The Impact and Management of Deer in Scotland


This document was written as a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee.


It is now widely understood that Scotland was once a heavily wooded country and that bringing back a good amount of forest cover would have important social, economic and ecological benefits, as well as contributing significantly to Scotland’s climate change targets. The largest single barrier to achieving this is overgrazing, primarily by red and roe deer. Creating new forests on overgrazed land is harder, slower and much more expensive than it is on properly grazed land and generally has poorer results.

The current mechanisms for reducing the number of deer to levels that are not damaging have failed, despite having had decades to prove that they can work. It is time to consider the example of other northern European countries with similar climates and ecologies that manage to maintain healthy deer populations and strong hunting traditions alongside high levels of forest cover that provide jobs, recreation and a host of ecological advantages

The effects of deforestation

Deforestation does not simply remove the trees from the landscape: it causes a cascade of knock-on effects that lead to an ecosystem that is altogether poorer, less productive and less stable. The change in upland land management to large scale sport shooting and sheep grazing that started in 1750 exacerbates these effects considerably.

The loss of shelter from trees means that the remaining plants and animals suffer far more exposure. Stock and wild animals alike have to dedicate much more of their metabolism to simply keeping warm: it has been estimated that two extra degrees of wind chill in cattle leads to a requirement for five pounds worth of extra feed per animal per day. Where the ground vegetation is grazed by animals which crop it short – i.e. sheep or deer – it is generally kept so low that most plants are unable to flower and set seed, removing a valuable food source for invertebrates, small mammals and birds such as capercaillie and eventually leading to the loss of those plants.

In this way, deforestation and overgrazing result in a massive loss of biodiversity. This is shown by the enormous sporting bags of a wide range of species that were reported by the Highland estates during their first years of operation. The numbers recorded then simply do not exist now.

When woodland is removed in a country like Scotland with heavy rainfall, nutrients are leached out of the soil leading to soil acidification and podzolisation, Podzolisation occurs when iron is leached out of the upper soil horizons and is deposited lower down as iron oxide. The iron oxide can then form a hard iron ‘pan’ that plant roots cannot break through. The acidic soils, and shallow rooting depths, are suitable for heathy plant species, such as heather, that produce litter that decomposes very slowly due to the high tannin content. This further acidifies the soil and, in very wet areas, leads to a build up of peat and yet further soil acidification.

On steep slopes, soil degradation, regular burning and continuous grazing lead to soil erosion. This, in turn, leads to faster silting up of lochs and reservoirs. Removal of woodland cover also means that water runs off more quickly, thus increasing the likelihood of floods at lower levels and increasing the drying out of soils during dry spells. Salmon spawning streams become too warm for young fish to survive due to the lack of shade. A lack of deciduous trees overhanging streams also means a lack of leaves falling in and providing nutrients for invertebrates and, ultimately, fish.

Continuous high levels of grazing by sheep and deer have also resulted in a spread of less nutritious grass species such as white bent (Nardus stricta) and purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea). Sheep and deer are selective grazers so they avoid these species, leading to their spread. Cattle, by contrast, are less selective and can keep these species in check. They also trample bracken and so can reduce its cover.

The impacts of herbivores and the consequent decline in the condition and extent of woodland, together with changes in land use and land management, has resulted in:

  •         nutrient losses from soils
  •         acidification of soils
  •         peat formation
  •         soil erosion and landslides
  •         silting up of lochs and reservoirs
  •         flooding
  •         drying out of soils
  •         lack of natural tree and shrub regeneration
  •         spread of rough grasses and bracken
  •         loss of salmon spawning grounds
  •         loss of shelter for deer and domestic stock
  •         loss of species richness and associated biodiversity

Benefits of a forested landscape

To understand what a difference could be made by restoring Scotland’s forests, we need to look at similar countries which have not lost their forests. Norway is a good example as it shares Scotland’s northern, Atlantic climate and mountainous terrain but has a different political and land-use history. Switzerland, Austria, Germany and many Eastern European countries also hold useful lessons.

Norway has thirty three percent forest cover in contrast to Scotland’s eighteen percent, despite having a much larger area that is unsuitable for trees. The typical pattern is for valley bottoms to be farmed, with forests on the slopes, reaching up to the natural treeline. The forests are usually owned by the same people who farm the valleys and are often regarded as ‘money in the bank’ – a reserve that can be cashed in when circumstances require – compared to the annual income of farming. They are also grazed at sustainable levels, offering both fodder and shelter for livestock.

Norwegian homes are usually timber built and well insulated due to the ready availability of timber as a building material. Inside, they are also heated with wood, from simple wood stoves to high-tech pellet burners. Timber is also the basis for a wide range of value-added industries. Non-timber forest products are also valued, including fungi, fruits and foliage. These are harvested both commercially and for the simple enjoyment of it.

Forests offer many opportunities for recreation. They are more robust and more diverse than the open hill and can absorb far larger numbers of people out enjoying themselves without feeling crowded. A large number of studies have shown that outdoor recreation in natural environments contributes positively to mental health. In Norway even city dwellers generally have access to forests in the form of a hut, usually family-owned, that can be visited at weekends and during holidays. This ‘physical escape’ from working life has been contrasted with the ‘chemical escape’ that often takes its place in Scotland.

