After a lifetime of keeping well away from guns and despising the notion of hunting, I find myself in the novel position of wanting to encourage stalking clubs. It has taken many years of listening and learning about upland management to reach this conclusion and I’m very far from being an expert. But, it seems to me that we need to find a way to include communities in the management of the land and, in particular, of the deer.
Why? What has changed?
We have now acknowledged that we are in a global climate crisis.
So, how can community stalking clubs help solve global climate change?
One thing we can do to mitigate the effects of the global climate crisis is to plant more trees and encourage biodiversity to create more areas of robust natural habitat. This is a key strategy of the Scottish Government. In Scotland alone, around 9.5 million tonnes of CO2 each year are removed from the atmosphere by our forests. Scotland’s forests cover 18.7% of the total land area and the ambition contained in Scottish Government’s forestry strategy is to increase this to 21% by 2032 by meeting planting targets rising to 15,000 ha a year from 2024/25.
This is good news but there are problems. The target does not differentiate between native trees and plantations of non-native species. Although conifer plantations are fast growing and can store carbon quickly, in the long run they are inefficient in comparison to native woodland, partly because we cut them down and turn them into wood chips or pellets to burn, but mostly because they do not support the wider woodland ecosystem. Native woodlands promote better soil quality, full of good bacteria, making a woodland more efficient at soaking up carbon, bio-secure and ultimately more climate resilient.
Reducing grazing pressures, predominantly from deer, would help accelerate the spread of woodland – especially native and deciduous species – thus producing a cleaner, greener, healthier environment. As well as stopping reforestation, trampling and grazing by deer dry out the soil, thus diminishing the ability of peat to absorb carbon and store greenhouse gases. Upland peat bogs are also incredibly important for absorbing and storing atmospheric carbon.
The number of deer in Scotland has risen from 150,000 in 1959 to 400,000 in 2010. We only see them every now and then but their impact on the landscape is very widespread. They nibble the tops off the vegetation, keeping it all down to a very modest size. Trees do not get the chance to grow to sufficient height to be left alone by the deer. Even then, mature trees sometimes get their bark chewed by very hungry deer. We mostly see native forest in our mountains only in steep, inaccessible places where the deer can’t reach, or odd patches of old trees with no young trees growing up underneath.
It’s very easy to see the impact of deer grazing. Go to Glen Coe and walk into the Lost Valley. After you cross the footbridge over The Coe you are in a thick birch woodland with blaeberries up to your thighs and heather just as deep. It’s a small area and the fence on the far side is soon reached, after which we see just short vegetation with very little variety. You can see the difference in vegetation from the road. Inside the fence, where the deer can’t reach, the ground is dark with thick vegetation cover and trees. Outside, it is apparently bare grass.
If you keep going as far as Glen Shiel, there are large areas of fenced off Scots Pine trees on the south side of the road. These were planted many years ago and fences put up around them to keep the deer out. The difference between inside and outside the fences is stark. Fencing off areas and planting trees can be useful but it is very expensive and not a long term solution. Fencing is a way around the problem but does not tackle the main issue; it should not be the first management technique considered, deer management should always be the priority.
Without the grazing pressure of deer, trees and other vegetation would come back by themselves. Silver Birch and Rowan trees are great space invaders, finding their way into any open space and settling there quickly. Scots Pine are a bit slower off the mark and need some encouragement but they are native and very successful in Scotland. Trees would return to very large areas of currently empty landscape with patchy, open woodland in fifty years if they were left alone by the deer, soaking up and storing a lot of carbon from the atmosphere. Native trees do not naturally form dense forests like the conifer plantations, and in fact this is not the most effective type of forest for biodiversity. The patchy, open woodland that would develop naturally has lots of edges, and this forest edge habitat is the best for biodiversity. It would only extend up to about 600m above sea level, above which trees can’t survive the weather.
Deer have been shot for a very long time, we call it stalking. If we didn’t shoot deer at all, their number would increase so much that they would become unhealthy. Without sufficient food or shelter they would starve and we would see carcasses far more often. Even with the current level of stalking, our deer are 30kg or so lighter than the same deer in Norway due to the lack of good food. The government works with deer management groups made up of neighbouring landowners to set numbers of deer to shoot each year. Stalking provides financial income for landowners and the heritage of stalking reaches back for 150 years, about as long as we have been climbing.
