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Below Richard Cooke shares his views on Dick Balharry’s vision for land use in Scotland. This article is the first in a series of responses that we have collected and hope you will enjoy. We will be sharing a further four responses over the next four weeks.

A Shooglie Stool

Richard Cooke

Like many others, I have read and appreciated the final words and ideas for the future of the late Dick Balharry which he delivered at Glenfeshie on 18th April. I first met Dick in the early 1980s when, as Area Manager for NCCS in Aberdeen, he attended meetings of the East Grampian Deer Management Group of which I was Secretary. I clearly remember his remark to me following a meeting: “You lads need to stop looking at antlers and pay attention to the beast that carries them and to what it is living off.” It was a lightbulb moment for me, and has come in to my head on many occasions over three-and-a-half decades of involvement in the deer sector. Although the penny has been slow to drop, Dick had it right.

Deer management, indeed land management generally, has broadened out to embrace a more holistic approach to the complexities of integrated land use. We are in a period of rapid constructive change, and as ADMG Chair I am greatly encouraged by the way in which the 45 DMGs which cover the red deer open range are rising to the occasion. But there is much further to go. I look forward to the day when we can be a little less obsessive about deer in isolation and undertake collaborative management of wildlife, wild deer included, under the voluntary principle, at ecosystem scale. It is difficult now to see the sense of a single species approach, whatever the historic circumstances from which it arose.

Voluntary principle or not, deer management operates within a framework and is far from being a free-for-all. Apart from the deer legislation, we have the Government vision for deer management, Scotland’s Wild Deer: A National Approach, the SNH Code of Practice which identifies the public interest in deer, Wild Deer Best Practice, the ADMG DMG Benchmark as well as the attention of the Scottish Parliament RACCE Committee in 2013 (with a further Review to come in in 2016). Nonetheless, this does still leave the flexibility necessary to address the management of different species of deer, in different locations, with different environmental, economic and social priorities.

I agree with Dick Balharry that the sticks and carrots approach to influencing deer management has its limitations – the “shooglie two legged stool” – and I am saddened by the continuing adversarial nature of the deer debate in some quarters. It is unnecessary and unproductive. The common ground is there for all to see, and as people who share a love of the Scottish countryside we should be able to respect and support those who have responsibility for its stewardship. I therefore commend the idea of working towards a shared vision and ‘formal recognition’ for land management at landholding scale, with the caveat, to use Dick’s words, “that the vision needs to be defined in a way that provides scope for flexibility, allows owners to make choices and provides the opportunity for them to be respected for the approach they take”. Deer Management Groups, at their best, and their best is getting better, exemplify how that flexibility can work in practice in relation to a shared resource.

The idea of a land stewardship accolade has been around for some years of course. I first heard it mooted, as it happens, by Dick’s son David Balharry, in a presentation to the Deer Commission for Scotland in about 2001. Currently ‘Wildlife Estates’, a European concept introduced to Scotland by Scottish Land & Estates in 2010, is very much along those lines. Its aims include building a respected game and wildlife management accreditation system, extending also to agriculture, forestry and other land uses. It recognises the growing public interest in rural land management and the need for transparency. It is a scheme to watch. It is rapidly gaining support and would, at least in part I believe, meet Dick’s aspiration for a more positive way to influence, support and recognise good practice.

I would add that it should be implicit in good practice that impact on others should condition management, particularly when it comes to deer. Unilateral management can be detrimental to neighbours, which is entirely avoidable in terms of emerging approaches to deer management planning which strike a practical balance between both private management objectives and the public interest. Negotiation and compromise based on evidence is where it’s at, and, in some circumstances, to ensure the best outcomes for all interests, dare I say it, deer fencing has a role to play, despite its acknowledged shortcomings. Legitimate land management objectives require a range of different deer densities and, just sometimes, a temporary barrier is the only way for neighbours to coexist.