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  • Writer's pictureRob Gibson

Deer impact across Scotland

Deer impact across Scotland

Beyond the common grazing, on the deer ground they call Wild Land, that’s our domestic space. It is where we harvest deer, fish, nuts, mushrooms.

Issy MacPhail, Assynt crofter, Community Land Conference, Stirling 2017

Highlands and Islands MSP Rob Gibson has welcomed the constructive and collaborative approach of the participants in the Responsible Deer Management consultation where the aim is to produce a framework on how to deal with Scotland's burgeoning deer population. Following the passage of the Nature Conservation Act last summer Mr Gibson who has worked closely with Non-Governmental Organizations, responsible estate owners and with colleagues in the Environment and Rural Development Committee in this consultation says that real and sustainable progress is being made…

Any reasonable estate owner who looks at the findings and progress of the deer management proposals contained in the motion lodged for debate in Parliament cannot help but be impressed by its approach. That is why it is galling to read such nightmarish myths and lurid fantasies that are currently being pedalled by those who really should know better., January 2005 – ‘Gibson hits out at ‘irresponsible landowners’

Dear, Deer!

Decades ago, when I began walking the Scottish hills, I was always struck by the Highlanders’ claims that taking one for the pot was a basic right. Be it deer, salmon or game bird, you can see the point of feeding the family. Indeed, the Great Deer Raid in 1887 in the Pairc deer forest on the Isle of Lewis had that aim. It was a direct action against private deer stalking tenancy while nearby crofting villages starved. The charges against the crofters’ leaders in South Lochs sparked widespread support across the land from sympathisers such as RB Cunninghame Graham, radical Liberal MP for NW Lanarkshire. He wrote in The Scottish Highlander:

Scotland is a free country – quite – it appears; for the crofter to starve in, or a deer to eat his crops in.

Since many crofters sought work in his Lanarkshire constituency, he knew of their plight directly.

As times changed, the idea of poaching also changed and commercial gangs were known to target whole herds of red deer or poison salmon with Cymag. The chemicals could kill all the fish in a whole river system. But it only poisoned fish, not humans.1 Wildlife crime has been big business for years. In 1959, a question in the House of Lords to the Scottish Office minister on Cymag came from Viscount Goschen on behalf of Viscount Massareen and Ferrard who was ill that day. The latter Viscount also had the opportunity to introduce the Deer (Scotland) Bill into Parliament in 1966 which set up the Red Deer Commission. As a landowner of some 16,000 acres in the Isle of Mull, and another 20,000 acres in Antrim and Louth, he provides a useful example of the interest their Lordships had, and have, in preserving game for the rich and punishing trespassers and would-be poachers. During the 20th century poachers still played a cat and mouse game with ghillies and lairds. But, unlike in previous times, when you might be transported to the colonies for such offences, the courts had more limited powers. If convicted, you could only be fined, or have your car and gear confiscated.

John Buchan, capitalising on the Victorian craze for blood sports, used the idea of poaching for his light-hearted, adventure novel John MacNab. It features bored gentlemen in a shooting lodge one rainy autumn, post WW1, issuing a challenge to three neighbouring estate owners where John MacNab might poach a salmon, shoot two deer and avoid detection. 2 This story extolled the popularity of the romantic side of poaching. In the dying years of John Major’s Tory government the Criminal Justice & Public Act 1994 which introduced the crime of aggravated trespass. 3 This new law could prosecute those who might wish to disrupt deer stalking and driven grouse shoots. Also targeted were hunt saboteurs who tried to interfere with the then lawful pursuit of fox hunting. The Act arose through increased protests that sought to occupy land which could disrupt other ‘peaceful activities’ such as the work of nuclear missile installations at Greenham Common or the nuclear submarine facilities at the Faslane Naval Base on the Gare Loch. This new law incensed Scottish novelist Andrew Greig and prompted him to plot The Return of John MacNab. 4 It’s is an exhilarating read that added ‘feisty’ female characters and a daring plot line, in a way Buchan would never have dreamed. Greig introduced the ultimate poaching incursion on the royal estates in Deeside. I understand that the film rights were acquired but never pursued, more’s the pity, because Scottish historical and contemporary themes rarely reach our TV screens. Are they too threatening to the established order?

