Mountains woods and river

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

The future of sporting estates – checking the wind

Simon Pepper

The interest in land reform in Scotland – addressing issues of land ownership, use and management – gives fresh impetus to the debate over deer management. Is there any way that polarised views can be reconciled?

The debate should of course be about all species of deer, but the two native species represent rather different challenges. The control of roe deer is a serious challenge in forestry everywhere, particularly in the lowlands, with many small landholdings whose owners have little interest in stalking. As numbers rise, control is made more difficult by the hazards of shooting in or near built-up areas, combined with public attitudes which favour the sighting of deer and react badly to the idea of shooting them. But this is more an operational problem than one based on principles. How to please the public and control damage? It’s difficult, but arguably not too controversial.

Red deer on the vast areas of open hill are a different matter. Here, the debate has raged for many decades, dogged by a three-way set of contrasting cultures: the sporting estate, passionate and proud of its traditions; the social reformers who argue for more equitable access to natural resources (including deer); and the environmental lobby who advocate the management of deer in balance with regenerating forest.

So it’s the issues around red deer which attract most controversy. At their worst, these different cultures tend to occupy the extreme points of a triangle, forced there by a controversy-obsessed media. At their best, however, they overlap in the middle, offering valuable insights into each other’s prejudices and assumptions. This is surely where we want to go, perhaps encouraged by the things we all share – a love of the land, its wildlife and its potential to support people, and a wish to see this precious resource stewarded responsibly.

At the heart of this discussion is the sporting estate itself – still the dominant feature of highland land use. Of course, it is itself a richly diverse phenomenon, with owners expressing their own priorities in different ways. But the single common feature driving most controversy is the particularly Scottish model of open hill stalking, with its tradition of maintaining larger numbers of deer than would be normal in the continental practice of hunting them in a forest setting.

So what are the factors at play? What insights can we offer each other, in the face of rising levels of critical scrutiny?

There’s no doubt that this is difficult terrain, literally and figuratively. As we all know, in the absence of natural predators, deer populations need to be managed. For those who see the highlands as “square mile upon square mile of rock, bog, heather and scrub with no prospect of producing agricultural or silvicultural return”, the sporting estate offers a valid model of active management of deer, sponsored by owners in exchange for the pleasures they find in stalking.

So far, so good; there’s obviously a potential match between private interests and the public good. The problem is that, in the eyes of many who are affected, this potential isn’t being realised; there’s still quite a big gap in provision. Indeed 30% of the nation’s annual cull is done not by private owners but by the Forestry Commission, on only 9% of Scotland’s land; £23m of public money has been spent in ten years on the fencing inevitably required to protect trees from deer in their present numbers; and a further £7m is the estimated public cost of deer-vehicle collisions in Scotland every year. These are just some of the wider costs of high deer numbers, a disproportionate burden of which is still borne by the public. And the Association of Deer Management Groups has difficulty persuading some of its owner members to meet what it accepts are justified expectations of the wider community in deer control. If these issues were sorted out (and there are some welcome moves in that direction) the atmosphere would already be much improved. Sporting estate representatives could then make a better case for this particular form of land use in terms of the public benefit it delivers. This is the key to political consent.

But the open hill model may not be the only, or best, one available, even for those whose principal interest is in stalking. In an atmosphere of progressive politics, other options deserve serious consideration. Reformers point to examples of more diverse models yielding more jobs, more products, more community benefit and more wildlife from similar land, while still supporting a flourishing stalking enterprise based on lower numbers of more productive deer.

Contrary to popular opinion, it is now clear that these great, apparently barren landscapes are not a natural phenomenon, but largely the result of centuries of heavy grazing and burning. Ease up on these practices, it is argued, and the productivity of the land will improve gradually under a naturally spreading cover of trees, especially on drier slopes. More trees would also capture more carbon, enrich river fisheries, and reduce flood risk. Deer welfare would be enhanced by allowing them to live in their natural forest habitat where they very obviously thrive. Pressures in this direction are coming also from within the land-owning sector; as the types and motivations of today’s landowners diversify, the damaging impact of one estate’s high deer numbers on the different objectives of neighbours becomes an increasingly pressing issue.

There is surely a place here for these apparently disparate cultures to find common cause. Research suggests little justification for higher deer numbers, even for sporting purposes, on the open hill. But a more continental model of stalking even lower numbers of bigger deer in a wooded landscape would meet many more public policy objectives without threatening the practice of stalking which many people enjoy and, importantly, are willing to pay for.

Understandably, some of those who own sporting estates resent this intrusion of public interests into the exercise of their private rights and aspirations. But this is more a public interest issue than first meets the eye. The law gives owners the right (exclusive, with a few exceptions) to ‘take’ deer (a public resource), but not in the final analysis to decide how many to take; the state already has powers to intervene, and we are promised a strengthening of these powers to make them more credible. Given the potential of free-ranging deer to damage others’ interests, ultimate decisions on the appropriate level of their population in any area should justifiably rest with the wider community, who are increasingly showing signs of wanting a bigger say. They have rights too, as the current Minister has recently emphasised.

There are unmistakable signs here of the way the wind is blowing. Every stalker knows how important it is to be alert to these signs and adjust the approach accordingly. And if the deer themselves had a vote, wouldn’t they be sure to put their cross in the box marked ‘more woodland’?

Simon Pepper OBE is a member of the Board of Scottish Natural Heritage, and former Deer Commissioner. He writes here in a personal capacity.