In the Scottish Highlands, a five-year plan to drastically reduce deer numbers and replant devastated woods has generated outrage and protests among gamekeepers and shepherds.
The Cairngorms National Park Authority’s recommendations aim to make considerable changes to the park, which is the UK’s largest, with a focus on addressing climate change and biodiversity loss.
This involves 35,000 hectares of woodland restoration, new licensing systems for shooting estates, and deer culls to reduce deer populations to “sustainable levels.”
The protests, which are being organized in part by the Grampian Moorland Group, which represents the owners and employees of many shooting estates in the national park, include an online petition and an invitation for people to express their concerns to their local members of parliament.
A major sticking point is a proposed reduction in deer numbers. Without any natural predators and with shooting estates charging tourists large sums to hunt on their land, numbers of deer in Scotland have exploded.
This has happened even in the last few decades, with numbers of all four species of deer in Scotland – red, fallow, roe and sika – rising from around half a million in 1990 to more than a million by 2020.
Deer are voracious consumers of seedlings, and prevent new trees from growing. Just one per cent of the Caledonian Forest, which once covered swathes of the Highlands, remains. This is largely due to centuries of tree felling for timber and farmland, but the deer-stalking industry has long been accused of maintaining artificially high numbers of deer for shooting, at the expense of the regeneration of the natural environment.
Around 40 estates fall into the Cairngorms National Park’s boundaries, however, and there are fears the new plans will result in job losses.
The Scottish Gamekeepers Association told The Independent that according to their calculations the plans could result in “a worst case scenario” in which new culls could result in more than 50 per cent of the deer in the national park being killed over the next five years.
The consultation on the plans, which are yet to be finalised and sent to ministers for final approval, resulted in a record response with more than 1,400 people giving their opinion to the park authority.
The authority said that “on the Nature section of the plan [which includes the cull targets and woodland regeneration], 75 per cent of respondents agreed with the overall outcomes proposed”.
Grant Moir, the chief executive of the Cairngorms National Park Authority, said: “As always with a document of this nature, there will be a range of opinions on both sides of a number of issues and our job as a park authority is to listen to all sides of the argument and take a considered view of the best way forward, in line with the founding principles of the national park and the policy priorities of Scottish government.
“Whilst it is too early to say what the final changes to the plan will look like, the views of all respondents are being considered. We are grateful to all the people who took the time to respond to the consultation, including over 50 per cent of responses from people in the park and over 10 per cent of responses from land managers. This gives us an excellent picture of peoples priorities.”
He added: “Specifically on the management of red deer in open range, this is an important issue for the Cairngorms National Park. Red deer counts were carried out across the park last month and we are analysing that information at present. What it initially shows is that there are approximately 30,000 red deer in the open range and that many areas of the park are already in line with the proposed target – however, there remains significant areas that are substantially above.
“The intent is to work with deer management groups that are significantly above the proposed target over the coming years, to reduce red deer impacts by 2030 to allow for peatland restoration, woodland expansion and heather recovery in these areas to tackle the twin biodiversity and climate crisis whilst supporting jobs in the sector.”
In addition to fears over the impacts a major deer cull may have on livelihoods for those involved in the stalking industry, another issue raised by gamekeepers has been how the culls will be carried out, with concerns about all-year-round shooting and night shooting, which could have public safety implications.
This article by Harry Cockburn was first published by The Independent on 21 April 2022. Lead Image: Artificially high populations of deer are blamed for stopping the natural regeneration of woodlands.
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