Call for deer stalking for the masses

LANDOWNERS should offer cut-price hunting trips and ditch the sport's elite image in a bid to tackle soaring deer numbers, according to a top government adviser on conservation.

The move would wipe out poaching almost overnight, it is claimed, by allowing locals to legally bag "one for the pot".

But estate owners have warned that cheap hunting away-days could lead to untrained gunmen being let loose on hillsides, posing a danger to themselves and others.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Professor Douglas MacMillan, head of the School of Conservation at Kent University and a long-standing adviser to the Scottish Government on countryside issues, says that the sport, which can cost an average of 500 a day, must be opened up to a wider range of people to increase the number of deer being shot.

Scotland should follow the example of Norway, he says, where most deer hunting is carried out by young working class men, and deer-hunting days are on offer for as little as 10. If more deer are not culled, Professor MacMillan believes their numbers will continue to rocket, bringing more environmental damage to Scotland's countryside.

MacMillan's intervention comes as the Scottish Government's Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill, aimed at modernising deer management, continues its passage through parliament.

Deer in Scotland are legally res nullus – not owned by anyone – so the right to kill them rests with the owner or occupier of the land.

MacMillan said: "The current system is not working. There are too many deer out there, and not enough of them are being shot. Part of the problem is that landowners promote the idea that deer hunting is about solitude, privacy and exclusivity. That is an idea that needs to be changed."

But landowners have reacted with scepticism at the prospect of opening up their estates to large numbers of hunters. Charles Fford, whose family own the Arran estate, said: "There are a lot of reasons why this would not be practical. You can't have Rab Nesbitt wandering off into the hills to shoot a deer. How would he get it home for a start?

"My main concern would be animal welfare. When a stalker goes out on the hill, he selects those animals that are old or infirm, and they are shot cleanly. It would be disadvantageous to have a lot of people on the hill shooting deer, simply because the animals need to be culled professionally."

A spokesman for the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, which represents stalkers, insisted experts are best equipped to cull the animals.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He added: "The work during the winter is often done in very challenging conditions and needs to be carried out by experts.

"This idea to get more people in doesn't seem like a logical or practical solution. And if you have high numbers of people on the hill stalking, that in itself could cause problems. They might be running about doing daft things, and that could affect the deer. It could actually make it more difficult to cull the numbers required"

Deerstalking became a sport in the Victorian era with many estates encouraging the growth of deer herds to provide profits.

But despite efforts by landowners to reduce numbers of the browsing animals, in the abscence of predators, stocks have continued to rise in Scotland and there are now an estimates 350,000 to 500,000 red deer roaming the Highlands, with their numbers doubling since 1945. Their growing number are causing serious damage to the environment, hampering efforts to regenerate native woodlands.

Conservation groups and the government agree that hunting is the best way to reduce deer numbers but MacMillan, who worked as a countryside scientist in Scotland for 20 years, acting as an adviser to the government on deer-related issues. says there is an endemic resistance among landowners to opening up the sport. He interviewed 127 landowners for his study, and found that many relied on family, friends and business contacts to carry out the shooting on their estates, excluding anyone who lacked the necessary social networks. The figures seem to support this view, with less than 0.001 per cent of the population – 3,500 people – taking part in deer hunting, according to the most recent survey in 2004. Those that do take part are usually white, over 50 and in the upper social classes, claims the study. They are also able to pay up to 1,000-a-day fees for stalking.

A survey by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation showed that 65 per cent of their members would like to go deer hunting, but were not able to do so. The main reason is they lacked the contacts within "hunting circles" to get a chance to hunt deer.

Professor MacMillan's report, titled Conservation With A Gun, argues that low-cost trips trips could be carried out during an extended "hind culling" season, where female animals are shot from December through to the early spring, so that it does not interfere with the lucrative autumn stag hunting season.

An added bonus would be an end to the age-old battle between poacher and gamekeeper that has been played out in the Highlands for centuries.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

MacMillan said: "Most poaching goes on at night, is very dangerous, and has the effect of lowering venison prices, because the meat is distributed at a lower cost because it is on the black market. Offering cut price hunting would solve these problems overnight."