By addressing the many challenges posed by the increasing numbers of roe deer in lowland and urban areas, NatureScot’s strategies aim to reduce impacts and achieve more sustainable populations

THINK about Scotland’s deer population for a moment, and it is likely that what comes to mind is a striking image of majestic stags roaming the country’s stunning, sprawling mountainsides.

Deer management in the lowlands, however, is very different from its Highland countryside counterpart, as NatureScot’s Donald Fraser explains.

“Upland deer management usually concerns red deer, but it is roe deer which present the biggest challenge in lowland and urban areas,” he says.

“Roe deer, which are smaller than red deer, like woodlands or farmland but are increasingly found on open moorland and in urban or suburban areas where they occupy green spaces along roadsides, railway lines, golf courses and cemeteries.

“Mostly, people will spot them in the early mornings or early evenings, and while they are a lovely sight to see, they do bring some significant challenges.”

While it is hard to put an exact figure on the numbers of roe deer in Scotland, it is estimated there are around 300,000, says Donald, who is head of wildlife management for NatureScot. 

Browsing by deer can present problems in woodland areas.

“Roe deer are quite selective eaters, and will seek out their favourite herbs, dwarf-shrubs and tree shoots, which can have a negative impact on woodlands,” says Donald.

“It’s often underestimated how much of an impact roe deer can have on establishing woodlands - they can suppress forest regeneration, for example.

“And the rich cover of under-storey plants which should be present is frequently absent as a result of over-browsing.”

This is a wider problem, too, because woodlands have a key role in tackling the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.

“We need to protect our existing woodland and expand it, because of climate change - and it is simply not possible to do this if the high densities of deer are not tackled,” adds Donald.

Scottish deer populations have increased in number and spread in range over the past 50 years, particularly into urban and lowland areas. 

This has resulted in collisions between deer and vehicles becoming increasingly common, with almost 2000 recorded incidents each year, and many more going unreported. 

According to NatureScot’s data, nine out of the top 10 areas for collisions are located in the central belt. “Deer have no road sense and frequently cross roads to feed in other areas,” explains Donald. “Of course, collisions can cause suffering to the deer, but also there is potential risk to human life, and damage to vehicles, so it can be a significant problem in some areas.

“We do also get complaints from people about deer coming into their gardens or local graveyards and eating flowers and plants.”

While deer browsing can cause damage to people’s vegetable patches and cherished flower beds, they can also affect commercial forestry and agricultural crops, which has an impact on people’s livelihoods.  

Collisions with cars not only cause suffering to the deer, but also there is serious risk to human life

Safeguarding these important commercial activities in the lowlands and across Scotland is another key aim of deer management.

Donald explains: “Deer have few natural predators in Scotland, so management is an important part of maintaining a balance between numbers and their habitat. 

“If the population remains unmanaged and there is a severe winter, for example, with little food available for increasing numbers of deer, then it would be far kinder to the deer to manage the population through controls, rather than have them die of starvation.”

Challenges around lowland deer management were highlighted by the independent Deer Working Group, which reported to the Scottish Government in 2020. The group made 99 recommendations to modernise systems in Scotland, the majority of which were accepted by Ministers.

In Scotland’s uplands and highlands, red deer management is mostly carried out through voluntary Deer Management Groups, which bring together land managers to plan across much wider areas.

However, roe deer are more solitary, secretive and territorial than red deer and land ownership is generally smaller and more fragmented in lowland areas, making collaboration more challenging, says Donald.

There tends to be bigger, but fewer estates in the uplands – land ownership in the lowlands, where holdings are much smaller, is very different,” he adds.

NatureScot is leading a significant amount of work to implement the recommendations of the Deer Working Group accepted by the Scottish Government, working closely with partner agencies and the wider deer sector. 

“Our strong focus is on reducing deer impacts in priority areas, and in the lowlands this includes Scotland’s rainforest and other woodlands, areas where deer are having a high agricultural impact, are causing the greatest risk of vehicle collisions or have the highest population densities,” explains Donald.

“Our expanded deer management team is working across a wide range of areas to achieve this – including leading best practice events, modernising our licensing systems, implementing road safety campaigns and trialling new technologies for deer counting.”

An important part of NatureScot’s work involves advising the Scottish Government on changes to the laws around deer management, explains Donald, to remove some of the barriers to effective control but also ensuring that deer management is done to the highest standards. 

A Scottish Government consultation on further deer management proposals took place in March. 

“Changes that have already been brought in include removing the close season (the time period where deer could not be shot) for male deer, as well as changes to support the move away from lead ammunition, and allowing the use of modern technology to help night shooting,” he says. 

Donald, who has worked in deer management for more than 20 years, adds: “We have a strong connection with deer in Scotland – they are probably the wild animal people are most familiar with, most likely to see.

“They are an asset, a native species and part of our rich biodiversity, and they provide us with venison, a nutritious, low-fat, low-carbon miles food. 

“But in some areas, too many deer can cause problems, and we need to manage them.”


Collaboration creates solutions for lowlands’ unique challenges

LOOKING at new and innovative ways to drive change is central to NatureScot’s plans for future deer management in Scotland.

In addition to developing two pilot schemes aimed at incentivising management within identified areas and helping with investment in the venison supply chain, the organisation is also working closely with a key forum which has been successfully relaunched.

The negative impact of deer populations is being tackled by The Lowland Deer Network for Scotland (LDNS) 

The Lowland Deer Network for Scotland (LDNS) brings together deer managers, landowners, farmers and other organisations with an interest across lowland Scotland to share information and explore opportunities for greater collaboration and more effective deer management. 

Set up in 2011, the LDNS recognises the unique challenges of managing deer in the lowlands and aims to give a voice to all those involved, as well as supporting skills and training and promoting best practice. 

Donald Fraser, NatureScot’s head of wildlife management, said: “The Lowland Deer Network for Scotland is a key forum for us to make sure that land managers and deer stalking practitioners in the lowlands are fully engaged and have an opportunity to be involved in all the work that is taking place to tackle deer impacts across Scotland. 

“As an example, the network recently launched a survey on larder provision in lowland Scotland to better understand how to target support where it is needed most.”

New LDNS chair John Bruce said: “The LDNS forum is growing in numbers, extent and in knowledge, and this is an exciting period as the network expands.   

“We now have new impetus to learn about our lowland deer and their impacts and to look at how we can build on existing efforts to make further progress through incentives and investment in infrastructure.”

Partnership working is key to the success of deer management initiatives, adds Donald.

“Crucially we are working closely with land managers, stalkers and communities across the lowlands to support and enable collaborative deer management on a daily basis,” he explains.

“This includes working with partners such as Lowland Deer Network Scotland and local authorities to identify priorities and to develop and implement management plans.”