Burgeoning deer numbers have been the subject of much debate in recent years, but methods of control in some parts of the country could be severely damaging the UK?s population of deer. In the same week as the Scottish Countryside Alliance (SCA) demanded an overhaul of deer management, following the findings of research into Highland habitat damage, reports from other areas of Scotland and England suggest that control methods need to be revised.

In its latest research, the Macaulay Institute, in Aberdeen, found that deer are not as damaging to upland habitats as it is sometimes believed. The main culprits of over-grazing are in fact sheep, cattle and rabbits, with deer to blame only in specific ?hotspots?. SCA chief executive Tony Andrews commented: ?It is important for our national image, tourism, the rural economy and the livelihoods of many people connected with stalking and the venison industry, that the public sector uses this report to re-open the discussion on deer culls. A better way of managing Scotland?s deer simply has to be found.?

The recent funding issue at the National Trust for Scotland?s Mar Lodge estate (see News, 1 March) has also contributed to putting Scotland?s deer control policies in the public eye once more. A keen stalker and deer manager from the eastern Highlands, who preferred not to be named, was adamant that deer control measures have gone too far. He told ST: ?Four years ago, in one particular glen, we counted 1,000 deer. Now there is none. A radical reduction of hinds in Angus has caused a serious imbalance. Accurate year-on-year figures should be made available. I know of stalkers being ferried around by helicopter in order to cull as many deer as possible. On one occasion I know of a helicopter being used to head off deer as they ran for the security of a forest, driving them back into the corrie where they could be shot. Deer are being verminised. Work needs to be done or stalkers will lose their jobs and rural Scotland will suffer.?

The Deer Commission for Scotland (DCS) is a public agency whose information is available to the public on request. A spokesman said the DCS had been working with landowners in the north east of Scotland to reduce deer densities from 43 per km² to 19 per km², adding: ?Some have received additional resources, including helicopters. These are used in accordance with strict guidelines and for specific purposes. We recognise deer as an asset to Scotland, supporting jobs, contributing to tourism and having a positive effect on the economy. If anyone has any concerns, we welcome the opportunity for detailed and in-depth dialogue and to provide as much information as possible on the role and remit of the DCS.?

Mismanagement has not only been reported in Scotland. On MOD-controlled land near Dorchester, in Dorset, the sika population has been all but wiped out by over-shooting. Fred Ward, a professional stalker, told ST: ?I?ve been in this area for 30 years and, between the RSPB and the MOD, in the past few years some 1,500 sika have been culled. The RSPB says the deer are destroying the salt flats, the habitats of ground-nesting birds. To annihilate one species to save another is ridiculous. The MOD claims the deer are damaging crops, so farmers wanted to reduce their rents. I?ve been out with clients for days without seeing a single deer. It?s becoming ridiculous ? people in the area are thinking, ?If the MOD is going to shoot them, why shouldn?t I?? This attitude will permanently damage the stocks.?

Journalist and author Mike Yardley has stalked the area for 20 years and told ST: ?This has been a great resource for the local area, bringing hunters in from all over Europe and beyond. It would be a great shame to lose such a valuable resource through mismanagement. This area is renowned for the quality of its roe and sika trophies and something should be done to ensure its reputation remains intact. If the RSPB is approving of such a massive cull then I?m amazed it hasn?t had more publicity. Is it the case that the needs of birds are greater than those of deer??