NatureScot is working with partners to effectively manage Scotland's deer population, protect woodlands and peatlands and help restore the country's natural habitats. By Dominic Ryan


NatureScot’s role is to oversee management of deer species such as red and roe to maintain balance in the country's natural habitats



Wild deer are considered by many as an iconic creature in Scotland, a fitting emblem for the nation with a special place in our culture and history. Rabbie Burns certainly loved these wild animals, writing: “My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer; A-chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe, My heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.”

While a deep respect for deer endures, much has changed since the Bard wrote those lines in 1789.  Higher than natural numbers and a lack of natural predators mean they can have a negative impact by browsing on woodlands and other habitats.

That’s why the sustainable management of Scotland’s deer, including a significant reduction in their overall numbers, is vital to protect and restore the natural balance of the environment

Based on the recommendations of the Independent Deer Working Group, which have been accepted by the Scottish Government, effective management will ensure forest regeneration, woodland creation, peatland restoration, habitat improvement and stronger, healthier deer. 

Biodiversity Minister Lorna Slater is fully committed to this endeavour, recently commenting in The Herald: “Our previous approaches to deer management are simply inadequate and unsustainable – we need to take action now to reduce the negative impacts of deer if we are to meet our climate change targets.”

NatureScot is leading work to deliver this for the Scottish Government alongside other key agencies including Scottish Forestry, Forestry and Land Scotland, Cairngorms National Park Authority and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

Donald Fraser, Head of Wildlife Management at NatureScot, explains: “There are around one million deer in Scotland. It’s difficult to get entirely accurate information on this so we use a range of data to identify and number them. For the upland red deer we have had censuses for quite a long time – since the Fifties actually. 


“We manage and cull all species of deer. The two bigger populations we have are the red and roe, our native species, then we have sika, which are largely a woodland species that were introduced in the early 20th Century but are increasing in range in terms of their woodland extent. We also have a couple of smaller populations of fallow deer. We don’t have, as they do in England and Wales, Reeves’ muntjac or Chinese water deer.”

Donald emphasises Scotland’s deer are themselves an important part of biodiversity, but only at the right population levels. He adds: “Through time we have the removed the predators that have helped control the population. We’ve managed habitats and the land they depend on in such a way that it’s more productive than it once was. So now it’s a great habitat for them to live in and thrive. 

“This combined with the kind of climate changes we are experiencing means the productivity of deer, which is a very adaptable species, has increased. This, of course, has contributed to a rising population over the years. That said, progress has been made with reducing populations in some areas of Scotland in very recent years, and it is this progress we need to continue to secure and increase.”

Donald points out there will be serious consequences, if no action is taken.
“A number of things would happen,” he says. “There would be a higher impact on the habitats, especially on woodlands where there would be significant consequences, but also on other environments.

“Neither would it be very good for the deer themselves. With no natural predators, their population would get completely out of control, with the associated welfare issues and mortality events, most often associated with weather.”

Deer culling takes place at set times of the year, in seasons predetermined by legislation. All culls are undertaken in a safe, humane and professional manner to the sector’s Best Practice standards. 

NatureScot also addresses the greatest welfare concern – protecting female deer with dependent young –and the culling of female deer over one year old, of any species, anywhere, is prohibited between April 1 and August 31.

Donald notes: “Part of our role at NatureScot is that we can authorise people to control deer out of season as well, if there’s damage occurring. We always take into account the welfare aspects and make sure everybody’s competent to undertake control.” 

There are also higher stakes at play in the promotion of deer management. All over the planet nature is in decline and in Scotland, too, we are facing a climate emergency.

The Scottish Biodiversity Strategy, due to be launched later this year, will set targets to halt nature loss by 2030 and deliver nature restoration at scale across the nation by 2045. As part of this ambitious plan, it’s hoped the culling of deer can help tackle both biodiversity loss and climate change.

Donald notes: “Managing deer directly impacts the protection of particularly important habitats. Woodlands, for example, are incredibly important in terms of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere and we want to increase native woodland cover in Scotland. We can better achieve this by preventing damage by deer.

“We aim to get the best out of our special habitats but too many deer will have a negative impact. We could see the loss of more species and, therefore, important biodiversity. 

“We need to make sure the population is more in line with the habitats and reduce the population from its current level so it’s more sustainable and we don’t lose biodiversity.”

Perhaps understandably, not everyone is keen to see healthy deer being shot. However, Donald believes there is an increased understanding that it’s imperative to control numbers. 

“Of course, there are folks who don’t agree with culling but there’s an increasing understanding of the need to do this. The climate and biodiversity crises have helped in the general public’s understanding of the immense pressures the environment is under – and unsustainable impacts from deer are part of that. They recognise the need to control populations,” he says.

