New laws to force landowners to cull deer should be introduced to help rewild Scotland and aid the environment, a forestry expert has said.  

Douglas MacMillan, Emeritus Professor of Forestry and Land Use Economics, believes that the time has come to “urgently review” the way deer numbers are managed, saying the current approach is failing.  

There are estimated to be more than one million deer roaming Scotland, and with no natural predators, their numbers are kept in check by shooting on country estates and culls by local deer management groups, organised voluntarily.  

However, such vast heard hamper efforts to regrow forests by stripping the land of young trees, while also trampling peat bogs and hindering their restoration. 

Prof MacMillan said that with priorities shifting towards woodland regrowth in the face of the global climate and biodiversity crises, it is vital deer herds are reduced and that legally binding cull targets are now required.  


Writing in the Scottish Forestry journal, Prof MacMillan, formerly of the Universities of Aberdeen and Kent and the James Hutton Institute, said: “Given the priority now placed on woodland restoration ... perhaps there is a need to urgently review the legal powers available to control deer numbers in Scotland.” 

He added: “Many laws regulating wildlife have their origins in medieval times, and were primarily concerned with preventing poaching.  

“In my view, it is now time to introduce new primary legislation that meets the priorities of the 21st century by requiring owners of all significant landholdings in Scotland to manage deer to achieve densities that would allow woodland to regenerate, recover and grow.” 

Earlier this week, Scottish Government body NatureScot used its statutory powers to instigate a cull on the Loch Choire estate after the landowner failed to respond to its requests to limit deer numbers.  

READ MORE: Red deer cull ordered by NatureScot on Loch Choire Estate

Professor MacMillan said that the number of deer being shot on estates as ‘game’ was falling, while the numbers being culled in woodland is rising, meaning now is the time to act.  

However, reducing the number of deer on shooting estates could have implications for the rural economy, with fewer animals available for stalking. 

This could cause land values to fall and make some estates unviable. But this would be balanced out by investors seeking to plant forests to achieve carbon credits while also reducing Scottish Government expenditure on supporting community buyouts.  


Prof MacMillan said: “Competing and antagonistic values and worldviews lie at the heart of wildlife management conflict, and for many decades there has been no consensus regarding deer management. “I believe the proposed legislative change outlined here will transform rights and responsibilities and provide a sustainable solution to the deer problem in economic, social and environmental terms.  

“The decline of traditional deer stalking, introduced during the Victorian era, will be mourned by some, but in my view, there is little room for nostalgia – as foresters, let us not fail to appreciate the immense socio-ecological benefits of woodland recovery for future generations.” 

READ MORE: Creating a sustainable solution to Scotland’s deer problem

A spokeswoman for Naturescot said: “Globally and in Scotland, nature is in decline and we face a climate emergency. The sustainable management of Scotland’s deer, including a significant reduction in numbers, is vital to protect and restore nature. 

“NatureScot is leading work to reduce deer impacts and implement the recommendations of the Deer Working Group (DWG) accepted by the Scottish Government. A number of these recommendations related to changes to legislation, which were accepted by Ministers.

"The Scottish Government is leading on these legislative changes (with advice from NatureScot) and is working with a range of stakeholder organisations to discuss the implications of any changes. 

“While we always favour a voluntary and collaborative approach to deer management, NatureScot will not hesitate to make use of the full range of powers available to us when necessary, to secure vital benefits for nature and climate.”