But, at the end of the 20th century, attitudes to poaching were about to take a subtle turn. Instead of the thrill of outfoxing an absentee laird, the responsibilities of ownership for residents loomed large. With the advent of community land buyouts, many former poachers were turned, not into game keepers, but into owners of their natural resources on what amounts today to over 500,000 acres of community owned lands. Evidence from North Harris, not a stone’s throw from Pairc, shows the community buyout arrangements led to the 2009 North Harris Deer Management Plan which was built on a partnership with Ian Scarr Hall. 5 Hall’s interest in deer shooting had precipitated his purchase of Amhuinnsuidhe Castle. However, in 2002, he made a unique deal with the North Harris buyout group where he kept the right to shoot a specified number of stags but the community estate also gained income and some employment from this ‘blood sport’. The previously elite sport of stalking was further ‘troubled’, as Fiona Mackenzie puts it in Places of Possibility, by the creation of the Harris Hind Stalking Club in 2004. This gave community members a job in the essential task of hind culling and subsequently sharing the stag shooting with Ian Scarr Hall. Extended hind culling was agreed with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to succour resident golden eagles which can eat deer carcasses shot on the high ground. All in all, a neat way to meet several land management goals and fill the freezers of local families with lean, wild deer meat. As we will see this approach did not suit every land buyout group however.

How many deer are there?

The deer population of Scotland has trebled in 30 years. In 2015, when we were debating the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, I received some evidence from Ninian Stuart, the hereditary keeper of Falkland Palace, and laird of the adjoining estate which he runs on ecological lines. On a RACCE committee visit to Falkland scoping land reform issues ahead of Stage 1 of the bill in September 2015, Ninian offered to send me a newspaper cutting discussing his father’s resignation as chairman of the Red Deer Commission in 1963. John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, had resigned during his second stint in post. The Glasgow Herald of 23 September 1963, explained:

The last report of the Red Deer Commission complained that lack of co-operation from farmers and landowners could cripple it in its task, which is to reduce the red deer population of the Highlands to manageable proportions.

That was when the red deer population was estimated to be 150,000. 6 Forty years later, when I was elected as an SNP Regional Member for the Highlands & Islands, deer numbers in Scotland were now estimated to be 450,000. Deer management was now a hot topic. During the passage of the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Bill in the winter of 2003 and spring of 2004 new protections had to be included for Sites of Special Scientific Interest and European designated Natura Sites due to predations by hungry deer.

Arran of the Bens the Glens and the Brave

I first visited Glen Diomhan in August 1965 on a solo hill walk from Pirnmill on the Isle of Arran’s west coast. I walked over Beinn Bhreac and followed the Abhainn Mor towards Catacol to catch the bus back to Brodick. I’d heard about a nature reserve created to protect Sorbus arranensis and Sorbus pseudofennica – two crosses of rowan and true whitebeam native only to Arran. The wooden deer fencing erected in 1961 around the steep gully containing the biggest stand of these rare trees didn’t strike me at the time as adequate. In 2003, having been elected to Holyrood as MSP for Highlands & Islands, Arran was not in my patch. But, friends such as Malcolm Kerr and Henry Murdo and my cousin, Thea Andrews, made good reasons for regular visits to the island. Inevitably, land ownership and land use questions cropped up between us.

Henry Murdo, a longstanding member of Arran Mountain Rescue had walked and climbed over most of these hills. He had observed Arran whitebeams in precarious ledges and gullies, the few places safe from grazing deer, sheep and goats. To his horror, the fencing around Glen Diomhhan was in very bad repair. It had been designated by the Nature Conservancy as a National Nature Reserve (NNR) in 1956 in an agreement with the Duchess of Montrose who owned much of the island at that time. Along with Don MacNeish, Henry photographed and publicised the poor state of fencing, some of which had recently been contracted out by SNH to protect the rare, and increasingly endangered, Arran whitebeams in the NNR. It was supposed to preserve flora, fauna, geological and zoological interests .

