Local communities should be encouraged to hunt and kill wild deer for sport and food in a bid to cut the impact of the species on the Scottish landscape and benefit rural areas.
The call comes in a new report on deer management, prepared for the environmental coalition Scottish Environment Link (ScotLink).
The study suggests European-style public hunting as part of a suite of measures to slash deer numbers in Scotland, including creating new laws to cap population densities and setting official cull targets.
It states this would have multiple benefits, such as lowering deer-related traffic collisions, cutting tick numbers, reducing environmental damage caused by herds and improving the animals’ health.
Researchers also propose ending public spending on deer fences and increasing the market for Scottish venison.
Estimates suggest there are around 400,000 red deer in Scotland – the highest levels ever recorded. In some places the density is around 10 per square kilometre, double what experts say is optimal.
The paper has been issued ahead of the publication of a report to the Scottish Government by the independent Deer Working Group, due soon.
RSPB Scotland’s Duncan Orr-Ewing, who chairs ScotLink’s Deer Task Force, said: “High deer impacts and other grazing pressures are damaging peatlands, halting woodland regeneration and expansion, and causing other costs to the public.
“By resolving these pressures, we will be in a far stronger position to meet our climate change targets and reverse the alarming long-term decline in the biodiversity of our uplands. In this paper we have also set out the compelling economic case for a step change in our approach towards deer management.”
However, animal welfare campaigners have reacted angrily to proposals to increase hunting.
Robbie Marsland, director of League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, said culling could be necessary, but should never be turned into “sport”.
He said the idea showed “a wholly irresponsible attitude to a process which should be science-based and carried out with the highest of welfare standards”.
He added: “Encouraging anyone, regardless of experience and training, to go into the countryside and shoot deer for recreation is absolutely not in the best interests of the deer and will only result in higher levels of wounding and suffering. It is staggering that anyone would think this is a sensible approach.”