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'Upland deer management doesn't get the credit it deserves,' says head of Scottish Gamekeepers' Association

By Mike Merritt

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Councils are "sidestepping" culling booming deer numbers "motivated by the fear that the public will not stand the shooting of animals", the head of the body that represents Scottish Gamekeepers has claimed.

Estates are not to blame for expanding deer numbers, says Alex Hogg, chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association (SGA), which is backing moves to get people to eat more venison.

Writing in the current issue of Scottish Gamekeeper magazine, Mr Hogg says "carrying on pointing the finger at private enterprises ‘in the north’ as easy targets won’t solve any deer issues in Scotland".

SGA chairman Alex Hogg.
SGA chairman Alex Hogg.

"Deer management is important to me. The SGA was pivotal in drafting deer welfare guidance in Scotland and, personally, I have been involved in the principal programmes on quality venison from the outset," said Mr Hogg.

"There are still strides to be taken to get quality venison into more peoples’ shopping baskets. Marketing needs emphasis, we need to diversify more and there remains a critical lack of lardering and processing facilities in the lowlands.

"At the SGA, we are currently putting together the jigsaw pieces of how we can get more quality, healthy roe venison into consumers’ hands in the lowlands. These are some of the discussions we are having with MSPs. The fact we are training more and more new deer managers through the SGA Training Centre helps.

"In the traditional uplands, the expansion of privately financed larders by estates is next to remarkable.

"I don’t feel upland deer management gets the credit it deserves, with the headlines always focusing on deer numbers, damage and the never-ending need to cull more.

"What people forget is that you are dealing with an iconic animal and we have a duty to ensure that, when managing the species, we have an ability - and a market - to get it into the food chain as an asset and a good product.

"At the SGA, we are proud of what deer managers have achieved in the uplands. There is a structure - a trained resource. However, for years, the lowlands have been neglected in comparison and there seems an unequal drive to deal with this expanding problem.

"The most quoted figure for deer numbers in Scotland is 1 million. We would dispute the accuracy but our deer group reckon that, of that figure, only around 246 000 will be red deer.

"Most upland areas are now within the target density, set to balance environment with socio- economics - remember, it is not cheap to humanely manage deer.

"What that means is that around three quarters of the ‘problem’ is elsewhere and largely ignored.

"Estates take the blame for expanding deer numbers. This can no longer hold as an argument.

"In Scotland, NatureScot has the power to compel land holdings to carry out culls, if damage is high. Yet, very few local councils manage deer, particularly in the lowlands.

"Some have no cull policies, probably motivated by the fear that the public will not stand the shooting of animals.

"Whilst I don’t want to blame councils because some just don’t know how to go about deer management, it can’t be the case that regulators can order culls on private ground yet public departments can sidestep their own responsibilities entirely.

"This is where leadership is required. If Scottish Government wants to deliver its biodiversity targets, they need to make councils aware of their own duty. If finance is needed (all councils are facing budget cuts), that has to be found. Carrying on pointing the finger at private enterprises ‘in the north’ as easy targets won’t solve any deer issues in Scotland.

"All this does is ignore the ever growing white elephant and scunners folk who have been doing their best to get their house in order, shouldering the financial consequences themselves.

"There is a need to look again at how deer are managed in the lowlands and we hope Scottish Government and public bodies listen carefully to what practitioners, like ourselves, are saying.

"Though different, there is a lot to be learned from the journey we have been on in the uplands.

"At the SGA we are advocating pilot lowland deer management schemes where the SGA Training Centre can up-skill recreational stalkers to carry out good management whilst promoting the expansion of a diversified venison market. It could be a model for the future.

"This will need government support, initially, but the end game will be good for the environment, good for the health of Scotland’s people, good for the deer themselves and good for creating tangible green jobs in wildlife management, butchery, marketing and sales.

"This is what Scottish Government wants. We have the knowledge and people to help them deliver it."

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