That’s when my partner, Eleanor Scott, and I arrived on the scene. As newly elected MSPs, Henry Murdo was seeking our help to alert SNH to fulfil its duties. On 7 June 2003, we walked the three and a half kilometres up Glen Catacol, the wildcat’s gully, to Glen Diomhan, the idle or untilled glen. It is set below Creag na h-Iolaire, the eagle’s crag, to the north and Meall nan Damh, hill of the stags, to the west. What we found was broken fencing half repaired with piles of rusting wire and nails lying beside it. Obviously, steps to protect some young saplings had been taken by inserting vole guards which were, alas, no deterrent to the deer. I wrote to SNH and reported the saga in Reforesting Scotland magazine of the woeful state of this NNR. The story continued for several years. They included the repair and enlargement of the fenced area and then the removal of NNR status from Glen Diomhan.

Throughout that time the late Mr Stephen Gibbs who owned the Dougarie estate of some 24,908 acres, or most of the north west of Arran, had done little to divert deer from the area. Since shooting was his main interest you would think that an agreement with SNH could have been struck. Precious little evidence of estate investment has emerged. After the breakup of the Hamilton/Montrose estate in 1956, Mr Gibbs’ estate became the second largest on the island. The Forestry Commission with 27,000 acres was the largest and the rump of Arran Estate, under the name of Charles JG Fforde, comes third with 16,300 acres. Fourth comes the National Trust for Scotland owning the Goatfell Massif and Brodick Castle at 5,434 acres, after their transfer in lieu of death duties by the Duchess of Montrose.

Arran Community Land Initiative reported in March 2015 that Henry Murdo was growing specimens of sorbus arranensis in a plot at his garden in Corrygills. He had showed me these hard to propagate saplings the previous year. I am glad to note the campaign to save and spread these endangered native trees is alive. When RACCE made deer management proposals in 2013, Arran was in our minds. 7

Glen Feshie

Deer management conflict reached a new pitch in February 2004 when a compulsory cull in Badenoch drew the ire of some shooting estate owners and their game keepers. Emotions erupted after seven trained marksmen hired by the Deer Commission were airlifted by helicopter to upper Glen Feshie to kill 80 red deer which were steadily munching their way into vulnerable remnants of native pine woods. A lurid video claiming it was a massacre of red deer was filmed by game keepers and showed the carcasses lying, gralloched outside the estate lodge. This display was shown on BBC Scotland without any proper explanation.

The recently installed laird of Glen Feshie, Flemming Skoube, a Danish businessman, who bought the 42,000-acre estate in 2001 for a reported £8.5m, had been cooperating with the Deer Commission. Their official, David Balharry, was trying to apply the powers the agency possessed to reduce the herd from 1,500 to 1,000. However, concern for the scattered remnants of Scots Pines in upper Glen Feshie, under siege from hungry deer, prompted the compulsory cull under emergency powers. This led to the demonstration by game keepers from across Scotland. Many attended, presumably with their employers’ permission. They voiced fears for potential loss of jobs in scattered communities if blood sports were to be curtailed by government interference. They railed against unnecessary deer culling which they claimed was traumatising local ghillies and their families. 8 Some month later, I joined two other MSPs from the Environment & Rural Development committee to visit Glen Feshie. In August 2004 we witnessed the progress the deer management plans were making. The committee convener, Labour MSP Sarah Boyack, and I were impressed. The late Alex Johnstone, a Tory MSP, was less so. For my part, the vast shooting estates of the Highlands were a major challenge to biodiversity which had been protected in recent Acts of Parliament. This would be a recurring theme in the Land Reform Scotland Bill in 2015.

Poor relations between shooting interests and the majority of MSPs continued to be aired over the next decade by the SGA. They had in their sights various environmental NGOs and the Deer Commission, now subsumed into Scottish Natural Heritage, through the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act of 2011.

