ONE stag often catches Neil McIntyre’s attention. It peers out from many of his pictures he shoots in the Cairngorms National Park, wide-eyed, curious, with an upward thrust of the head. You can sense him looking back down the lens, an iconic Monarch of the Glen, though more comical.

“That stag,” says McIntyre, “was quite cheeky and would come and have a look. I felt he was curious about me. He always had that look. He moved around with a group of about twenty stags that lived away up the head of a glen and most of them keep their distance a little bit. But he would always come that bit closer and he was always one that had that curious look on his face.”

Red deer are one of the photographer's big loves, which is why he has followed up his book, On The Trail Of Red Squirrels, with another on these imposing animals. That love started young. McIntyre’s father was a gamekeeper and deerstalker who took him out with him sometimes while he was working in Perthshire, and later the Highlands. Always, the young boy noticed, there was something about the deer that stood out more than other animals. He recalls on one occasion, as a small child, on a visit to a nearby estate, he came very close to a stag for the first time.

HeraldScotland: Stag, copyright Neil McIntyre, from Chasing the Deer

“I had never realised how large the deer were,” he writes, “until one was standing right in front of me. His shoulders were above my head – of course a full-grown stag would be far taller than a six-year-old-boy, but seeing it was overwhelming. His breath seemed like smoke in the freezing air. The head, antlers bigger than his shoulders, dipped back and forth over the food. I remember holding up my hands and realising that one antler would be longer than my arm. It would have taken both my childish hands to wrap around it.”

The stag wasn’t there for very long but it made an impression. “I remember," he says,"looking up at this huge, impressive stag, and meeting his dark brown eye. I remember losing sight of him in the crowd as more and more deer ran down from the hills to join the feast. I remember longing to reach out and touch their magnificence, and my father’s gentle warning, ‘They’re wild, not for trusting.’”

Ever since then, he says, he has been fascinated with red deer. Though McIntyre didn’t become a gamekeeper like his father, or his brother, or his nephew, he became another type of stalker, a wildlife photographer. He recalls there were only a few times that he shot deer himself, though for him, growing up in the stalking family he did, that was very much a rite of passage.

HeraldScotland: Stags swimming, copyright Neil McIntyre, from his book Chasing The Deer

“I never wanted to be a deerstalker myself,” he says. “I have shot a few deer obviously, being brought up with it, but from a very early age I would rather take their picture. But I’ve experienced it and done it and that’s maybe not a bad thing. It’s let me see how it’s done. It’s not as easy as some people make out. It does involve quite a lot of skills to do it properly.”

He shot a couple of hinds when his father was doing the hind cull, and in his late teens even shot a stag. “And that was it," he recalls. "Once I’d done it, I didn’t particularly want to.”

In recent decades, the deer has become a target in the firing line of another mission: the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss. Its numbers, various reports have said, must be controlled because of the ways in which deer browse on young trees and prevent reforestation. It's an issue that seems all the more potent in the wake of COP26, as we strive to hit national targets.

In 2020 a report was published by the Scottish Government’s independent Deer Working Group, which delivered a range of recommendations including phasing out the use of lead ammunition to cull deer, modernisation of existing deer legislation, the development of robust deer management plans and enhanced monitoring of deer numbers.

HeraldScotland: Stags fighting, copyright Neil McIntyre, from his book, Chasing the Deer

Earlier this year, when Ben Macpherson, then Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural Environment, announced the policy proposals, he made clear what the strategy was about. “As the scale of tackling climate change and the biodiversity crisis increases, and the measures needed to address these challenges become ever more necessary, it is evident that a significant stepping-up of deer management efforts are required.”

In 1959, when the Red Deer Commission was set up it was estimated that the species’s population was around 155,000. In more recent years the population has been estimated at around 350,000 to 400,000.

McIntyre writes in his book, “Everyone has their own ideas about what would be a stable population for red deer across the country. My research shows that in 2017/18, a total of 79,596 red deer were culled from an estimated Scottish population of 350,000–400,000. Contrary to what some would like you to think, this population is in decline. Some would say that not only is this a good thing but they hope it will continue, suggesting that a more stable number is somewhere in the region of 100,000 total population. That implies a horrific number of red deer would have to die.”

He remains a fierce advocate for the red deer and a critic of the stronger deer control measures and some of the working group’s recommended policies. Above all, he wants to bring back love and respect to the deer. “That was a big part of doing the book,” he says, “to try to get some respect back for them, because sadly over the last literally two decades their stature so to speak has been much maligned, reduced to nothing more than a pest in some people’s mind.”

This defence is partly informed by his own family history. He comes from a line of men involved in the deer business and has observed the way their management has changed over the years. “My grandfather broke in deer ponies after the war,” he says. “The Highland ponies were very much in use for getting the carcasses off the hill. And my grandfather used to train them. That was his job for Glen Artney down near Comrie. He used to get train loads of Highland garrons in and they would all get trained up to carry deer. They would get sent out all over Scotland to various different estates.”

By the time McIntyre himself arrived in the world, his grandfather had already finished up work in that business. “He had been kicked so many times with the horses he became quite crippled - so he sort of retired from that a bit earlier than he would normally have done just because of so many kicks he had in the legs from working with the horses.”

