EXOTIC trees threaten more of Scotland's ancient woodland than burgeoning numbers of deer, it has been claimed.

However, the analysis method used to challenge the Forestry Commission Scotland's report into the problem has been counter-challenged by the original authors.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association said a new analysis of the Native Woodland Survey of Scotland, undertaken by Forestry Commission Scotland, shows deer are not the main problem and species like Sitka Spruce may be even more damaging.

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The SGA claimed in a release that the survey findings led to environmental groups "angrily rounding on sporting estates for keeping deer numbers high for deerstalking".

It pointed to new analysis, published in the Scottish Forestry journal, which claims thousands of hectares of ancient woodlands, classed unsatisfactory due to exotic tree planting, were omitted from the survey, despite being assessed.

The initial report found 54 per cent of native forests were in unsatisfactory condition, the principal cause being "excessive browsing and grazing" mainly by deer, which covered 33 per cent of the total.

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Had 39 000 hectares of Planted Ancient Woodland Sites been included in the final draft, the percentage of woods impacted by non-native trees would have outnumbered those damaged by deer and livestock, it was claimed by Victor Clements, also an executive member of the Association of Deer Management Groups, in the article.

Writing in the latest edition of Scottish Forestry magazine, he said: “An initial draft revealed an important sub-set of our native woodlands were not actually included in the main report though available for mapping purposes.

“When the PAWS area is added, it becomes apparent the greatest threat (to native woodlands) in terms of area, is actually non-native tree species, not herbivore impacts, although the order of magnitude is broadly the same.

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“This means the narrative surrounding the launch of the report is not actually correct.

“Herbivore impacts are not the most significant issue affecting native woodlands at all, although their effects are not denied in many cases.

Scottish Gamekeepers Association Chairman Alex Hogg said: “If native woodlands are to meet 2020 biodiversity targets, focusing on one issue, deer, won’t work in isolation.

"Something has to be done about the amount of exotic species such as Sitka Spruce and other conifers on these sites, although this seems to be of little concern.

“At some point, a wider view has to be taken addressing all issues in the round.”

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A spokesperson for Forestry Commission Scotland, said: “We are always interested in new analysis of woodland data.

"This is an interesting new report which analyses herbivore impacts in a new way, combining information from Deer Management Groups and the Native Woodland Survey of Scotland (NWSS).

“Native woodlands in the NWSS are defined as those with more than 50 per cent native species present.

“The Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites (PAWS) referred to in the new report are sites which have been woodland for a long time – regardless of whether they are native or not.

"Therefore the data for ‘nearly native’ and PAWS sites was included as supplementary information within the NWSS, because these sites can be of greater ecological interest than new plantations.

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“However it would be incorrect, as suggested in the postscript of the report, to use this data to amend the findings of the NWSS.

“Both data sets are complex and care should be taken when considering them together.”