In 1986, Creag Meagaidh in nearby Brae Lochaber became a NNR and for over 20 years it has had its ecology deliberately rebalanced to exclude sheep and reduce deer (red, sika and fallow deer) to manageable numbers. 9 Directed by Dick Balharry, who had been highly praised for his pioneering work at the original NNR at Beinn Eighe in Wester Ross, the policy of this NNR was to balance deer numbers with woodland regeneration in the 10,000 acres reserve. The land had originally been bought by the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) and became a publicly funded success story. Much of that success was achieved without major new fencing being erected. By chance, it was Dick’s son David who led the compulsory action to reduce drastically deer numbers in Glen Feshie in 2003.

Glen Feshie was bought by Danish billionaire clothing magnate Anders Holch Povlsen in 2006 and would become an outstanding example of private sector planning to rebalance deer and trees. The transformation, under Povlsen’s local land manager, Thomas McDonnell, continued and accelerated the work begun under Skoube. 10

Raasay deer management

In each of RACCE’s periodic work programme announcements aspects of land management featured in many forms. Early in 2013, a question to environment minister Paul Wheelhouse exposed the removal of the fishing and shooting rights from the Raasay Crofters’ Association (RCA) to a South Ayrshire stalking firm. The subsequent loss of income and control angered the Raasay community. This led, on 28 February 2013, to the First Minister announcing that, following an intervention from the Minister for Environment and Climate Change, the contract with South Ayrshire Stalking had been withdrawn by mutual consent and the RCA’s lease had been extended for a year. This would allow Ministers to work with the wider Raasay community to find a long term solution to the issue. The details were expanded on by a motion lodged a week before by Jean Urquhart, Independent MSP for Highlands and Islands:

The Parliament notes with concern the transfer of fishing and shooting rights on the island of Raasay from the Raasay Crofters’ Association to a South Ayrshire stalking firm; further notes that the association, which represents 11 crofters and has paid an annual fee of £650, was set up in 1994 to manage these rights on behalf of the local community; understands that the association held the lease from 1995 until November 2012 and that during that period it made the enterprise a success through its investment in training and facilities; queries if this success, which, it understands, resulted in a profitable butcher’s trade operating on the island, is one of the primary reasons that the lease was put out to tender for the first time in November 2012; understands that the Scottish Government informed the association that ministers were not obliged to accept the highest offer, and expresses concern at what it sees as this loss of local control and community involvement.

This drew cross-party support of 29 MSPs. An amendment in the name of Angus MacDonald, SNP MSP for Falkirk East, was lodged on 27 February 2013:

As an amendment to motion S4M-05704 in the name of Jean Urquhart (Raasay Crofters' Association), leave out from first ‘notes’ to end and insert ‘[The Parliament] recognises what it sees as the success that the Raasay Crofters Association has had since acquiring the transfer of the local fishing and shooting rights on the island; appreciates that local control of the Raasay sporting rights has, in its view, been the cornerstone of the association’s success in recent years; understands that the initial sporting rights on Raasay were leased to a private landowner, then subsequently assigned to the Highlands and Islands Development Board in November 1981 for the remaining 31 years of a 50-year lease and reassigned to the Raasay Crofters Association in 1995, with the lease ultimately expiring in November 2012, as specified in the lease; further understands that the decision taken to award the sporting rights to the highest bidder was not a decision taken by ministers, but was taken on their behalf by the Scottish Government Rural Payments Inspectorate Division; believes that the decision has been met with widespread disapproval; welcomes what it sees as the prompt action taken by the Minister for Environment and Climate Change to review procedures and ensure that, in future, community and conservation interests are always fully taken into consideration; understands that the minister has taken action to instruct Scottish Government officials that any decision that would result in a local community failing to secure a renewal of a sporting lease, where they had been the sitting tenant, should be referred to ministers, and supports the Scottish Government's decision to consider options and to do all that it can to restore the Raasay community’s access to sporting rights on the island.

The amendment gained the support of 22 SNP MSPs.

The Raasay shooting lease was another reminder that promoting local control required government departments and agencies to align their policies and land management rules.

