Liz Bonnin investigates the Highland deer cull
Guest post: Autumnwatch guest presenter Liz Bonnin.
I was asked by Autumnwatch to look into one of the most controversial conservation issues in the UK today. The Forestry Commission Scotland has a 100 year plan to transform some of its managed forests in the Highlands into diverse, living woodlands - to do that one of the key actions it is taking is to cull the deer on its land. I accompanied Derick Macaskill on a trip out on to the hills. We weren't just going to get close to the deer... Derick's aim was to carry out a cull. After my time with him I went on to meet people whose lives and work are closely tied to this important issue.
Seeing the cull really brought home to me some of the tough decisions we have to make now because of our past mistakes. Of course, I know that there are many who won't approve of any animal being culled at all. The more I talked to the people here, however, the more I began to get a grasp of the complexities involved in dealing with such a contentious issue. It's easy perhaps for those of us living far away from this place to have strong views about the culling of red deer.
But what's clear is that the people here are very passionate about this land and its wildlife, and certainly have a great understanding of what it takes to maintain a healthy thriving ecosystem, because they live it every day and have seen firsthand what happens when one piece of the food web is out of balance.
Getting a bird's eye view of the deer
Looking for red deer in the Scottish Highlands on foot is not easy, but it certainly makes you appreciate how incredibly vast this beautiful landscape is. Six hours of trekking over rough ground, avoiding and sometimes falling into treacherous holes concealed by large tufts of heather rewarded us with little more than glimpses of antlers on the horizon and a couple of hinds running away in the distance.
Then with only an hour or so of day light left, Derick spotted a small herd of hinds in the distance and we set off once again.
To make Derick's more difficult a young stag had planted itself on the brow of a hillock, his gaze pointed firmly in our direction. We spent the next hour on all fours, following Derick, crawling through heather and mud, sticking to the river banks and hill sides like glue. We had to prevent the stag from seeing us and bolting, causing the hinds to flee also. As we edged ever closer we eventually ran out of places to hide.
"Either we give up, or we keep going and the stag spots us. If he bolts, we just have to hope the hinds don't see him," said Derick. We decided to push on. On cue the stag did exactly as predicted and ran over the hill.
And then everything seemed to go on a very surreal fast forward. Derick had spotted the deer round the next bend and had taken out his rifle. Before I knew it, four hinds appeared ahead of us on the hill, a shot went off and only three ran off in the opposite direction.
It's still difficult to describe the range of emotions that ran through me as this happened. I've carried out post-mortems on large mammals that died of natural causes in the past, but the sight of this beautiful hind dropping to the ground was extremely unsettling and certainly evoked never-before experienced feelings.
I don't plan to ever shoot a wild animal myself, but I do believe in the value of a balanced, healthy ecosystem and Derick, a Scot with a real passion for this land and its wildlife, tells me that too many deer here have caused the Cairngorms to suffer.
After witnessing the cull, and to give me a better understanding of why culling is taking place in the Highlands I went on, over the next few days, to meet some fascinating people - each with their own take on this very complicated issue.
The deer counts
Ian Hope of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) took me up in a helicopter to get a bird's eye view of the landscape. He runs annual deer counts to get an idea of just how the populations are changing.
The vista was spectacular and in many ways what we associate as quintessentially Scottish, but the barrenness was striking, with so little root base in some places that the ground was sliding down the hills in large horizontal chunks.
As we flew over this dramatic landscape, 40- and 50-strong herds of deer looked up at us as they meandered over the moors, grazing on the sparse heather and grasses. I was told that the presence of large herds like these had been hindering the re-growth of any native pines here for years.
In contrast, as we flew at lower elevation where deer numbers were being controlled by culling, the hill flanks were filled with baby Scots pines, emerging amongst the 200 year-old pines that are nearing the end of their lifespan. At the outer edges of these small pine forests, more very young deep green pines were growing out of the yellow ground, spreading promisingly up the barren hillsides. I couldn't help but imagine what the hill might look like again in 50 years - a lush Caledonian forest harbouring a wealth of wildlife.
Over the next two days I met a series of people who know the wildlife of the Caledonian pine forests very well.
