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Stags given vermin status

Imagine if the governments of Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa suddenly advocated the year-round slaughter of their vast herds of antelope, impala, wildebeest or zebra. Can you picture a series of trucks revving up across the Masai Mara and chasing the bewildered beasts to waiting Rifles? Or what about night-time on the Serengeti with government hunters popping off the maximum number of vegetation eaters under cover of darkness?

The world would be outraged and rightly so. And yet, unbelievably, it’s what the Scottish Government is now advocating for our hills in the recently published consultation for the forthcoming Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill. It would appear that these radical measures of a 365-day open season, driving deer with vehicles and unlimited night shooting are what our leaders think is required to “control” our wild deer.

Scotland’s hills are the only area in Europe that comes close to the African model. We have a unique open landscape, which allows us to see the free-moving herds of wild red deer just as East Africa’s wide Rift Valley gives scope to watch the great migrations of animals. Readers of Shooting Times don’t need to be reminded of the value of sporting tourism, but deer are also crucially important to many other people who gravitate towards our hills not only to get some exercise or tick off another Munro, but to take in the dramatic scenery and revel in sightings of what’s been voted our most iconic animal.

Abolishing the close season for stags reduces them to the status of vermin — a pest to be wiped out by any means possible. Our welfare-entrusted Deer Commission advocates driving them with vehicles towards Rifles. Mow them down through the night. And we know from gruesome past experience that its officials will be on hand to fireup the helicopters and wade in if stalkers baulk at a job that goes against all their principles. The notorious Glenfeshie slaughter is still fresh in our minds even if the Government has changed and the memories of civil servants are short.

How can the general public, stalkers and land managers put their faith in the Deer Commission for Scotland, the body officially charged with promoting the sustainable management and welfare of deer, if this is the best advice it can offer the environment minister?

The buzzword in all the conservation-speak I have to wade through these days is “public benefit”. Yet I’m struggling to see the advantage to anyone in these proposals. Would the “public benefit” be seeing a few more scrawny trees on the hill if all the deer are wiped out? Is decimating herds the solution to road accidents, or would a little strategic fencing
be more appropriate?

And while we’re on the subject of fences let’s consider how their judicious use — as recommended by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) for the past 10 years — would minimise the conflict that currently exists between land managers and foresters or botanists. The SGA has no problem with proportionate natural regeneration, but it needs to be fenced and protected, no matter the density of the resident deer population. The experience of the National Trust for Scotland on its Mar Lodge property in Deeside is a clear warning. Despite killing every deer on sight (a policy that decimated the
population, disappointed the visitors and led to fears of a tourism crash among hoteliers), a recent meeting of the Deer Commission discovered that
the hoped for regeneration simply hadn’t worked. Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money had been wasted and deer needlessly killed.

The SGA first got wind of the Scottish Government’s plans for the Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill back in January and on countless occasions since then we have pleaded with it to listen to and respect the views
of practical men. So far it has been to absolutely no avail. Not one proposal has been amended despite a series of lengthy stakeholder meetings.
And as we now pore over the detail of the consultation, which calls for all these radical deer control measures plus compulsory competence accreditation for every stalker — no matter how experienced — we ask why the 1,200 respondents who responded with a resounding “no” to a consultation on abolishing the seasons in the wake of the Glenfeshie debacle were totally ignored.

There are some elements of the proposed new legislation which are good for our industry. We welcome the proposal to make any tampering with legally set snares an offence and would be grateful for the opportunity to extend the muirburning season into September to help us control heather beetle. But we cannot allow the deer proposals or the mandatory testing of stalkers to become legislation so we ask for everyone’s support as we enter a summer of intense lobbying.

It’s ironic that when our natural heritage and culture is being threatened as never before, the Scottish Government is luring exiles to Scotland for the much vaunted “Homecoming” celebrations with promises of tradition, custom, landscapes and wildlife. If they don’t heed our warnings it’ll take more than a few kilts and bagpipes to mask the emptiness in the hills in future.

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