Wednesday 13 January 2016

Open Letter to MSPs- Knoydart and Assynt Deer Culls.


Dear Madam/Sir, 

We write to you this open letter on behalf of our 5300 working members across Scotland who have made it known they wish us to speak up on their behalf. Many feel they can no longer remain silent.

You will have read recently of conservation charity, John Muir Trust, leaving 86 Stags to rot on an open hillside at Li and Coire Dhorcail in Knoydart in summer 2015. Despite senior officials from the wild land group promising in 2011 this would not happen again, when walkers accessing their ground at Ben Nevis found the carcasses of 40 dead deer, this unique style of deer control has gained further traction. The Knoydart Stags, some with heads and haunches removed, were first discovered by walkers whose stories were verified by members of the Knoydart community before neighbouring stalkers learned of it. Initially they did nothing, reluctant to believe it would come to pass in modern Scotland. Senior charity officials have defended the Knoydart cull unapologetically. Media statements would indicate the charity intends to continue this individual style of deer control, in remote areas, as being in the public interest.

John Muir Trust seeks public donations of £60 000 for its conservation work at Li and Core Dhorcail, which includes in its own words ‘year-round deer control’ to protect an ancient ‘outlier of the Caledonian Pineforest’.

JMT is entitled to pursue this objective on its own ground. We wish them every success. It should be remembered though that year-round deer control is illegal in Scotland. We have closed seasons, in order to protect the welfare of pregnant hinds and calves and to prevent indiscriminate killing. Secondly, around 95 per cent of the pine forest JMT claims to protect is on the neighbouring private estate at Glen Barisdale SSSI, with only a few hectares of birch regeneration on their own ground at Li and Coire Dhorcail and a small area of ancient woodland. Despite the charity’s defence that private estates ‘artificially keep deer numbers at too high a level to support stalking’, last year, all client stalking had to be cancelled on two neighbouring estates because there were too few deer. These estates would normally expect to cull around 35-40 stags each, with paying guests. Between them they culled 26, compared to John Muir Trust’s 86. Independent population monitoring as part of the forthcoming Knoydart Deer Management Plan has indicated the current cull numbers will quickly reduce the deer population to unsustainable levels if maintained, and that job redundancies might well be one consequence of that.

If you extend John Muir Trust’s own justification that they are culling high numbers to protect ancient woodland- a laudable cause- then the affect of this is that they have taken away the economic potential of their neighbours in order to protect woodland they own little of. We leave it to private conscience whether this would be deemed to be in the public interest as a fair price or, indeed, whether it is in accord with land reform which seeks to promote sustainable development through land. It is worth noting that the private estate at Barisdale has entered into a plan with SNH to restore the vast majority of the pine woods. With so little of the relic forest on Trust ground, barely a few Scots Pine trees, it is the actions of others, and not John Muir Trust, which will secure it for the future, despite the Trust’s pleas otherwise to funding partners and their members.

Whilst killing an animal without use is a violation of wildlife law in virtually every other country, our members wish us to explore issues beyond the waste of venison in a time of austerity or what may be regarded as ethical in Scotland.

John Muir Trust has defended its 2015 cull in Knoydart, claiming it represented a tiny fraction of all deer in Knoydart. In part, this is true. It also obscures reality. The charity owns around 2.5 per cent of private land area in Knoydart (1240 hectares) but culled over a quarter of all the deer in the combined Knoydart Deer Management area in 2015 (55,257 hectares). An SNH helicopter count in November 2014 counted 13 Stags on Li and Coire Dhorcail. This count was conducted at tax payers’ expense and was carried out to determine population and cull targets. The charity culled 86 without informing neighbours, over 6 times the number seen during the count and 26 per cent of all Stags in Knoydart (334 in 2015), on a comparatively minuscule piece of ground. Given that this level of culling during monitoring (when mortality and recruitment is considered) will deplete the population very quickly, we would hope there may be some understanding for local stalkers fearing for livelihoods. This would appear, however, not to have figured highly in the Trust’s management objectives.

John Muir Trust senior officials claim their cull was higher this year as SNH refused them the out of season licence they previously relied upon annually. This forced them to cull higher in summer, they say, to protect the woodland. It should be noted SNH refused to grant the charity an out of season licence this year because the Trust failed to provide evidence that deer were causing winter damage to the woodland habitat. Accordingly, SNH asked them to execute their cull in the same timeframe as everyone else in Knoydart. It is also important to point out that deer were extracted successfully to a larder in every year on Li and Coire Dhorcail prior to ownership by the Trust. Similarly, the previous stalkers never once had to apply for an out of season licence, which permits the holder to undertake something which would otherwise be illegal (including shooting of pregnant females). To say that ‘not being given an out of season licence’ is thorough enough justification for culling 86 Stags then leaving them to waste on the open hill, is a worrying precedent and should sound alarm bells for future deer management on that land holding.