Ardvar loss of biodiversity leads to tougher deer management

In February 2013, my attention was drawn to a simmering constituency issue in Assynt. SNH has refused a licence to cull excess deer on the John Muir Trust’s (JMT) Quinag estate. The charitably owned property of over 9,000 acres sits amid the local deer range that is the responsibility of the West Sutherland Deer Management Group (DMG). This deer sub-group contains owners of various sorts. Ardvar, Inchnadamph and Loch Assynt Lodge are engaged in private sport. The Assynt Foundation is a charitable trust, as is the JMT. Finally, the Assynt Crofters Trust estate in north Assynt was the first modern crofter-owned buyout, won in 1993.

The JMT’s head of land and science, Mike Daniels, had been seeking a solution to the long running degradation of the native woodlands by deer grazing on and around Quinag. Quinag is a conspicuous multi-topped hill that rises to Sail Gharbh at 808m/2653ft. The JMT argued that Ardvar and Loch a’Mhuillinn woodlands to the north of Quinag, as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), were most threatened. These woods contain the northernmost remnants of sessile oak in Scotland as well as birch, aspen, rowan and alder. The JMT’s proposed cull was opposed by all but the Assynt Foundation. The shooting estates all claimed it would prejudice the number of deer available for sport.

During summer parliamentary recesses I used to visit nature reserves. On 7 August 2013, I arranged to visit the Ardvar woodland with the local Highland Council ranger, a representative from the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and local JMT personnel. We saw that the woods were seriously diminished. Small saplings marked for study in the steep sided, predominantly birch clad slopes, were grazed to the ground. On open slopes higher up, we could see young trees bitten off and browsed to the height of the heather. Regeneration was impossible without further intervention .

As the issue dragged on, disturbing allegations emerged of bitter altercations between employees of shooting estates and the JMT workers. I concluded that a report was needed for the RACCE committee to consider in the autumn of 2013. I released the bones of my report to the press, who are always on the lookout for blood sport stories in August. As the local MSP, the weekly Northern Times was interested as was David Ross, the seasoned Highland correspondent of The Herald. The Northern Times, known locally as the Raggie, duly obliged with a page one splash, ‘MSP reignites deer cull row.’ The paper took exception to my passing comment that deer shooting was elitist, saying, ‘Sutherland politician accused of living in the past’. However, my call for a ‘cool-headed review’ was agreed to by Andy Hibbert, the proprietor of Assynt Lodge, who concluded that

it was certainly time for all groups to sit round the table and try to understand and reach a balance between everyone’s individual objectives. 11

The Herald, on 23 August, headlined ‘Deer cull groups to face MSP challenge’, with the subtitle, ‘Landowners may see limiting of powers in deciding fate of herds.’ Next day’s headlines included ‘Gamekeepers warn of red tape’ and subtitles such as, ‘MSPs to debate taking control of the deer management system.’ The familiar line-up of the estates and SGA on one side with the JMT, RSPB and SWT on the other proved that the prolonged stand-off begged for exploration in parliament.

On 27 August, most RACCE members attended our away-day visit to the Glenlivet estate in the Cairngorm National Park where comprehensive deer management strategies were being formulated. The following morning, we discussed our suggestions for committee business that autumn. My colleagues agreed to recommend that the full committee should confirm evidence-taking on contentious deer management issues when parliament reconvened in early September. However, the SGA warned, in The Scottish Farmer, that ‘a statutory system of deer control would be a practical and political disaster.’ Under the headline, ‘Deer divide opens wide’, Gordon Davidson reported that ‘hostilities commenced when habitually maverick Highlands MP [sic] Rob Gibson returned from Assynt’ with evidence of ‘open hostility’ by local stalking interests who were not culling enough deer to protect forestry. 12 On the same day the Raggie led with: ‘MSP claims backing for deer management stance’ as the RACCE committee was set to discuss the future of deer management. This was duly confirmed on 11th September by RACCE in its work programme and dates in November were earmarked for two sets of hearings. 13