Hunting is a popular activity in forested countries across Europe, providing meat, recreation and deer control. It is an activity that is usually available to anyone who can meet the strict requirements of a hunting licence.

Meanwhile, the forests provide a wide range of ecological benefits and services. Tree roots go deep into the soil, bringing up and storing nutrients. Leaf fall builds soil and fertility. The more sheltered, fertile environment allows animals to grow larger and healthier, so open woods are more productive of both stock and game and support higher levels of biodiversity. Forests act as giant sponges, evening out water flows and preventing flash floods and erosion downstream when there is heavy rainfall. And simply by existing they store large amounts of carbon, both in the upper parts and below ground in extensive root systems.

Deer and reforestation

Since the change in the rural grant scheme that has seen headage payments for sheep replaced by area payments, sheep numbers have declined rapidly in Scotland, leaving deer, largely red and roe, as the major large grazing species. They have become the major ecological factor limiting the regeneration, expansion and sustainable management of woodland in almost all parts of Scotland. All of the natural predators on large herbivores (lynx, wolves and brown bears) were exterminated long ago from Scotland and are unable to return due to our island situation, so now winter mortality and shooting are the only controls on deer numbers.

There is no necessary conflict between deer and trees. Indeed deer are naturally forest animals and on the open hill they grow more slowly, reach a smaller size, breed less quickly and suffer more winter mortality than they do in their natural habitat. It is the current high numbers of deer that prevent reforestation.

Forests can be established in the presence of high deer numbers, but the process is much harder and more expensive and has more unintended side effects than when they are at sustainable levels. The resulting forests are also of lower quality.

To protect planted trees from deer, fences and tubes are used. Depending on the scale and location of the scheme, fencing typically accounts for half of the cost of a planting scheme for both restocking and new planting. Fences are not perfectly effective, so in areas of high deer pressure intensive shooting is generally required as well. Besides their cost, fences have a number of negative impacts. They are unsightly in the landscape and constrain the shapes of woodlands to ugly, geometric shapes. They kill capercaillie which collide with them. And they create poor habitat on both sides of the fence: overgrazed on the outside and undergrazed on the inside. Undergrazed vegetation grows very rank and long and lower-growing plants are often lost at this stage.

In smaller schemes, tree tubes are used instead of fencing to protect trees from roe deer. Planting a tree in a tube costs around eight times what planting one without does. Trees grown in tubes are less stable than ones grown without and often blow over. More maintenance is required and the tubes are often left to litter the area. In the absence of deer, shorter tubes may still be required to protect from rabbits in some areas, but these are cheaper and do not destabilise the tree in the same way. It is practically impossible to protect trees from red deer using tubes as the tube has to be so high that none of the trees planted in them are stable.

Deer are a major factor in driving foresters towards over-reliance on Sitka spruce, which is sufficiently prickly that deer avoid it if there are alternatives available. It is common to see planting schemes with mixed broadleaves planted around Sitka spruce where the spruce have got away but the broadleaves have failed or remain as stunted wrecks barely out of the tree tubes. While Sitka spruce has an important place in timber production, over-reliance on it does nothing for biodiversity as it acidifies the soil and shades out ground vegetation. Recent problems with tree diseases have shown the dangers of relying too heavily on just one species, but other timber species such as larch, pine and Douglas fir are also susceptible to deer browsing.

Even where forests can be established it is usually impractical to keep deer out in the longer term. The impact of deer within forests is especially high in the many areas of the Scottish uplands where there is very little woodland. In winter, deer from large areas of open hill will all take shelter in these small areas of woodland causing intense browsing pressure. This has a large impact, not only on young trees, but also on the ground vegetation, eliminating preferred herb species and creating woodland with no shrub understorey.

By contrast, heavy culling at an estate level is sufficient to reduce deer numbers to levels where tree regeneration can take place over large areas and without fencing, as has been demonstrated at Glen Feshie, Creag Meagaidh, Abernethy and Carrifran in the Southern Uplands.

Deer management

The problems of overgrazing were recognised as long ago as 1872, when the first of a series of government inquiries into the matter was undertaken. In 1959 The Deer (Scotland) Act was finally introduced, requiring land owners to take account of damage to agriculture and forestry. The control regime since then has been a failure by any standards. Red deer numbers have increased in the Scottish uplands from around 150,000 in the 1960s to 450,000 currently. Roe numbers are harder to estimate but have certainly increased by a comparable amount.

As well as the problems caused for reforestation, these high numbers are also associated with high densities of ticks and increased incidence of Lyme disease (and potentially other tick-borne diseases that are currently in mainland Europe but may cross to the UK in future). Deer at their current high densities are also responsible for large numbers of road traffic accidents.

Red deer numbers are currently managed by Deer Management Groups (DMGs), one for each major population of red deer in Scotland. They are voluntary associations of landowners whose estates overlap with the range of the population. Roe deer are mostly unmanaged, except for short periods and usually in conjunction with fencing when a land owner is trying to establish trees. Very few lowland land owners have the ability to manage roe deer numbers over as wide an area as would be required to make a significant difference.