Filming with wildlife photographer Pete Cairns
Wildlife photographer Peter Cairns took me to a managed forest to show me examples of the type of wildlife that can thrive here if given the chance. At a feeding station he uses to attract his photographic subjects coal tits abounded. Every now and then a commotion ensued when a crested tit appeared and took over the pine trunk from its subordinates, its crest flashing as it tucked into the nutty feed concealed within the bark.
Cresties are utterly dependent on pine forest for survival. The insects and spiders they feed on can be found in tree trunks and amongst the pine needles and in the winter they forage in the heather on the forest floor. If too many deer overgrazed these forests, these charismatic, feisty little birds would disappear. They themselves play a vital role in the biodiversity of this habitat, keeping the pine looper moth and other invertebrates from reaching pest proportions.
As I watched them vocalising and muscling in on the food, a flash of orange appeared in the distance. And soon enough, two red squirrels approached the feeding station to avail of the food on offer, utterly adorable and comical in their behaviour. The red's most important food source here consists of Scots pine seeds. They don't recover all of the seeds they cache, so some will inevitably survive and germinate, aiding forest regeneration. (Video: wildlife photographer Peter Cairns on why deer grazing in the Caledonian forest causes problems for other species.)
As is the case in all ecosystems, each and every Caledonian forest species plays a vital role, and that includes the red deer. It's not a question of stopping all deer from entering the forest to allow other species to prosper. A perfect example is the capercaillie.
Overgrazing results in loss of the pine needles this woodland bird relies on to fatten up through the winter, but no deer at all would mean no clear patches on the forest that allow for the growth of the blueberry, of one of the capercaillie's favourite foods. It's not easy to see a capercaillie, one of Britain's rarest and most beautiful birds.
Although we had been told that one had been sighted prior to our arrival in the Cairngorms, it had promptly disappeared for two weeks. But Colin Leslie of the Forestry Commission of Scotland (FCS) had been coming out to the location of its last sighting every couple of days, just in case. One morning, as we were on our way to film a story on the endangered hoverfly, we got the call and it was all hands on deck.
I'd never seen a capercaillie before
I've never seen a capercaillie and was looking forward to catching just a glimpse of one, but we were treated to far more than we could have hoped for. We met Colin along with Kenny Kortland, an ecologist for FCS, who was able to tell me about the work they have been doing to help bring the capercaillie back from the brink of extinction here. A stunning 'rogue' male displayed for a full hour, and although this is clearly not the optimum time for lekking, he made it very clear to us, in all his glory, why these pine forests must be protected.
Even the more obscure species play an essential role in ecosystem health and the loss of pine forests here have resulted in a huge reduction in hoverflies. This is a relic species, dating back to the end of last glaciation when the pine forests themselves appeared, which pollinates flowers and whose larvae are a rich food source for many species.
Ellie Rotheray, studying at Stirling University, introduced me to a fascinating project she is carrying out, to restock tree trunk holes with the hoverfly's long tail larvae. These are incredible little creatures, beautifully adapted to feed on the bacterial soup in the watery cavities, complete with an inbuilt antifreeze system to survive the harsh winters until emerging as flies in summer. The larvae have been lost from all but two locations here, so this work, supported by the RSPB, FCS and SNH is vital to recovering this threatened species. (Video: Ellie shows us how the team are restocking the trees with larvae.)
These forests, like all ecosystems, contain a complex and intricately linked food web, so it was becoming obvious that, ecologically, getting the numbers of deer right here was already a huge challenge. An added complication is the sports hunting industry. I'm no supporter of hunting animals for sport, but personal opinions aside, it's the third most important industry in the Highlands, bringing in much needed jobs and income to these remote areas.
But this adds to the challenges of deer management here because those involved in this industry want more deer on their land for their shooting clients than the numbers set out for forest regeneration.
I met Richard Cooke, Chairman of the Association of Deer Management Groups, at a deer larder where culled and hunted deer are processed and carefully recorded before being transported, fully traceable back to their place of origin, to our supermarket shelves. No matter where you stand on deer culling or hunting, it's perhaps easy to overlook the fact that culled and hunted deer eventually end up on our plates. Richard told me venison is becoming ever more popular and that the current demand for venison in the UK far exceeds what these estates can produce.
