Tuesday 4 February 2014


Dr James Fenton appeared on BBC Radio Scotland this morning, addressing the subject of Scotland's deer in the wake of a comprehensive new study into native woodlands by Forestry Commission Scotland.Here, the foremost ecologist and author of Towards a new paradigm for the ecology of Northern and Western Scotland offers his perspective on the conservationists' view that more deer must be culled in order to expand native woodlands. "Native woods woods covered 4% of Scotland at the beginning of the 20th Century. Evidence suggests that woodland was rare because the ecological conditions of Scotland were not suited to trees. Hence the natural state of the Highlands is for an open landscape of moorlands and peatlands, with woods confined to a few optimal areas. "It seems strange, therefore, that the management of the whole landscape, particularly of grazing animals, should be directed towards conserving a minor element of the landscape, i.e. woodland. "Ecosystems are not static entities and if some woodlands die out because grazing is preventing trees regenerating, then this is a natural characteristic of upland Scotland. "Looked at another way: the natural habitat of central Brazil is rainforest, with open areas rare. But conservationists are not arguing for the expansion of the few open areas - just the opposite: they are wanting the forest protected. In Scotland the situation is reversed: the natural habitat is moorland and peatland, with woodland rare. Hence conservationists should be focussed on wanting the moorland protected rather than encouraging trees. Every loss of open moorland is the equivalent of cutting down an area of tropical rainforest. "If conservationists want to conserve woodland in a locality where grazing pressure is high, then the logical approach is to keep out the grazing animals, most easily done by fencing - not by killing deer to achieve a grazing level way below the ecological carrying capacity. A recent report by Scottish Natural Heritage, for example, says it is impossible to manage grazing so that all ecosystems are kept in optimal condition. It seems more sensible, therefore, to manage the landscape to conserve the dominant element - moorland, which is globally rare and for which Scotland is internationally important - rather than the minor element of woodland which is globally common."