How can Scotland's growing red deer population be managed?

The UK's red deer population has doubled in the last 50 years with at least half of the estimated 1.5m animals in Scotland, prompting a growing debate on how best to manage them.

A stag on the Invermark Estate in Angus. The red deer population is thought to have at least doubled in the last 50 years. Picture: Stephen Mansfield/TSPL

Conservationists, landowners, and politicians agree that growing numbers are unsustainable.

Large deer populations strip vegetation, kill rare plants and leave little for other species.

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Then there is the danger for drivers, especially in rural communities where public transport options are limited. Around 6,000 collissions take place between vehicles and deer each year.

Tough laws and bold strategies have been proposed to tackle the problem.

Although about 100,000 are culled annually, a 2017 report by MSPs warned that efforts to manage numbers are failing.

Land owners can face fines of up to £40,000 if they fail to hit annual cull targets in a bid to clampdown on poor estate management, although the power is yet to be used.

Environment minister Roseanna Cunningham told a Holyrood committee last year that progress was being made. “I am determined that we will take necessary steps to address the concerns that have been raised,” she said. “I do not think that in another five years we will be having the same debate again.”

But crofters and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) have been critical of some culls, complaining that local landlowners and communitities are not being engaged with.

A recent plan to fly deer stalkers into remote areas by helicopter to carry out culls was criticised by the SGA, who said the aircraft “spooked” the animals.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) responded it was “extremely challenging” to manage deer populations across Scotland’s hilly terrain, adding that several estates had requested to help them use helicopters.

Meanwhile, crofters in the remote Sutherland area of Assynt, complain that a planned cull by SNH on their estate was too large. They believed its scale could send the local population into steep decline.

A compromise deal between the crofters and SNH is currently being negotiated.