woodland bird numbers where deer are present, according to the University of East Anglia’s Dr Paul Dolman.

Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham yesterday said she will now ensure SNH takes a tougher approach to dealing with landowners who do not cooperate, “using the full range of enforcement powers at its disposal”. An independent group will also be set up to look at deer management issues, including a separate panel to look at lowland deer management.

Scottish Gamekeepers Association chairman Alex Hogg said: “Rushing to new powers when existing ones had never been tested would have been problematic, especially when SNH was granted fresh powers last year under land reform legislation.

“The measures announced focus on using and enforcing existing legislation, which is, in our view, a logical approach.

“Challenges remain in deer management and today’s announcement targets areas where more effort and different approaches are required, such as in lowland Scotland and in urban fringes where there is a growing roe deer population.”

Richard Cooke, chairman of the Association of Deer Management Groups, said: “The upland deer sector is committed to progressive change. Thus we welcome the Cabinet Secretary’s decision to set up an independent group to support the deer sector as it moves forward.

“We have no difficulty with a more assertive approach by SNH but will expect any such last resort action to be justified on the basis of firm evidence.”

HeraldScotland:

COMMENT BY DICK PLAYFAIR

SO what could these changes mean for availability of venison?

The UK venison market is growing at an estimated 10 per cent per annum.

The consumer has developed a taste for it and recognises its healthy qualities. It is no longer available seasonally but all year round and can be bought from the lower-priced supermarkets to high-end restaurants and the local pub.

TV cookery programmes and celebrity chefs have also given venison considerable airtime.

The UK imports about a third of the venison it consumes from New Zealand, Poland, Ireland and elsewhere. Imports have helped to grow the market, and it might seem logical that if we cull more deer we can help fill that vacuum with home-grown product. But it isn’t that simple as most venison imports are farmed.

Supermarket buyers want uniformity, quality and “eatability” and farmed can do this. The farmed deer sector in Scotland is also growing, slowly but steadily, to capitalise on this opportunity. Wild, however, is culled at all ages, all conditions, and at times of the year when the meat might not suit our palate.

Wild venison works well for prime cuts from good animals, and for processed products such as pies and sausages, for which we have also developed a healthy taste. We have seen reduction culls before, and these have rendered a mere blip in the supply chain, and could result in a scarcity of stock in future years. Hard winters have knocked the stuffing out of some deer populations, so much so that there is no stalking.

Tremendous care is also needed in getting that meat to market safely and hygienically, with hunters properly trained and qualified. There is a quality scheme, Scottish Quality Wild Venison, but many still operate outside it.

It is not just red deer we need to manage, but roe too. Roe numbers are increasing in low ground areas. Roe is well suited for local supply, with locally harvested product in the local butcher for local consumption, slashing food miles and promoting provenance provided this happens legally and safely.

We have a tremendous natural resource in venison – putting this great meat on the table is just one more aspect of the complexity that is modern deer management.