In Scotland, the deer hunt condemns the forest

Edinburgh (Great Britain), correspondence

Whiskey bottles, pillows, cups and boxes of biscuits… The deer, the symbol of Scotland, is present on all objects traditionally associated with the country. Until the advent of Covid-19, thousands of tourists flocked every year to watch it frolic in the plains of the Highlands. This majestic animal has nevertheless become an ecological scourge for the country in just a few decades. Today, nearly a million animals roam free in the Scottish countryside. A figure ten to a hundred times greater than in any European country.

However, deer devour the young shoots of trees and tear off the bark of those that have matured, making them more vulnerable to disease. In the rest of Europe, forest regeneration takes place naturally. With us we have to put up fences almost two meters high or protect the trunks with plastic pipes sighs Mike Daniels, from theNGO environment John Muir Trust.

In addition to forested areas, deer are also accused of damaging peatlands, these wetlands trap carbon and are therefore a key element in the fight against climate change. Deer herds are also responsible for the spread of Lyme disease [1] and lead to many traffic accidents. Indeed, the number of deer collisions can reach nearly 14,000 per year.

The red deer, the Scottish symbol, can multiply in the absence of natural enemies. CC BY MEANS OFHAIR 4.0 / Andrewmckie / Wikimedia Commons

How did we get here † We have to go back to the reign of Queen Victoria. In the middle of XIXcentury, the British monarch established the tradition of hunting deer in the wild forests of Scotland. His court imitated him by monopolizing huge tracts of land in order to introduce deer there, driving many farmers out.

Later, at the end of the First World War, many trees were planted industrially to obtain constructive wood. These cultivated forests form artificial shelters in which deer proliferate, especially as their natural enemies, wolves, lynx and bears, have gradually disappeared from the area. However, despite warnings from experts, no action has been taken to stem the explosion of their population. After World War II, there were 100,000 red deer, ten times fewer than today.

It’s us, the environmentalists, who are demanding that we kill more animals

Faced with this worrying state of affairs, NGO of environmental protection call for a massive slaughter of deer. A paradoxical situation. The Woodland Trust Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust or even Trees for Life: we the environmentalists are calling for more animals to be killed , Mike Daniels recognizes. Currently, nearly 100,000 deer are slaughtered each year, or 10 % of the total workforce. However, this local wildlife specialist thinks it’s at least 16. must be % deer killed to conserve biodiversity.

Deer in Glen Etive, Scotland. The overpopulation of deer harms the forests on which they themselves depend. CC BY MEANS OFHAIR 3.0 / Paul Hermans / Wikimedia Commons

Forestry and Land Scotland, the body that manages Scotland’s state lands and forests, has heard their arguments. Last December, the government agency announced it would kill 150,000 deer in five years, slightly more than in previous years. Their concentrations in certain areas are detrimental to the creation of forests, the protection of nature, the environments and habitats on which they and many other species depend. justified the organization.

An effort praised by environmentalists. However, the Scottish state has only 9 % of the territory. Specifically for the land, the vast majority of the land is indeed in the hands of private owners, who are responsible for the felling. However, many are reluctant to increase the number of deer killed annually. And for good reason, as the latter bring them significant income. So wealthy tourists are willing to pay small fortunes to hunt deer in the Scottish mountains.

In the northwest of the country, Julien, a French expat, takes care of an estate of several thousand hectares together with his partner. Both offer tourists the opportunity to come and slaughter a deer for £500 or around €600 each year. Before Covid-19, selling the carcass to butchers and restaurants could also fetch 100 pounds (120 euros). According to the latest figures, which date from 2016, the yacht industry generates almost 15 million pounds (20 million euros) annually. It also guarantees many jobs in local communities, its advocates say.

You don’t get rich hunting deer, you have deer on your estate because you are rich

But according to Mike Daniels, the economic argument is misleading. You don’t get rich hunting deer, you have deer on your estate because you are rich. Hunting is both a way of life and a social marker. And that’s why the owners feel threatened. In fact, one report shows that in 2016, private sector hunting spending was £36m, almost double the revenue generated.

As for the jobs generated by hunting, the naturalist is also skeptical. Data shows that the number of jobs for deer hunting pales in comparison to the number of jobs generated by environmental protection. According to the John Muir Trust, the yachting industry is the source of 716 jobs spread across the 26,000 square miles of private land. The NGOnevertheless managing an area ten times smaller would create 736 jobs.

Why did the government not intervene before such an image? It’s because for a long time everything was decided in London, but the parliamentarians were the same who owned land in Scotland , explains Mike Daniels. Since then, the situation has changed a bit. In 1999 Scotland got its own parliament. But here too the reforms implemented are timid. No one wants to alienate this segment of the population, let alone in the context of another independence referendum explains the naturalist.

A biodiversity issue therefore conceals an explosive political topic. Julien and his partner know it all too well. He is a former ecology student and advocates more clearing and reforestation of the land. But his neighbours, more traditionally, are not of the same opinion. We don’t talk to them about it, we don’t want to offend people he confides.

In some areas, landowners are now required to kill a certain number of deer each year. CC BY MEANS OF 2.0/Caroline Legg/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons

In order not to antagonize these powerful landowners, the Scottish government has therefore opted for the soft method: encouragement rather than coercion. For example, gamekeepers in most of the country only cull deer on a voluntary basis. Are they all hideously bourgeois resistant to change? † Nature Scot, the government body in charge of the protection of fauna and flora, nuances this statement a bit: Some are defensive, but many are also very accommodating. For a decade now, we’ve been seeing more and more owners monitoring deer’s natural habitats to try and see how much they are affected by their proliferation. explains Holly Deary, who is responsible for wildlife.

However, in certain critical regions, such as where Julien lives, the government has hardened its tone. For three years now, landowners have been obliged to kill a certain number of deer every year. The amount of the fine in case of refusal is several tens of thousands of pounds. Admittedly, no one then checks whether the owners’ commitments are fulfilled. But symbolically, a step has been taken that could soon stretch across the country.

Just before the May 2021 elections, the government endorsed the findings of an expert report recommending stricter measures against culling. Elected in May 2021, the new executive reiterated his desire to strengthen legislation during his tenure. Optimists, the NGO just waiting for a bill.

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