Despite my call for a ‘cool-headed review’, an open letter, ‘to whom it may concern’, from the shooting proprietors of Assynt, was published on 1st October which raised the matter of temporary fencing. This issue had previously stalled moves to protect the over-grazed Ardvar woods. They highlighted their view that,

JMT as a matter of policy are opposed to temporary fencing. JMT prefer to cull deer indiscriminately to assist regeneration. This policy of culling deer without regard to age or numbers brings JMT into conflict with the undersigned neighbours and also the wider Community. 14

A scatter gun allegation such as this was far from conciliatory. A spokesperson for the neighbouring estates to Quinag went on:

The management of deer numbers in Scotland is through Deer Management Groups. These are voluntary arrangements and are a tried and tested method of controlling deer numbers and are supported by the Scottish Government.

The open letter also claimed that the JMT declined to attend the local DMG meetings or share information about deer culls. 15

It was mooted that the impasse at the DMG was due to open hostility from these estates to the JMT. This was claimed by JMT CEO Stuart Brooks, in his response to the open letter. He also said the open letter was ‘threatening’. 16 This made it even more important for MSPs to review deer management issues: the association of DMGs (ADMGs) felt that the voluntary approach was working well and that Assynt was an exception.

Written evidence received ahead of the first two subject panels at RACCE on 13 November suggested that 321 out of 1203 designated conservation areas in Scotland were classed as being damaged by deer. In SACs, 28 of 44 protected woods were damaged by deer and other herbivores, such as sheep and goats. It was also reported that the National Forest Estate conducted 28–30% of deer culling per annum on only 9% of the deer range. 17 Detailed ideas for more regulated deer management were suggested by the Scottish Environment Link. They represent up to 30 organisations. In contrast, the ADMGs felt that more time was needed for deer management plans to take effect .

At that time, I received an interesting email from Lisbet Rausing, a member of the Swedish Tetrapac dynasty, who owns the 50,000-acre Corrour estate in the Central Highlands. She began, ‘You are right that much of the Highlands are ravaged by too many deer’. Speaking out for a Swedish approach to a wider range of natural predators, such as eagles, bear, lynx and wolves, to control deer numbers, Ms Rausing praised her ‘fantastic team of Scottish stalkers and foresters who are totally onside ecologically’. She added that they were pursuing other necessary goals of local employment and industry, treasuring their own traditions of stalking, welcoming visitors and so on. But it is not so easy – we have neighbours with 55 deer [sic] per square kilometre in SSSIs [Sites of Special Scientific Interest].

In conclusion Ms Rausing commented:

landowners are a varied lot, and there are many of us – the Scandinavians and Germans not least – who would love to support Scotland’s efforts to re-wild the Highlands, while respecting the people who live there. 18

I sought out the SNH map of the Ben Alder Deer Count of July 2013 which showed the density per square kilometre. It looked ominous in various areas. When asked by the press about my thoughts following the Assynt open letter and other evidence, such as the Corrour information, I responded ahead of the RACCE hearings, stressing that these were personal views and that RACCE would make up its collective mind in due course. This did not stop the SGA and Jamie McGrigor MSP, the Tory environment spokesperson, from accusing me of ‘trying to sway [the] deer cull debate’.19 My comments had been printed between the two hearings, and Jamie contended that ‘it was quite possible that such an opinion expressed in a newspaper could influence the proceedings.’ I responded:

We heard evidence on the basis that it was without fear or favour. To underline that, there are nine people on the committee and the other eight, in particular, had a great opportunity to ask a wide variety of questions and raise a wide range of concerns.

The committee hearings created a new record for us. So many people attended that tickets were required for access. The packed gallery, along with a full house of MSPs, heard how only 16 out of 40 DMGs had proper deer management plans, how the groups only met twice a year which made planning progress extremely slow and how the two-year-old voluntary Code of Practice was just bedding in.