There are also economic benefits that come directly from controlling deer in terms of local employment and, of course, the provision of venison. Donald is positive that, through the work of orgnisations such as NatureScot, Scotland can look forward to a sustainable balance of deer and habitat.

“I’m positive we can reach that,” he says. “It’s going to take time and effort and we need to take people with us on the journey, from the deer stalkers and land managers to the general public. We must also make sure resources underpin our goals in the longer term. I believe, given the public’s understanding of the need to address these issues and the influence people have had on the environment for such a long time, deer control is part of a determined move to tackle the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity.”


Rural jobs and skills vital to build green economy  

AS the nation’s official nature agency, with more than 30 years of experience advising the Scottish Government, NatureScot works continually to improve the natural environment . . . and inspire all of us to care more about it.


The country benefits financially from skilled workers protecting and restoring nature


As part of this important mission, it has a statutory responsibility to further the conservation, control and sustainable management of all wild deer species. 

This involves collating up-to-date information on deer populations and their impacts and working with land managers to mitigate these impacts nationwide, while supporting the development of Wild Deer Best Practice guidance.

Work to implement the recommendations of the Deer Working Group is at the core of NatureScot’s deer work currently, and includes a strong focus on prioritising actions to reduce deer impacts in particular geographic locations, such as peatlands, landscape-scale woodland projects, and areas where it identifies high agricultural impact, greater risk of vehicle collisions or the highest population densities. 

Work across the agencies will also incorporate a review of incentives to make management more effective and efficient.

As well as tackling biodiversity loss and climate change, there are many sound financial reasons why NatureScot works hard to ensure the enhanced management of deer remains a top priority. 

Many jobs and skills associated with the sector are vital in supporting rural economies and the benefits of protecting and restoring nature are all part of a concerted move to boost Scotland’s green economy.

The ultimate goal is to achieve a sustainable situation that benefits deer, people and their shared environment.

There can be no doubt NatureScot is earnest in meeting this goal: where voluntary deer management is not delivering the required outcomes, it has vowed to use its statutory powers to achieve what is needed for nature.

During the course of the current Parliament new legislation is expected to be introduced but, in the meantime, NatureScot says it will exercise existing intervention powers when required. 

It recognises, however, that success also depends very much on collaboration with a wide range of partners. 

This is why it’s working proactively with local communities, land managers and a broad range of groups to develop effective planning.

Stakeholders include the Scottish Government, the Association of Deer Management Groups and local deer management groups across Scotland, as well as other public bodies, such as Scottish Forestry, Forestry and Land Scotland, Cairngorms National Park Authority and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. 

NatureScot believes strong leadership, community involvement and stakeholder collaboration will ultimately achieve a nature-rich future for Scotland.

Not just red deer: Scotland’s four separate deer species

PERHAPS the most famous depiction of Scotland’s deer is The Monarch of the Glen, the oil painting completed in 1851 by Sir Edwin Landseer. Of course, not all deer are such majestic, twelve-point red stags.

In fact, Scotland’s deer come in all shapes and sizes.


The red and roe are our two native and best-known species. Red deer, which survive on grass, heather, sedge and other woody plants, live throughout Scotland, thriving in woodlands and high on moors and mountaintops.

So successful are our largest wild land mammals, Scotland’s red deer population is now considered to be the largest of any European country.

As well as being a favourite on tourists’ bucket lists of things to see, the red deer’s grazing habits can help create oases for seedling regeneration, as well as provide a source of dung and carrion for other species. 

However, when the red deer population grows too large and their spread of numbers too wide, grazing and trampling can negatively impact important habitats and the biodiverse species that rely on them.

The smaller roe deer is also found across mainland Scotland and is increasingly being spotted right in the heart of our towns and cities. The roe feed mainly on shrubs, tree shoots and herbs.

Despite their smaller and seemingly more delicate build, roe deer, too, can be detrimental to environments, with their activity often limiting the establishment or regeneration of native woodlands.

Sika deer in the UK were introduced from the Far East and today they can be found throughout Scotland, grazing on grass, and heather, tree shoots and barks, but having a particularly significant impact on woodland habitats.

Unfortunately, their browsing of coniferous tree shoots and barks can damage plantation woodlands. 

The final species is fallow deer, which are believed to have been introduced as far back as the Eleventh Century, having been transported from the Mediterranean.

Found only in a handful of areas across the country, mainly in Perthshire and Stirlingshire, much of Scotland’s wild population in Scotland is directly descended from escapees from parks.