Over the last few weeks, hill walkers have encountered dead deer lying scattered over many of Scotland’s hills. While some may have been shot to put them out of their misery, most will have starved to death – the combination of months of exposure to harsh weather and poor nutrition. This winter has been especially long; however even in years when spring has come earlier, thousands of red deer have been recorded as dying in this way in the Scottish hills (pdf|page). Since it is likely that only a small proportion of dead deer are found and recorded, these figures will be an under-estimate of total numbers. Many sporting estates view such deaths as ‘natural mortality’, part and parcel of deer management. Indeed winter mortality is often used by these deer managers as a justification for ‘easing back’ on deer culling the following year – to counteract the losses sustained by the population the previous winter.
But there is another perspective. That the high level of winter mortality suffered by red deer in Scotland is not natural, that it is largely preventable and the direct result of choices made by those who manage these populations as their private sporting asset. In most other circumstances, such management comes with a responsibility, a ‘duty of care’ towards the resource managed. But in the case of deer, when it comes to winter mortality, this duty seems to be neglected as large numbers of deer are left to starve to death instead. Rather than managing deer to levels where such mortality would be minimised, representative bodies urge hill walkers not to disturb emaciated and dying deer.
Red deer densities in Scotland are regularly over ten times higher than is normal in other European countries and, unlike in most of Europe, red deer, a forest animal, are largely excluded from woodlands. Because the deer density is so high throughout much of Scotland, the only way most landowners can attempt to grow trees is to protect them behind six foot high deer fences. These fences in turn prevent deer from accessing the shelter that would help reduce exposure and allow them to survive the winter. Some deer are injured or die attempting to jump the fences. By choosing to manage the deer range in this way, i.e. by forcing high numbers of deer to live in areas excluded from sufficient shelter, deer managers are failing to meet the most basic duty of care towards those animals they claim to manage. There was recently an international outcry about large numbers of animals being left to starve in a fenced enclosure in an ecological experiment at Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands. We think the situation in Scotland’s hills is comparable.
While of course there will always be some winter mortality for natural populations of wild animals, the high levels of mortality witnessed in Scotland are directly related to choices made by those claiming to manage them. The natural predators of deer have been eradicated and the management of deer is now the responsibility of those with sporting rights. There is a Deer Code which specifically sets out responsibilities for deer managers in Scotland including ‘safeguarding deer welfare’. There is also a government agency (Scottish Natural Heritage) charged with furthering ‘…the conservation of deer native to Scotland, the control and sustainable management of deer in Scotland and [to] keep under review all matters, including their welfare…’ and an Association of Deer Management Groups which claims to co-ordinate groups who manage deer ‘…as a common resource.’
Despite all this, this system is clearly not working for the welfare of deer. Reforesting Scotland believes that Scotland’s deer management structures need to be updated so that preventable deaths from starvation and exposure are not seen as an acceptable by-product of sport stalking. This can best be done by achieving deer numbers that are in balance with their environment and can be reconnected to their woodland habitat.