Why Scotland deer numbers have plummeted by more than half in a scenic Highlands location

The reduction in deer numbers is said to have helped native woodlands, including natural regeneration.

An independent land management group in the Cairngorms working to control the deer population has seen numbers drop by more than half since the 1990s, figures have revealed.

The Upper Deeside and Donside Land Management Group (UDDLM), a voluntary collaboration of land managers covering around a quarter of the national park, released their annual deer count for this year.

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Figures show the red deer population across the area covered by the group, which is some 999sqkm, dropped from 8,411 deer in 1996 to 4,054 in 2024. It means there are now just over four deer per sqkm compared to eight previously.

The group said this has resulted in improvements to native woodlands, including natural regeneration, whilst at the same time facilitating moorland management.

UDDLM covers 17 land management units across a range of private, public and charitable owners managing land for a wide varieties of uses, including farming, grouse shooting and deer stalking, timber production and conservation for biodiversity.

The body was set up with objectives including providing a healthy deer population for sporting stalking for guests, while also controlling numbers in certain locations to protect areas managed for conservation reasons.

Chairman of the group, Angus McNicol, of Invercauld Estate, said: “This reduction in the wild deer from over eight deer to just over four deer per sqkm shows how working together in deer management can be successful. By each member of the group understanding the objectives of their neighbours, we have been able to deliver for each other.

“Deer move throughout the group’s area and today’s results show that, with collaboration, multiple different land uses delivering various objectives can take place within the same deer range.”

The results come after the Scottish Government completed a consultation on proposals, which included bringing in legislation to force land managers to manage deer. If Holyrood decides to implement the proposals, landowners and farmers could be forced to pay for control methods for wild deer numbers in Scotland, and it could see NatureScot, the Government’s nature agency, being given legally enforceable powers to order farmers to reduce deer populations.

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Known as Deer Management Nature Restoration Orders (DMNROs), farmers may have to pay for fencing, and submit cull plans and cull reports, or risk a £40,000 fine and/or a three-month jail sentence.

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UDDLM’s secretary, deer specialist Dr Linzi Seivwright, said: “Where there is controversy from time to time in deer management, the Upper Deeside and Donside Land Management Group’s success shows how collaboration can be an effective means of resolving this.

“We would encourage the Scottish Government to consider ways in which this model of co-operative working can be facilitated rather than seeking to use heavy-handed regulatory approaches.”

Last month, the Scottish Government announced its Cairngorms Deer Pilot, which trains local people to manage deer, is to be rolled out further.

Scotland’s net zero secretary Màiri McAllan said ministers “will build on the current Cairngorms Deer Pilot to develop a national scheme which incentivises increased management and investment in the venison supply chain”.

The pilot started in 2023 and offers local residents the opportunity to learn deer management skills. When locals are fully trained and qualified, they can have free access to NatureScot’s Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve (NNR) to shoot deer in season for their own consumption.

The project aims to support recommendations from the 2019 independent Deer Working Group report, which recognised the benefits of more local consumption of wild venison.

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