Deer are often portrayed as symbolic of a wild Scotland – the ‘Monarch of the Glen’ proudly surveying his homeland. The implication is that they are thriving and revered. In reality, Scotland’s deer face many challenges.
Human activities over centuries have created an unbalanced ecosystem, in which deer have no remaining natural predators. Consequently, the number of deer has grown to the point that habitats are damaged and other animals and the deer themselves suffer. Human ‘management’ of the deer population, which has a long and rather erratic history, is currently under review.
The Scottish Government has just published their response the 2019 Deer Working Group Report, which thoroughly scrutinised how deer are ‘managed’ in Scotland and gave recommendations for change. The government plans to follow most of the recommendations: those requiring legislative change in the next session of Parliament and others beginning immediately.
Here we give a brief overview of how this may affect the wellbeing of the deer, and consider the bigger picture of ethical decision making in how we treat wild animals.
Current situation for deer
Deer can be legally killed by shooting, and hunting rights belong to the landowner. Those rights do not come with responsibilities: landowners are do not have a legal duty to ‘manage’ the deer on their land, or any specific obligations to them or their wellbeing. NatureScot oversee ‘management’ and welfare, and intervene if necessary.
Regulation of deer ‘management’ in Scotland is limited. Most countries in Europe, for example, require hunters to demonstrate proficiency, and in many countries the number of animals to be killed annually is decided by the state, based on population levels. Neither is the case here in Scotland. The report highlighted that NatureScot does not have sufficient population data to inform strategies or kill targets.
So, although approximately 100,000 deer are killed every year, it is not as part of an over-arching national strategy or based on evidence. Around a third of these animals are killed by the public sector, with Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) accounting for most of those. FLS takes an evidence-based approach to killing deer, to protect young trees which can be damaged by browsing. This killing is carried out on a professional basis by people with a Level Two Deer Stalking Certificate, and often other training.
Some other landowners take a more ad-hoc approach, and the priority when killing deer can be the enjoyment of the hunt or financial gain from paying clients, rather than population control. Sometimes deer populations are kept high deliberately to provide animals for clients to shoot. In the worst scenarios previously captive stags or those re-located from other areas are released into (large) enclosures for clients to shoot. They will pay more to kill these large stags, who provide a better ‘trophy’. This despicable practice bears a remarkable resemblance to the ‘canned hunting’ taking place in African countries, that has rightly received much condemnation.
That these contrasting scenarios, with such different motivations, are all part of the way deer are ‘managed’ in Scotland hints at the complexity of this issue. The proposed changes should improve the coherence of deer ‘management’ and address some of the problems. We are particularly pleased to see that the Scottish Government is committed to investigating canned hunting.
OneKind is opposed to the killing of wild animals, and we believe that when it does occur it must be done in a way that minimises suffering. Shooting can achieve that: a well-aimed shot can cause a near-instantaneous death. However, with no current requirement for shooters to have experience or prove that they are competent there is a risk that animals will be shot but not killed immediately, causing them much suffering.
The Scottish Government plans to change this by requiring all shooters to prove that they are ‘fit and competent’. A register of such people will be created. We welcome this plan.
There are also concerns around shooting female deer in the breeding season. Although there are close seasons to account for this, early or late pregnancies may still be affected, and it is possible to get licenses to kill deer even during the close season. The Scottish Government is considering changing the dates of the close seasons; we have various concerns related to this so will pay close attention to further developments.
In the winter, many open hill red deer suffer and die from exposure and starvation. Deer are naturally forest dwellers; although they have adapted to life in the hills, they do not cope well with the harsh winter weather. The large population size means that there is not enough for all deer to eat in certain areas. When combined, the effects of these two factors are multiplied. They can also be exacerbated by fencing that prevents deer from entering the shelter of forests.
Again, many of the recommendations that the Scottish Government has agreed to take forward should, together, begin to tackle these problems.
How should we treat wild animals?
Scotland lacks an ethical, evidence-based strategy for wildlife ‘management’, such as the principles of ethical wildlife control, which OneKind supports. Currently Scotland does not meet these principles for any species. The recommendations of the Deer Working Group are thorough and will improve the situation for deer but will still not create a plan that meets all of these principles.
We particularly agree with the Deer Working Group that the concept of deer welfare needs to become more holistic, encompass mental and emotional states, and aim for positive welfare rather than simply the absence of suffering. Unfortunately, their recommendations do not go far enough to achieve this ideal.
But we were delighted to see that the Scottish Government plans to take advice from the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission to develop a modern interpretation of deer welfare and ensure that it is prioritised in standards of deer ‘management’.
A glaring omission in the report is the lack of an exit strategy from the current or recommended ‘management’ plan. Simply accepting that mass annual culls of deer is required is unacceptable. While there are not currently viable alternatives, that should not be used as an excuse to accept the status quo. Rather, it should be an impetus for more research and innovation until such alternatives are identified. What does a stable population of deer look like, and how quickly could we get to the point that mass killing would not be needed? Long term planning to avoid repeatedly using the same ‘control’ actions without achieving a sustainable solution is one of the principles of ethical wildlife control.
OneKind does not believe in using euphemisms that sanitise or enable the killing or cruel treatment of animals, such as ‘management’ or ‘invasive non-native species’. More specifically in the case of deer legislation and the report, much of the language has been carried over from older legislation and refers to deer ‘marauding’ or ‘colonising’. Such comments are inaccurate, offensive, and perpetuate a mindset that measures the value of an animal’s life against the benefits or inconveniences that s/he brings to humans.
On a related point, the interests of the animals themselves are not acknowledged anywhere in the report, nor the Scottish Government’s plan. Statements like “their potential damage outweighs any sporting gain” reflect a belief that deer are pawns, not individual living beings.
OneKind would like to re-frame the way we think about other animals, our relationships with them, and responsibilities to them. Changing this harmful language is the first step – our thoughts and actions will follow.
We support the plans of the Scottish Government to improve the wellbeing of Scotland’s deer, but we urge them to go further and develop an ethical strategy to underpin all decision making, that will protect all wild animals and allow them to thrive.