HOW fickle is our human obsession. The red deer is one of Scotland’s most iconic animals, the glorious Monarch of the Glen, but the brouhaha around this species now centres on whether we are killing, or culling as it is often termed, enough of these animals – and if this Covid period is seeing a worrying increase in numbers. Deer has almost, in recent times, been talked of as if it were a kind of vermin.

So, what's the problem?

Part it's that we’re not eating enough of them. A side effect of the pandemic in the UK has been that, with the closure of restaurants, venison-consumption has taken a slide. The anticipated result is more deer – which also means more chewing away at juvenile trees and destruction of young forest as well as all round biodiversity. Trees and forestry are seen as answers to both our climate and biodiversity crises.

Among those who have raised concerns, is Simon Hodgson, chief executive of Forestry and Land Scotland, who earlier this week observed, “Venison purchases by the hard-hit hospitality sector have dropped, and there are knock-on effects for prices paid to deer managers for deer carcasses. The winter cull has been reduced due to lockdown restrictions and we can only expect much larger deer populations this year.”

Scotland’s forests, he noted, “are expected to play a central role" in achieving our net zero emissions targets. "Our woodlands look impressive and contribute greatly to Scotland’s rural economy, and this is in no small part down to effective deer management.”

Do we really have too many deer?

Deer numbers in Scotland are estimated to have increased from around 511,000 in 1990 to between 750,000 and 1 million as of 2020. The last few decades have seen stabilisation, due to increased culling, but many still argue that if biodiversity-rich and carbon-sink forests are what we want, populations are far too high. It has been estimated we have deer densities over ten times higher than many other European countries.

The Herald: A red deer stag photographed in Glen Cannich, Scotland, in November last year

So, we just shoot more?

The Scottish Government’s Deer Working Group report, published last year, recommended that the population should be halved in some areas. Scottish Environment Link, a coalition of conservation groups, last year proposed “statutory regulation” to cut deer numbers across Scotland, which would mean landowners would be told how many to cull. However, deer management groups, made up of local landowners and sporting estates, which set their voluntary target for culling, are unsurprisingly, not happy with such ideas – which they say would damage an important rural industry.

Landowners snub new research calling for drastic cull of deer

Any other bright ideas that don’t involve guns?

The return of the lynx? A group of charities recently launched a study to assess public views on its reintroduction to the Scottish Highlands. Steve Micklewright, Chief Executive of Trees for Life, said: “By preying on roe deer, lynx would restore ecological processes that have been missing for centuries, and provide a free and efficient deer management service.”