Deer browsing has been highlighted as one of the greatest threats to ancient woodland by an eight-year survey of Scotland?s native tree-life.

The Native Woodland Survey of Scotland (NWSS) was published by Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) on 3 February and details the location, type, extent, composition and condition of all native woodlands, and plantations on ancient woodland sites more than 0.5ha in size. The NWSS also highlights possible sources of damage and obstacles to regeneration and is intended to be used as a database for land management decisions at a number of levels.

The results suggest that there have been significant declines in unenclosed upland areas over the past 40 years and that ?the most widespread threat is from herbivore impacts, mainly through browsing and grazing?. But the NWSS notes that ?more work is needed to confirm the precise extent and causes of ancient woodland losses?.

Reactions to the NWSS have been generally positive, but some welcomes have been warmer than others. Head of policy at Scottish Land & Estates Andrew Midgley said: ?Our native woodlands are a hugely important resource and we welcome the report as a good basis on which all interests can come together to ensure a healthy future for these habitats.?

Richard Cooke, chairman of the Association of Deer Management Groups and the Lowland Deer Network Scotland, was more cautious. He said: ?This new piece of work will be extremely helpful in focusing deer management on areas where there are specific issues in relation to deer and native woodlands. We do believe, however, that there has been a significant turnaround in the past 30 years in the impacts of deer on native woodland and it is too easy to blame deer at every turn when other factors ? for example, grazing from other herbivores and now widespread tree disease ? are also taking their toll.?

Similar concerns were voiced by Alex Hogg, chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, who welcomed the NWSS in principle. But he warned: ?We fear the danger in this considerable piece of work is that conservationists will translate it as a green light to hammer Scotland?s deer, which is not the long-term answer.?

He added: ?Trees should be treated as a crop. A plant that is going to live for 200 years deserves respect and should be protected for the first 15 years of its life from deer, hares, rabbits and sheep. This is particularly true of Scotland, where both soil and climate are poor for native woodland and where it takes very little grazing to hamper regeneration.?

Head of land and science at the John Muir Trust, Mike Daniels, said: ?This report confirms what most people who live in, work in or visit Scotland?s countryside know ? that overgrazing by excessive deer numbers is seriously damaging our native woodlands. We urgently need to move from a voluntary system of deer management to a sensible, regulated approach before we lose any more of our precious native woodland heritage.?

For a copy of the NWSS and to access the maps and data, visit bit.ly/NWSS-survey.