URGENT reform of how Scotland manages its wild deer population is needed amid concerns the animals threaten up to a third of the nation’s native woodland, MSPs have warned.

A Holyrood committee has accused quango Scottish Natural Heritage of “failing to provide leadership” as key habitats struggle to recover from deer, which no longer face a natural predator.

Politicians are reviewing a plan for deer management from SNH as landowners complain of the costs of destroying the animals and environmentalists suggest introducing wolves to hunt them.

Committee convener Graeme Dey acknowledged deer were better controlled than at the turn of the century when they were referred to as the “red peril”

The SNP MSP said: “The committee welcomes the fact some progress has been made but it’s clear some deer management groups and Scottish Natural Heritage need to raise their game to deliver the step-change needed. Habitats damaged by deer take a long time to recover. We simply can’t go on like this if we are to achieve the Scottish biodiversity strategy targets.

“That’s why we have outlined recommendations for Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Government to act to protect and hopefully restore these habitats as a matter of urgency.”

The committee said legislationaimed at protecting the natural environment from deer is not fit for purpose and 50 per cent of deer management groups are not delivering an “effective” plan.

SNH earlier said 30 per cent of native woodland was under threat from deer.

Supporters of the animal suggested it was impossible to distinguish between damage done by deer and other herbivores.

SNH has acknowledged these difficulties but remains convinced the larger animals are the most likely culprits.

The body has considered radical proposals, including contraception to lower animal numbers without culling. Last year it threatened to pursue landowners who did not spend enough money killing wild herds of deer.

Tree experts have suggested non-native species are a bigger threat to woodlands than deer.

SNH, meanwhile, has come under fire for issuing permits to shoot hinds out of season, when they are breeding. Culls, it said, had continued when the traditional season ended in February with the Sunday Times claiming more than 200 licences had been signed off.

Harry Huyton, director of OneKind, an animal welfare charity, said: “The closed season exists to protect the welfare of deer, including the welfare of dependent and unborn calves.

“It is cause for concern that so many hinds are being culled at this time of year, raising questions about the effectiveness of the closed season. “ Some stalkers are uncomfortable shooting pregnant animals but others insist the work is vital to protect woodlands.

Sue Walker, acting chairwoman of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), said: “Scotland’s deer populations are a key part of our outstanding natural heritage.”