AN alliance of major conservation groups has called for legally-enforced culls of Scotland's deer to be imposed on landowners and stalking estates.

Scottish Environment Link (SEL) - an umbrella group which includes the John Muir Trust, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust and Ramblers Scotland - wants to see believes a dramatic reduction of the wild deer population is needed to protect the environment and help meet tree planting and climate change goals.

With no natural predators, numbers have to be kept in check by deer management groups which operate on a mostly voluntary basis.

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The wild herd, which numbers between 300-400,000 animals, is said to prevent tree growth through grazing and also damage fragile peatlands.

But SEL believes the time has come for a radical rethink with new legal requirements to cull a set number of deer each year.

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Mike Daniels of the John Muir Trust said: “We believe that there is a growing appetite for change in how Scotland’s uplands are managed into the 2020s and beyond, and delivering sustainable deer management is a critical component.

"This large and diverse group of organisations believes that we can achieve far greater benefit from our uplands by doing things differently.

“For many decades, there has been a scientific consensus that unsustainably high deer densities have a destructive impact on vast areas of our land."

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Duncan Orr-Ewing, Chair of LINK Deer Task Force, said: “Sustainable deer management should not be regarded as just a marginal issue.

"It should actually be much more of a central consideration as to how we best manage tens of thousands of square kilometres of Scotland’s uplands to get the maximum public benefit, and it should be well integrated with other forms of land use policy.

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"High deer impacts and other grazing pressures are damaging peatlands, halting woodland regeneration and expansion, and causing other costs to the public."

He added: "By resolving these pressures, we will in a far stronger position to meet our climate change targets and reverse the alarming long-term decline in the biodiversity of our uplands. In this paper we have also set out the compelling economic case for a step-change in our approach towards deer management."

The SEL reccomendations are included in a  paper which has been issued ahead of the publication of a report to the Scottish Government by the independent Deer Working Group, which is expected to be released any day now.

The report is likely to trigger a national debate about current and future deer management practices.

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Richard Cooke, Chairman of the Association of Deer Management Groups, said that many of SEL's suggestions would find support among members.

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However, he added: "Where we may diverge is in the means to that end proposed by Link, which would amount to a halving in the population of our native red deer, would not address all the issues identified and would have a major impact on rural employment. 

"We do not think it has to be a case of trees or deer; it can be a matter of trees and deer."

A Spokesman for the Scottish Gamekeepers Association said: "It will be of no benefit to rural jobs or Scotland’s environment to keep imposing statutory targets on land managers."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: "We appointed the independent Deer Working Group to review existing arrangements for wild deer and make recommendations to ensure sustainable deer management in Scotland. We received their report in December.

"We will give careful consideration to their findings and they will be published in due course.”