Since the days of the Red Deer Commission, shooting estates had been urged and cajoled to organise sustainable plans, but progress was evidently proceeding at a snail’s pace. We were assured that DMGs were changing. We were also assured by SNH that voluntary and compulsory culls had been used in other places and that, under the most recent law, agreements were used, but that the application of compulsory action under Section 8 provisions had yet to be applied. Accusation about my own or other MSPs’ partiality nevertheless drew commendably favourable comment from Playfair Walker in the ADMG website. He summed up the hearings:

Overall, it was a fair debate. The majority of the panel remained in favour of the current system but that it could be improved, particularly if SNH was better resourced. The Committee gave little away although, despite the strength of evidence presented over the two sessions, they do I suspect remain highly sceptical that ‘voluntary’ can deliver, let alone that ‘voluntary’ is best. It is difficult to gauge where this goes next, but certainly the effectiveness of DMGs, the current system, and the uptake of the Code will be in the spotlight for some time to come. 20

As a riposte to the complaints of shooting interests, the RACCE committee unanimously concluded that progress had been too slow in the creation of effective, environmentally responsible deer management plans. A letter to Paul Wheelhouse stated that the patchy and inconsistent picture of DMG plans across Scotland, highlighted by RACCE, clearly showed that new management plans had to be in place by the end of 2016. Also, DMGs should be required to be more transparent and include persons with expertise in deer and habitat management in their membership. Due to reduced sheep stocks and greater afforestation, deer numbers had increased. Deer are a woodland animals and need woodland habitats to thrive. We strongly argued that it was critical for the Scottish Government to consider appropriate measures to enforce deer management. Since the Code of Practice had been in place for only two years it was premature to judge its effectiveness. Therefore, it was too soon to introduce statutory regulation, though that should not be ruled out. The committee agreed to monitor the situation’s progress and return to the issue within the following two years. Finally, since the Scottish Government’s 2008 strategy for managing deer ‘Scotland’s Wild Deer: A National Approach’, was due for review in 2014, RACCE asked to be kept informed about the scope, timing and process of this critically necessary review. 21

On the same day as the RACCE deer management letter was published, Wheelhouse reviewed the Native Woodland Survey of Scotland. It was the product of eight years of work by Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) and it showed that 46% of native woodlands were in a ‘satisfactory’ condition for biodiversity. Scotland has around 17% forest cover and around 4% of its land supports native woods. Unsurprisingly the survey found that the biggest threat to these native woods was overgrazing by deer. The losses in 40 years were significant even though 20,000 acres of native trees had been planted in the past 30 years to try and counter these losses. Shooting estates and gamekeepers continued to grumble that the balance of deer and trees was being reached, while environmentalists saw that any reversal of decline in habitat health would require a rethink of the voluntary approach to deer management. 22

The RACCE members were pleased that we had opened the way through parliamentary initiative to a new era. Parliament would now focus SNH and DMGs on a step change to achieve the goal of transparent, enforceable deer plans aimed at both sporting and sustainability outcomes. The minister’s commitment to a late 2016 deadline lead to £100,000 of funding for speedier progress and to ensure there could be no hiding place for the laggards. Best practice was to be shared and some of the slow coaches could then catch up. What it did not do was solve the vexing issue of Assynt deer damage. 23

It needs to be understood that any move by an agency or government department takes a considerable amount of time. In the case of Ardvar, SNH was drawing up a management plan for the JMT. This had then to be opened out to wider consultation and, if agreed, pressed into action. Meanwhile at national level, the LRRG was entering the second phase of its work and was also reviewing deer management. RACCE, as promised, kept a watchful eye. We sought a review of deer management progress at an informal briefing by Susan Davies, acting CEO of SNH, when she met the committee on 22 April 2015. Of the several issues discussed we were aware that progress on Ardvar SAC was hardly moving. In a follow-up letter dated 18 May, Davis gave us an insight into the approach adopted by her agency.

The SNH aim was to apply a voluntary agreement that would include at least temporary fencing and an agreed cull. Ardvar Estate, the Assynt Crofters Trust (ACT) and the JMT were the main parties concerned. An SNH contractor had reported in March that his proposed solution was agreed by SNH and FCS. Their final report was then sent to the three main interested parties. Some areas of native woodland were found to be regenerating. Others needed to be enclosed to secure an ‘unfavourable recovering’ category across the whole site. The picture did get more complicated despite public funding for fencing being available through the Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP). ACT also agreed to the plan. The JMT, however, remained opposed to fencing on a designated site.