HeraldScotland: Stag in heavy snow, copyright Neil McIntyre, from his book, Chasing The Deer

It was, he recalls, by going out with his father, by listening to him and watching the deer, he would learn about their habits and the best way to approach them - which would stand him in good stead in his career as a wildlife photographer. “These things became almost instinctive and not something I really thought about.”

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It also gave him an appreciation of the way of life of the gamekeeper and deerstalker, which has made him an advocate, even in times when a lot of the drive in conservation and rewilding is towards dramatically cutting deer numbers, even zero tolerance, in order to promote forest regeneration.

"There’s nobody," he says, "really has more respect and admiration for the deer than a proper deerstalker. They do their job in a very considered way - and I think they probably know more about deer than anybody.”

McIntyre is a reminder that urban advocates of rewilding, like myself, can have their view of the deer, but they don’t really know them, or the impact they have, like he does. He is also an advocate for the rural worker, who comes in many different forms, and for their continued existence on the land. Some of his arguments remind me of those of crofters, who speak for a kind of nature restoration that still allows room for people in the landscape.

HeraldScotland: Stag grazing, copyright Neil McIntyre, from his book, Chasing the Deer

His love of the deer is clear in his photography. One of his most prized shots is of a stag shaking off water in the winter. “The deer obviously spend quite a bit of time in the rain," he says. "And you get stags or hinds when they’re lying down for a long time, if it’s pouring down they’ll just become like a big sponge. You can almost guarantee the very first thing they’ll do when they stand up is shake and you get this amazing plume of water comes off them. Their head stays almost motionless, but their whole body twists and this fantastic spray of water comes off.”

Its also clear from his writing how intimately he has got to know the deer. He writes, for instance, about how they struggle in spring, describes their rolling in the peat, the way that hinds and stags live separate lives until mating season, the spectacle of the rut. “On one occasion,” he recalls, “I was on the Rothiemurchus Estate and could hear stags roaring above me. I was about fifty yards from where I needed to be to see them when I heard two crashing together – a sound not unlike the clash of wooden swords. I knew immediately that it must be antlers locking together. Desperate to witness this battle, still unsighted, I ran the last fifty yards until I could peer cautiously over the knoll to see them. The light was poor and the photographs are not among my best but the spectacle was amazing: the sound and the power of two stags locked together, pushing at each other."

What McIntyre is most critical of is the zero tolerance approach to deer adopted by some estates. “There are several rewilding estates that have followed that strategy,” he says. “It suits their agenda. They want full scale natural regeneration, and there’s no getting away from the fact there has been over-grazing, and they’ve adopted this policy which is how they’ve managed to get such prolific regeneration. But that has resulted in the deer virtually being wiped out of these areas. ”

HeraldScotland: Stag roaring, copyright Neil McIntyre, from his book, Chasing The Deer

His anger is clear. “It’s not management. They dress it up, they’re very careful with their words, they’re not stupid these people. They’ll say things like we’re increasing deer cull numbers or we’ll increase the management, but what they actually mean is it’s zero tolerance. And if it’s a deer it’s shot regardless of what age or sex. It’s not about selecting animals. The deer has just become like a pest.”

Among the recommendations of the working group report of which McIntyre is critical, is the removal of the close season for males, so that they could be shot at any time, and reducing the length of the female close season. “That’s reducing them to an even lower status than they are now. The impact would be, I think, quite catastrophic. It means deer can be shot any time.”

The question of to what degree red deer numbers need to be controlled, and how to control them, is one that has exercised a great many estate managers, environmentalists and conservationists. I have long been aware of the debate and the controversy around it, and have spoken to many out there who would argue against McIntyre. Even Simon King, writing the foreword of Mcintyre’s book, notes that they do not agree on the matter of deer management.

I'm sceptical too, and nervous, about promoting a stepback from deer control at such a critical point in our history, in the midst of a climate and biodiversity crisis in which forms of rewilding, to which large populations of deer are no friend, are being seen as an answer.

READ MORE: Rewild Scotland: "Beavers in all rivers. Lynx and wolf back.”

Nevertheless, there's also something I appreciate about McIntyre’s fierce defence of the deer. I too have felt sad about the way in which those animals which have proliferated because of the way we humans have shaped the landscape, have become themselves demonised.

Anti-deer sentiment,” he writes, “seems to have been growing over the years. Forestry and red deer have always been in conflict because of the supposed damage the deer do to trees. However, the rewilding movement, which has been gaining support in recent years, is even more averse to deer.”

Whatever strategy we take in terms of their control and management, I don't think we humans will ever stop admiring the red deer, and in particular its mature stag. It's as if that response to their presence and physicality is built into us. McIntyre's photographs are testimony to their beauty and magnificence. Catch sight of a stag on the hill, or in one of his photographs, and it takes your breath away.

Chasing the Deer: The Red Deer Through The Seasons by Neil McIntyre is published by Sandstone press


HeraldScotland: Stag, copyright Neil McIntyre, from Chasing the Deer


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