Meeting Richard Cooke
It is, he says, an industry with a success story in an area where there a very little other opportunities for employment. He argued that this is ultimately another way of managing food animals and also pointed out that it may in fact be more humane to kill a deer in the wild, than it is to mass kill stressed animals in an abattoir.
So, the fact is that there are lots of different land owners in this area and they have different needs or approaches for how they want to manage their land. It's an enormous challenge when trying to manage the deer who of course belong to no-one are all moving around. The Cairngorms National Park is currently working very hard to hear what each estate owner's wants on their land with respect to deer numbers, so that management plans can be m ore productive.
With deer ignoring boundaries between estates as they do, I can't help but wonder how difficult it must be to decide on management strategies that can satisfy all involved. I met up with Will Boyd Wallace, of the Cairngorms National Park, who was able to talk to me about the work being done in the Highlands in collaboration with the estate owners, land managers, conservation groups and all interested parties to work towards better management and a sustainable future for the deer. (Video: Will discusses a sustainable future for the deer.)
The more I talked to the people here, the more I began to get a grasp of the complexities involved in dealing with such a contentious issue. It's easy for those of us living far away to have strong views about the culling of red deer, but the people here are very passionate about this land and its wildlife. They certainly have a great understanding of what it takes to maintain a healthy thriving ecosystem, because they live it every day and have seen firsthand what happens when one piece of the food web is out of balance.
Thomas MacDonnell is the Factor of Glenfeshie, an estate that is actively culling deer but is also continuing with the tradition of sports hunting. When I met him I asked him the difficult questions: is it really acceptable to kill red deer when man is the reason that their numbers are too high in the first place? Do we not have a responsibility to find another solution? At the risk of sounding naive, it would be nice to think that we could successfully reintroduce top predators to Scotland: the lynx, wolves and bears that use to roam these hills, keeping a natural order, eliminating the need for humans to kill red deer.
Thomas MacDonnell discussing the reintroduction of predators
But those days are long gone. Man has manipulated this landscape for too long and the issue of reintroducing natural predators is now understandably filled with its own challenges. For now at least it simply isn't a practical, realistic solution considering the neighbouring towns and farming practices here.
Fencing off of deer can work to a degree, but it also creates problems, separating other wildlife and killing birds that fly into it, as well as creating unnatural pockets of overgrazed and overgrown areas. So the question is: how else can deer numbers be controlled so that all wildlife here can recover before it's too late?
Thomas was born and bred here. He is passionate about the Highlands and confident in making the tough decisions needed to ensure that the Caledonian forests and all that lives within them can survive. He is committed to implementing a 200 year management plan on Glenfeshie Estate, aiming to restore what, only ten years ago, was essentially flat fields of grass into a thriving woodland habitat full of native species whose survival is under threat. And that includes ensuring the success of the red deer themselves.
New young pines were naturally regenerating
Already, where we were standing, new young pines were naturally regenerating amongst the 200 year-old 'granny' pines and voles were once again living in the undergrowth. Heather was reappearing and the loose gravel on the river banks was now secured by the regenerating pine root base so that salmon could spawn here again.
It certainly looked like a success story. This is what can be achieved with a real understanding of what it takes to recover a native habitat that has been all but lost. Thomas believes wholeheartedly that if some deer need to be culled as a management tool to maintain these precious Caledonian forests for the future, then so be it. He wants to get all interested parties and the public working together to ensure that this spectacular landscape, tourism and sports hunting can survive and thrive here.
This has been a fascinating journey for me. I must admit I do struggle with the tough decisions that sometimes need to be made due to man's impingement on wildlife. The culling of red deer remains a contentious and complex issue and interested parties will continue to have strong beliefs on how best this land should be managed and what serves the Scottish economy best.
But with continued co-operation and a commitment to decision making that is based on long term goals rather than immediate gains, I do believe that the future of the Monarch of the Glen and all the species that belong in this spectacular landscape can be a positive one.
Watch Liz's films on Autumnwatch, 8.30pm BBC Two and tell us what you think of this controversial issue.