Asking landowners to change what they have done for so long is a big deal. If you told climbers and hill walkers they were no longer allowed to walk freely in the mountains due to the global climate situation, we would not take it very well. There are generations of stalkers who feel totally embedded in the culture and work of the estate. They have a deep sense of connection with the deer and their land, and also have a phenomenal knowledge and understanding of how it works.
But, it’s clear that we can’t carry on as we have been doing with the reasoning that it’s what we have always done. We will all need to change our ways of life to have less impact on the planet. As a mountain guide I need to cut the number of flights I take each year, travel less, work from home more. We need to find a way to reduce the number of deer which maintains an income stream to the landowner so that stalkers and the infrastructure of deer management can be paid for. And we absolutely can’t lose the deep connection that stalkers have with their deer and the land they look after.
What needs to change is trophy hunting and shooting for social status. Shooting anything to express your dominance over nature is wrong and futile. Shooting animals to associate with people you want to connect with or to impress is also wrong (such as grouse shooting). We should be clear that we shoot deer for the benefit of the health of the herd, for biodiversity and because of a deep connection with the landscape.
We also need a system that pays for itself. It’s not possible to stop commercial stalking and force landowners to cull deer to much lower levels. The cost of doing this is not sustainable. Instead, perhaps we can think about importing a system that works very well in other countries. Sweden and Norway have successful systems of deer management which involve community groups and small groups of individuals taking responsibility for the management of the deer in certain areas. It is very carefully controlled by the government with gun licences, shooting permits and monitoring of the health of the deer. And it has had very impressive results in some areas.
Cull targets in Norway are based on carcass weight. So if a population of deer is averaging lighter weights during a set period, the assumption is that there is competition for food, so the cull is increased. This doesn’t factor in the natural ebbs and flows of a wild population, but it does result in healthier deer. Locally, Corrour estate is a great example of somewhere that is seeing larger deer as a result of increased deer management. Between 2006 and 2017 they found a 36% increase in deer carcass weight. There are fewer deer but they are much more healthy.
In Scotland, a shift to this sort of system would take a long time, several years at least, and would rely heavily on the current stalkers and landowners, their knowledge and passion for their estates. But, community stalking groups could pay for themselves and be a part of the solution.
It’s a difficult change to manage. There’s a long heritage of stalking in its current form and no culture of hunting in Scotland. Culture shift is possible though, when there is a will and a good reason to do so. Using car seat belts was not the norm before legislation came in; now it would feel very strange not to use a car seat belt. Legislation can bring about a culture shift. Wearing a helmet when skiing was a very odd thing to do only fifteen years ago. Now, everyone wears a helmet, and this change did not require legislation. Stalking and hunting culture is a much bigger thing to change but it is still possible if the benefits are clear. We already have a stalking club on Harris and there are some estates already thinking about community stalking programmes.
If this all sounds like handing out guns to people and giving them free reign to go and shoot deer, think again. Deer stalking will always be thoroughly regulated, however it is done. In a stalking club, as well as working within the normal system of gun licencing, each member is required to pass their Deer Stalking Certificate level 1 before becoming a member.
Clearly there is not one system that will work for every estate. And many estate owners might see no benefit to them. The biggest benefit is to slow down global climate change, with no immediate, tangible benefit to landowners. There is another benefit, one of connecting communities with their landscapes. Some communities in Norway talk with pride about how they have changed their landscapes over the last fifty years, how healthy their deer are now and how much they value their landscape now. Creating this deeper connection with the landscape, connecting individuals with nature over a long time scale, is good for our health. Many clinical studies have demonstrated this and GPs prescribe time in nature as a treatment for some conditions. Our reaction to the current Covid-19 outbreak has confirmed our need to spend time in nature. This connection would be strengthened greatly if we are given the opportunity to help manage the landscape.
This is a very emotive subject for many people, one with a very wide range of opinions, and one with the potential for people to further separate themselves and dig deeper into their ingrained positions. To start off with, it would be good to accept that change would be beneficial and that it is possible. Then perhaps we can come together to explore some ways of enabling the change we need, in a sustainable and sensitive way.
Red deer are beautiful, outstanding wild animals that we must treasure and look after. But, in their current numbers, red deer are endangering pine martens, red squirrels, capercaillie, wild cats, and any number of other smaller animals that are just as important, as well as the potential for beautiful forests full of colour, bird song and life.
Self reliance is a fundamental principle of mountaineering. By participating we accept this and take responsibility for the decisions we make. These blog posts and conditions reports are intended to help you make good decisions. They do not remove the need for you to make your own judgements when out in the hills.