A meeting to break the deadlock was scheduled for June 2015 between FCS and the JMT. Susan Davis argued that if this failed, enforcement action under the older Deer Commission scheme, i.e. a Land Management Order (LMO), would be needed because a compulsory Section 8 order would not pay for fencing. Before an LMO could be served, SNH would have to offer the JMT a Management Agreement. It was about to offered to all the other parties by the end of May. This would then trigger a six-month consultation period and if not agreed the SNH board had indicated it would pursue the Section 8 route. So, the saga was to roll on into 2016. 24 In the event, the dissolution of Parliament in March 2016, put any actions off during the purdah period. An SNH board meeting had been scheduled for a few days after the Scottish election. But it emerged that the board did not have the confidence to use its undoubted powers at that time.

Two years earlier, the LRRG had reported to the Scottish Government in Section 32 of its report – ‘Wild Deer’. This report built substantially on the RACCE inquiry and the ministerial response. It saw red and roe deer as an important national asset that must be sustainably managed. Further, it recommended that

improvements should be made to the current statutory framework governing the hunting of deer in Scotland to ensure appropriate culls are carried out to adequately safeguard public interests. 25

The Ardvar case showed MSPs that they were more than justified in taking a detailed interest in the Assynt Sub-Group deer management issue. While JMT seemed to block progress and SNH seemed to be hamstrung by the rule book on funds for fences, a way forward was found when the draft deer management plan for the area was researched and published by the contractor Vincent Clements. ACT and other shooting partners in the Sub-Group found that Forest Enterprise Scotland (FES) could fund fences and that was said to be underway in the 2017 plan.

Had the Ardvar problems not appeared so acute, and had I not been the local MSP, the engagement of the Scottish Parliament and Paul Wheelhouse would not have set the deadline for producing local deer management plans across all DMG areas. And we might not have found a way to protect vulnerable trees. Fencing of several small blocks on Ardvar was the practical solution that was eventually found, despite the apparent impasse that SNH presented to MSPs in 2016. 26

Top left clockwise: Gen Diomhain, broken fence, damaged s.arranensis: Ardvar, searching for regeneration; Ledgowan, warning to walkers plus locked gate; River Gairn, Deeside, muirburn devastated heather near river banks earmarked for replanting dappled shade.


1 HL Deb 17 December 1959 vol. 220 cc 523-4

2 John Buchan, John MacNab, 1925

4 Andrew Greig, The Return of John MacNab, Headline Books, 1996

5 North Harris Deer Management Plan 2009-2012 discussed in Places of Possibility by Fiona D Mackenzie, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013

6 The Glasgow Herald, 23 September 1963 quoted by RG at Stage 2 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, 3 February 2016

10 and

11 Northern Times, 23 August 2013

12 The Scottish Farmer, 31 August 2013

13 Northern Times, 6 September 2013

14 RACCE, official report, 11 September 2013

15 Open letter to JMT from Ardvar, Inchnadamph, Loch Assynt Lodge and Assynt Crofters Trust estates, 1 October 2013

16 Letter to Stuart Brooks signed in addition by Middle Inver Estate, 4 October 2013

17 RACCE written evidence in papers for 13th Nov hearings (SPICe

18 Email from Lisbet Rausing to RG 6 November 2013

19 Northern Times, 15 November 2013

20 Playfair Walker, ADMG website, 21 November 2013

21 RACCE letter to Paul Wheelhouse, 5 February 2014

22 ts/2014.03.05_-_Ministers_response_on_Deer_Management.pdf

23 The Herald, 4 February 14

24 Letter from Susan Davies to RACCE, 18 May 2015

25 LRRG final report, May 2014

26 Am Bratach, April 18 – SNH must heed the lessons of Assynt by Ray Mackay and Victor Clements

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