Fears over impact of Covid on deer herds and venison industry

People are being encouraged to eat more venison as fears are raised over the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on nature and the management of deer herds in Scotland.

There are up to 400,000 red deer in Scotland, as well as roe, fallow and sika deer – around one million in total.

Since the animals have no natural predators, it is necessary to control their numbers to avoid overgrazing of forests and potential starvation of deer due to competition for food.

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This is done through culling, including commercial hunting, and in some cases live capture.

Fears have been raised over the fate of deer herds and the venison industry in Scotland as the effects of the coronavirus see restaurants close down and a backlog of meat building up

Around a quarter of the deer population is culled each year.

Shot deer enter the food chain as venison, eaten at home and abroad.

But closure of hotels and restaurants, cancellation of events such as weddings and conferences, social distancing rules and other factors resulting from the Covid-19 crisis are causing havoc for the sector.

Not only are venison suppliers facing loss of income due to markets being cut off, but storage freezers are rapidly filling up and will soon reach capacity.

This could result in too many animals roaming the hills this winter, with herds facing potential food shortages.

Ross Ewing, political officer (Scotland) for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, said: “Deer numbers are predominantly managed by private sporting estates, recreational deer stalkers and forestry rangers.

“It would be inconceivable for stalkers to be expected to manage deer in the knowledge that the venison could not enter the human food chain.

“To do so would constitute an affront to the sustainable pillars upon which deer stalking is founded.

“As we find ourselves increasingly closer to a situation where supply exceeds demand and storage capacity, the ramifications for Scotland’s environment are significant.

“Cull targets would not be met; damage to trees and vegetation would proliferate; the health of herds would become compromised.”

Now estate owners and game dealers are calling for help from ministers to keep supply chains moving where possible and protect what has been a valuable and growing market for Scottish venison cross the UK and internationally.

“The biggest single blow has been the loss of the restaurant, catering, food service and events markets,” said Dick Playfair, secretary of the Scottish Venison Association.

“And whilst a growth in mail order sales and click and collect, as well as supply to consumers through local independent butchers, offer some alternatives, these cannot compensate for those elements of our markets that have shut down, been placed on short hours or are simply not able to operate under coronavirus rules.

“We have asked the Scottish Government for support for a campaign that will encourage consumers to try venison, buy Scottish venison and buy more Scottish venison.”

Mr Ewing said the market was in a “deeply troubling” situation.

“We now face a situation where the implications of coronavirus could extend beyond the realms of the economy and into Scotland’s natural environment,” he said.

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