Gamekeepers protest at government’s female deer cull

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The Scottish Gamekeepers Association is threatening to withdraw from a national code on humane deer control, ‘sickened’ by the Scottish Government’s cull of female deer in the nation’s forests.

Every year, the close seasons protect female deer with dependent young from the hunter’s shotgun. In Scotland, it is illegal to shoot female red, sika and fallow deer from February 16 until October 20, and female roe deer from April 1 until October 20. NatureScot, the public body which regulates and oversees deer management, set the dates based on the risk of orphaning dependent calves.

But now big changes are on the way as the Scottish Government struggles to tackle global warming and biodiversity loss.

An independent Deer Working Group, set up to recommend changes, reported deer numbers across Scotland had doubled to almost a million in 2019 from 500,000 in 1990.

‘The need to shoot female deer in April and September to protect public interests from damage,’ the report said, ‘is an important factor to be weighted against the risk that some calves might be orphaned and possibly not survive.’

Ministers accepted most of the group’s 99 recommendations in March this year, keeping the close season in review.

Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, said: ‘The twin climate and biodiversity crises require a much greater urgency to our efforts to ensure sustainable deer management, and we must recognise that more can and must be done to better realise our ambitious targets on vital issues such as forestry regeneration, woodland creation, peatland restoration and habitat improvement.’

NatureScot has also been issuing licences for a September cull of female deer, seven weeks before open season starts on October 21. This year, Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), the agency responsible for managing Scotland’s national forests and land, was granted nine of the 130 September culling licences.

‘At any one time on Scotland’s national forests and land,’ FLS explained, ‘there are up to 150 million young trees vulnerable to damage from deer – and the cost of the damage  is several million pounds annually.’

Ian Fergusson, FLS’ Head of Wildlife Management, said: ‘The current high levels of deer numbers pose a particular threat to establishing young trees which are a vital part of Scotland’s response to the climate emergency. It can also be ruinous to biodiversity projects, and also poses a threat to the overall health of the herd, which in winter could struggle to find enough food and may result in many animals suffering a slow death from starvation.

‘As responsible land managers of a significant area of Scotland’s forests and land, we have to act and achieving the necessary balance within the deer population is something that can only realistically be attained through culling.’

Anyone controlling deer in Scotland must do so in line with the terms and conditions of the authorisations and the published Wild Deer Best Practice Guidance, which outlines how deer welfare is to be safeguarded when culling.

However, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) is considering withdrawing from the Wild Deer Best Practice, the nation’s code for humane deer control which they helped draw up, ‘sickened’ by the ‘a blanket out-of-season cull’ of female deer.

The SGA feels ‘the nationwide cull, which last year saw 1,300 deer killed, is unjustified [and] will result in dependant calves starving’. An FOI request to FLS, it adds, ‘revealed that forestry body chiefs did not record whether an identical September cull they ordered last year led to calves being orphaned or not.’ The SGA also claims only a small fraction of Scotland’s forests would be susceptible to damage by females in September.

The SGA’s chairman Alex Hogg said: ‘Our members are questioning why our name should be on future codes when the direction of travel, within public bodies, appears to be to kill deer, day or night, in-season or not.

‘The government-commissioned Deer Working Group report, due to be implemented, will rid Scotland of protections which professionals fought hard for, through closed seasons, to give an iconic species respite to rear their young without welfare detriment.

‘If bureaucrats can scrap seasons and public departments can get sign-off on carte blanche authorisations, why bother having a code for humane deer management at all? This is what we now need to consider, with our membership.’