Morvern Lines – 12.11.20

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Continued from last week.
Doubtless someone will remind me timber is required for the building industry but the UK cannot do forestry as well as the Scandinavians. We therefore have to import more. Coronavirus and the mess that is Brexit, mean that very shortly the UK will be compelled to start growing more food. Sitka spruce buds, no matter how well they look on Christmas trees, are not very palatable.  Now is not the time to be planting up good hill and agricultural ground.

There is a school of thought, most likely initiated by the timber producing business, which believes that putting millions of trees in the ground will help save the planet – a  theory which has now been thrown into disarray by leading world scientists. Rather than benefiting the environment, large-scale tree planting may do the opposite, two new studies have found. One paper says that financial incentives to plant trees can backfire and reduce biodiversity with little impact on carbon emissions. Another found that the amount of carbon new woodlands can absorb may be overestimated. The key message from both papers is that planting trees is not a simple climate solution and where money is being thrown at them willy-nilly  there is a high risk of not only wasting it but also releasing more carbon and losing biodiversity.

So much for the first two, what of the third? Despite government propaganda and biased ecological newsfeeds, the West Highlands and Islands are not overrun with deer. Numbers have dropped so low that thousands upon thousands of acres of once rich grassland are being overrun by poorer species through under grazing which is far more of a long-term problem. Muir-burning is discouraged, ditches are choked and bracken is on the increase. Twenty years ago, when every estate had a resident stalker who knew his hill and the deer on it, he culled accordingly. If he saw too many he shot more, if there had been higher than usual winter deaths, common sense told him to shoot less. It was as straight-forward as that. Nowadays computer models, pie charts and several thousand pages of waffle rule.

Red deer. Photograph: William Cameron.

Our local man quietly collaborated with his neighbours over a cup of tea or a dram at the sheep-dog trials, clippings and cattle sales. Everything was sorted out. No meetings were necessary to determine his or anyone else’s cull.  These men, who were schooled and lived out their lives in the same glen knowing no other form of employment, hefted to the hill like some old stag, would have felt insulted if someone in an office hundreds of miles way had the audacity to try and tell them their business.

Much of this has gone – locked in the drawer of a filing cabinet labelled, ‘tradition do not open – no grandfathers’ rights’, leaving chaos in its place.

The whole anti-deer lobby began around 2010 when SNH took over from the Red Deer Commission (RDC).  The RDC was set up by an Act of Parliament with the passing of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1959. It had two tasks, namely controlling and conserving red deer in Scotland. Its value lay in the fact that the chairman and his field staff were all stalkers with a sound practical knowledge of deer and their ways. More importantly, for everyone, they were on friendly terms with just about every landowner, shepherd, stalker, pony man, ghillie and factor in Scotland. Among their number may be mentioned Louis Stewart MBE, Dick Youngson, Ian Mackay and many others who, although they have passed into legend, are still remembered  in drawing rooms and bothy bed-sits whenever stalkers meet.

Recognising the usefulness of local knowledge, the RDC established voluntary deer groups who were encouraged to meet and share information on proposed culls and other mutually beneficial subjects such as poaching, and to assist where possible with deer counts. At the inaugural meeting of the Moidart group I recall Patrick Gordon-Duff-Pennington, the chairman, began by saying it was probably the first time all the local lairds had sat round the same table since the 1745 Jacobite Rising! As long as RDC were in charge these groups were a success. Meetings rotated round lodges; they were brief and good natured; lunch was provided and drams were not unknown. But all that was to change.

SNH had no practical experience of the hill and their deer management record throughout Scotland in the past decade did not gain (and still doesn’t) the same respect among stalkers as that of its predecessor. They have long ago allowed themselves to be taken over by The Trees for Ever Mutual Admiration Society and keyboard warriors who regard deer as little more than vermin to be exterminated wherever and whenever possible. Under SNH, Deer Management Group (DMG) meetings and politically correct Deer Management Plans have became mandatory. Depending on the chairperson, meetings can ramble on for hours, eventually creating an atmosphere that could be cut by a gralloching knife.

Now and again SNH pays for deer counts by helicopter, although these days they prefer DMGs to organise their own which are never entirely accurate as they cannot be done with a limited number of people within a 24-hour period. Depending on wind, weather and disturbance by hill-walkers, deer will move around leading to double counting. In summary, today’s DMGs have allowed themselves to be hi-jacked and Section 7 control agreements are used by SNH as a big stick if it doesn’t get its way.

Fewer and fewer stalkers turn up to DMG meetings, and who is to blame them, having  to sit through so much codswallop from so-called experts and outside advisors?  Ninety per cent of SNH staff have never had the good fortune to actually work among the deer and to learn what a noble and ancient animal they are; able to survive in the harshest conditions and convert the poorest grazing into the finest organic red meat in the world with no help from us. Moreover, they cost nothing except now and again when a few caring landowners provide extra fodder to help them through the leanest and meanest months of the year. The greatest tragedy of all is there are few, if any now, in the corridors of power who will champion their cause – not even the landowners whose deer forests they made household names – or the Association of Deer Management Groups, which sits on the fence.

Deer are deeply embedded in the nation’s DNA. They are as much part of Scotland’s heritage as Burns, haggis and whisky, but for all that we don’t really know everything about them.

We shall miss them when they are gone but life goes on, we hope, and the brotherhood of the hill are still there to inspire us at least for the moment. If just 10 readers who agree with what they have read here and are disturbed about the future of Scotland’s wild red deer, would write to Roseanna Cunningham MSP, Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, The Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh EH99 ISP  (Roseanna.Cunningham.msp@parliment.scot) it might make a difference.

Holly Marriott Webb, a student based at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, is writing a PhD on the history of the human­-deer relationship in Scotland since c.1800, with a particular focus on stalking and the interactions between stalkers and the deer rather than the more English way of stalking. Holly, who already has an MA in Environmental History from Uppsala University, Sweden, is looking at the transition of knowledge and power over the deer now resting in the hands of conservationists, scientists and government bodies.

She is in the Highlands for a time and would like to hear from anyone in the neighbourhood with old deer stalking stories or observations of deer up to the present and can be contacted on hmw@cas.au.dk