If you have been an active deerstalker for enough years you will be only too aware of change in the countryside. Not too many years ago, the price of some lowland deerstalking was a bottle of port or whisky for the landowner at Christmas. If you were lucky you had learned your deerstalking skills on the hoof with a well-seasoned friend. If you needed further information you delved into books by Andrew de Nahlik, Richard Prior or Kenneth Whitehead, while Lea MacNally would keep ST readers up to date with the realities of managing Highland deer. If you lived in Scotland you were aware of the Red Deer Commission that had yet to transform itself into the more active Deer Commission for Scotland (DCS), while in Wales and England the Deer Initiative did not exist.
Now it is all different. Farming has undergone a green revolution and the doubling of woodland cover over the past 50 years has created ideal conditions for the growth and expansion of deer populations. The DCS is an influential body and the Deer Initiative is a growing organisation; DSC qualifications have become the new standard and quite expensive, too. Along with these changes came the buzzwords of habitat and biodiversity.
Deerstalkers have metamorphosed into a ?deer manager?. Cull targets are set that might contribute to Habitat Action Plans and the deer often appear transformed into pest species. Now that policy and legislation has given wider public access to the countryside, there is also the need to juggle loosing off high-velocity rounds with a health- and safety-conscious environment.
One thing that remains unchanged, however, is that many are recreational stalkers. They might only shoot a handful of deer each year, but are still important ? BASC estimating they may contribute to half of the UK deer cull ? and many pay for the privilege. Some feel there are risks when monetary value is attached to deer, however, and that where sporting rights are leased someone with a deeper pocket may take the ground over, shoot out the bucks and move on. I have been shown prime examples of this in counties as diverse as Bedfordshire and Dorset, and it is certainly not deer management.
What about the official bodies? The right of the DCS to intervene to control deer numbers is now widely known, but some people claim they have been upset by the use of freelance contractors. It might be argued that the uplands provide more significant challenges that call for stronger measures, but how would you feel if it happened on your patch because an ecologist felt that you were not doing enough to keep deer numbers at an appropriate level?
Have your say
If these points sound all too true and you are starting to feel nervous about the future of your deerstalking, before you reach for a restorative glass of whisky do first take advantage of an opportunity to have your say and record your contribution to habitat management and biodiversity, or that you simply enjoy the perfectly legal sporting challenge of stalking.
The University of Bath has an independent research project collating the views of stalkers on policy and practice issues. It is keen to have your contribution ? professional or recreational ? and you don?t need to have paid a subscription to a ?representative body? to take part.
Key questions include: Can we justify sporting management? What are your views on the impact of deer? Are you contributing to habitat management? What do you contribute to the economy through deerstalking? What do you think of the right of Government agencies to intervene to control deer numbers? Should we consider alternative methods of deer control? What about public access? And, if the public need educating, who should do it?
A website has been set up with a choice of online questionnaires, or you can request hard copies by post or telephone. While you can make an anonymous contribution there is the incentive of a prize-draw if you add your contact details ? these will remain confidential.Do help this project by giving up a few minutes to aid the recording of the contribution made by ST readers to the management of deer and the wider environment, then pour out that well-earned dram!
Mark Malins is a lecturer in Countryside Management at Wiltshire College, Lackham