It is worth looking at how deer are managed in parts of Europe that have been successful in maintaining both deer and forests. In Germany, hunting rights are licensed out. Landowners with over 500 ha control the licences on their own land; otherwise all the landowners in a municipality are integrated into an association who may use their right for themselves or lease it. Leases usually go for between twenty five and two hundred and fifty euros per hectare per year. Crucially, licencees get both a right and a responsibility. They may shoot the deer but they are also liable to compensate farmers and foresters whose crops are damaged by ‘their’ deer. There are stringent exams for those who wish to hold a hunting licence to ensure that it is carried out in a skilled way with due regard to safety and animal welfare. Similar systems are the norm across much of Europe.

This contrasts with the Scottish system, where landowners have rights without responsibilities. Landowners have the sole right to take deer on their own land, which on large enough estates makes them the effective owners of the deer. However, the deer are classed as wild animals which means that they belong to no-one and no-one can be held responsible for either the ecological or the financial damage that they do. DMGs often recognise the de facto ownership of deer by estates, with some landowners complaining about neighbours taking too many of ‘their’ deer. Thus the DMGs often operate to keep deer at unsustainable levels rather than to keep them within the carrying capacity of the land.

There is a fear amongst the owners of sporting estates that reducing the number of deer per hectare on their land would reduce their income from stalking, based on the belief that, for a sporting estate to function, red deer numbers must be such that minimal effort is needed to find and shoot a stag. Thus they often argue in DMGs for higher rather than lower numbers. The emphasis on stag shooting adds to the problem because one stag can breed with a large number of hinds, so shooting stags makes no difference to overall numbers.

We believe that this fear is unfounded, as demonstrated by the experience of Glenfeshie Estate, which has drastically reduced numbers but is still able to charge exactly the same for a day’s shooting. This should not be surprising as sport estates are in the business of selling an experience and a lifestyle, not simply selling deer, which any deer farm could do. With a change of marketing to emphasise the stalking experience and the venison rather than the trophy, there is no reason that hunting estates should not be as profitable as ever. In any case, stags kept at agricultural densities on the open hill are half the size of their European counterparts, making pretty poor trophies.

A related issue is that Highland shooting estates are often valued according to the number of stags that they support (amongst other things), creating a perverse incentive for higher numbers. However, as Glenfeshie again shows, the sporting income that can be raised from an estate is a more reliable indicator of its value than the number of deer that can be farmed on it. With a sustainable management regime in place the land valuation system would surely adjust accordingly.

We believe that the European model should be investigated for application to Scotland for roe deer and, if the current system is incapable of reforming itself to be fit for purpose, we should consider how it might be adapted for  red deer management too.


·       Manage public land, such as that owned by the Crown Estates, in a way that will restore them to ecological health. This will entail heavy culling of deer, encouragement of natural tree regeneration and probably also tree planting. In time, this will allow the outputs from the land be diversified and community involvement in land management to be increased.

·       Provide support to land owners who are trying to bring deer numbers down in the face of opposition from neighbours.

·       Require SNH to set, and enforce, regional deer culls to achieve deer densities that allows tree to regenerate without fences in most locations (around 5 deer /km2 or lower).

·       Require all deer managers to collect, and return to SNH every year, information on deer numbers counted and the ratio of calves to hinds counted, as well as the number, weight and age (calf, yearling, adult) of all shot deer. This information is essential for the effective management of any deer population.

·       Remove the closed season for male deer and reduce the length of the closed season for females.

·       Document case studies where deer numbers have been brought down and woodland regenerated.

·       Encourage the setting up of demonstration sites to show the benefits of reducing deer densities and increasing woodland and scrub cover (Arisaig estate is one example). Arrange, perhaps with Scottish Land and Estates, visits to such sites for land owners and managers.

·       Engage with the British Association for Shooting and Conservation about ways of training more stalkers and encouraging more shooting for venison rather than for trophies. Note, however, that shooting organizations can have a vested interest in maintaining high deer densities.

·       Work to find ways of making venison more available in Scotland. Scottish wild venison is a lean, chemical free, free-range and healthy meat that is in abundance in Scotland and yet it is seldom sold in local butchers or supermarkets. The smaller supermarkets, such as Waitrose, and local butchers that try to support “home-grown and local” would be worth targeting. The supply of Scottish venison is often seasonal from any one source. However, with out-of-season shooting, it should be possible to source venison at all times of the year. It might need to come from a variety of locations and be of a number of different deer species (principally red, roe, sika). Making venison more available, largely from local butchers, would make it easier for small game dealers to make a living selling locally. Government assistance should be provided to small venison producers to help with meeting hygiene regulations and with marketing. The market for venison does not drive most of the red deer cull (although it affects some of it), but it could have a big impact on the number of roe and sika deer culled in particular on farms and in commercial forests.

·       Investigate the European model of licensing with a view to implementing it in Scotland for roe deer and, if the current system is incapable of reforming itself to be fit for purpose, consider how it might be adapted for red deer too.

Reforesting Scotland, November 2013