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Background to FLS Deer Management activities and the reasons for seeking out of season culling authorisation

Recognising that deer are a valued and important element of Scotland’s biodiversity, culling of deer is nevertheless a necessary part of managing the impacts of deer and keeping the ecological balance in check for the environment.

Sustained heavy browsing by deer prevents woodland regeneration, and this is currently the most widespread threat to the condition of woodland biodiversity in Scotland.

In December 2019 the independent deer working group report to government noted that the total deer population in Scotland could be approaching one million and highlighted the need for proactive deer management.

At any one time on Scotland’s national forests and land, there are between 75 and 100 million trees vulnerable to damage from deer representing millions of pounds of investment in public forests. To minimise the browsing impact of deer on trees and ground flora we therefore invest around £7 million per annum in managing deer on public land.

In order to take an evidenced based approach to our deer management, we commission annual surveys of deer populations and impacts. Over a number of years, the trends in the survey data has been upwards in terms of increased populations and damage to trees and wider biodiversity.

Working in collaboration with others

We take a collaborative approach to landscape scale deer management with other land managers. Scottish Environment Link, which represents 40 member bodies representing a broad spectrum of environmental interests, recently provided the following comment on our approach to deer management.

"As environmental land managers we fully recognise the need for ongoing control of deer populations, and to address the climate and biodiversity crises. Natural predators of deer are extinct in Scotland. Deer numbers are far higher than is sustainable for nature to thrive. Without reductions in deer population, we will not meet native woodland expansion, peatland protection, and therefore carbon sequestration targets.

Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) delivers first class deer management across the national forests and land, allowing deer and trees to co-exist. FLS also delivers high environmental and animal welfare standards, for example showing leadership in the sector with a decision to phase out the use of lead ammunition. This cull extension is necessary. We fully support FLS and have every confidence that the work will be carried out to the highest standards."

An evidenced based approach

Along with monitoring deer impacts on biodiversity we also monitor deer populations (density). A variety of methods are used to do this but dung counts is the primary method.

Over the past 5 years approximately one third of Scotland’s national forests and land have been surveyed. The mean average deer density in these survey areas have ranged from 4.2 deer per km2 to 64.7 deer per km2. The FLS target range as published in the FLS deer management strategy in 2014 is between 2 and 7 deer per km2. Of the land surveyed in the last five years, 89% has deer density well above this widely accepted target to help protect biodiversity from negative deer impacts.

On Scotland’s national forests and land, FLS has a target of not incurring more than 10% deer damage to young trees. In 2019 the 3 year rolling average of damage impacts was 17% for the leaders on young trees, i.e. trees planted for 1 year in the ground. This is well above our target. The regional variation for damage impacts ranged from 5% to 29% in 2019. Results at site level in 2019 ranged from 0% to 96% damage of young trees.

Out of season culling

To manage deer populations through reduced reproduction it is important to carefully manage female deer populations in particular. In doing this, over many years FLS has conducted out of season shooting of females under authorisation from NatureScot in relation to the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 (as amended). These authorisations are widely used by other land managers to prevent damage by deer and are issued subject to adherence with best practice guidance found on the Wild Deer Best Practice Partnership website.

To manage the increasing numbers of deer and their negative impacts on the environment we work within the legislative framework of the Deer (Scotland) Act (as amended) to control both their numbers and impacts.

In 2018/19 NatureScot issued 254 section 5(6) out of season authorisations of which 11 related to FLS. A further 7 ‘female only’ authorisations under section 5(6) to cover the period 1st April to 31st August were issued by NatureScot and of this figure none were related to FLS.

All FLS rangers and contractors understand the need to cull young dependents first before any mothers. All deer controllers understand that if there is any doubt about dependents then they are instructed not to cull female deer. FLS proactively monitors culling operations and as such has confidence that when best practice is followed under these legal authorisations then there are no deer welfare issues. All deer controllers operating out of season on Scotland’s national forest and land are registered with NatureScot as fit and competent to undertake this activity.

We fully recognise that deer control is a difficult and very sensitive subject which arouses strong differences of view and some will find the process unacceptable. Nonetheless FLS follows Scottish Government policy, has the consent of the licencing authority NatureScot and follows best practice in implementation.

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