Despite persistent claims deer numbers are too high, with ‘traditional’ sporting estates being to blame according to the Trust, deer are currently at 4 per square km at Li and Coirre Dhorcail. Professional deer managers would look to mitigate expediently if densities were at 20 per square km and, in West Knoydart in which Li and Coirre Dhorcail lies, densities are 13 per square km. Despite deer numbers being well below highland average, the Trust is still getting damage by deer. By choosing not to consult and work with neighbours, they have created a situation where deer are attracted to their ground and are not dispersing over a wider area, which lessens impacts. Such advantages are a recognised bonus of collaborative deer management, which John Muir Trust chooses to eschew as they are campaigning for statutory deer management by Scottish Government. As a result, they are having to kill more and more deer which is having a direct negative impact on their neighbours’ objectives whilst seeing an unsatisfactory return on the timescale of their own aspirations. Killing more and more deer will not solve the site challenges they experience, in the timeframe they want. If deer numbers are low enough, it begs the question whether the Trust’s own management aims for this small piece of ground, which are exacting a heavy price and will, in time, lead to redundancies, are appropriate or wise.

This management style has been repeated in Assynt on the Trust land at Quinag. John Muir Trust proposed to quadruple its Stag cull to protect ancient woodland on a 9140 acre site. When the local community’s deer group, comprising crofters from Assynt Crofters’ Trust and small local estates, suggested a fenced compromise, the Trust adopted a similar pattern; firstly stopping meaningful engagement through the local voluntary mechanism. The situation came to a head last year when SNH counts revealed 693 missing deer from a count 18 months beforehand. Records of the Assynt Crofters’ Trust, who bought Lochinver Estate in a historic buy-out in 1993, showed that £42 000 of income came into Assynt from sporting lets of 20 Stags in 2012, with 229 bed nights generated. 
If current cull levels continue, these small enterprises which are heavily reliant upon the local deer resource for income, will be bled dry. Importantly, like Knoydart, most of the regeneration the Trust is claiming to protect is not on their own holding but the neighbouring private Ardvar Estate, who are doing a good job of ensuring the trees get away without any advice from the Trust.

When challenged on aspects of its own management, John Muir Trust revert back to its oft-pedalled argument that private sporting interests have led to ‘ever increasing’ deer numbers in Scotland, loss of biodiversity and damage to designated sites protected by international conservation laws. They, and other conservation groups including Scottish Wildlife Trust, who do not cull deer on their own reserves yet campaign against lack of deer culling by others, claim the voluntary system is failing to deliver public interest and that statutory deer management must deliver these public benefits for the good of the Scottish people. This is now about to be debated during Stage 2 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, with conservation bodies demanding greater powers of intervention by SNH as a precursor to local deer management potentially being run from Edinburgh following a review in 2016.

It is true, deer management groups in some areas have not progressed as far as others in the past, but that is changing quickly now. Past shortcomings are acknowledged but what is being put forward as a definitive case for statutory deer control is far from being that, in the same way that ‘too many deer causing damage’ is a misleading statement. In 2013, SNH stated that 85.3 per cent of designate site features in Scotland were now favourable or recovering due to management under the current voluntary deer management arrangement.

Scotland’s 2020 targets for Biodiversity aspire to 60 per cent of the country’s native woods being in satisfactory condition. The Native Woodland Survey of Scotland, published in 2014, showed that 77.2 per cent of native woodlands in Scotland were not impacted by herbivores. Despite calls for greater measures to be put in place in the Land Reform Bill, on grounds that 2020 Biodiversity targets will be missed for ancient woodlands, it would appear the voluntary system is delivering more than adequately on this count. Indeed, the greater majority of the impacts found were not in the red deer range, where voluntary local deer management groups have been long established. The problem, described as ‘Scotland’s ever increasing deer problem’ is actually with the growing population of roe deer (not red) with major increases in lowland areas and urban fringe. Without throwing away hundreds of years of experience in controlling deer by local stalkers, this issue could be resolved with greater use of trained local deer managers in these areas and other additional support, which Scottish Government recognises itself to be necessary. Ironically, many of the problems associated with lowland deer expansion (green networks, displacement by development, etc) are currently being experienced on ground managed by public agencies. An extension and development of supported lowland deer networks, using the voluntary principle, would actually be highly beneficial in strengthening public deer management.

We hope this letter explains the depth of feeling our members have on what they see as a misrepresentative and narrow portrayal of how deer are currently managed in Scotland, and their confusion as to the style of management which is being claimed to be in the ‘public interest’ in a progressive country. It should be noted that SGA and its members were pivotal in the authorship of Deer Best Practice in Scotland, still the authoritative benchmark, and that it was in falling far short of this benchmark that led to high profile movements of staff from Scottish Government in the wake of the controversial culls of over 600 deer at Glenfeshie in 2004. We hope that, as the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill passes through Parliament that the concerns and skills of our working members, who play significant roles in their communities, are not forgotten. The intimate knowledge they have of Scotland’s land can play a crucial role in the future.

Yours Sincerely, the Committee and membership of The Scottish Gamekeepers Association.