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Liz Bonnin investigates the Highland deer cull

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 22:28 UK time, Wednesday, 23 November 2011

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.

red deer stag

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.

filming deer from a helicopter

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 Pete Cairns

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.

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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.

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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 pine growth

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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Bird sounded like a Black Grouse

  • Comment number 2.

    Interesting that a man with a gun should be so concerned about conversation of the grouse moors. Anyone spot a hen harrier yet?

  • Comment number 3.

    That was an unsafe shot with no backdrop

  • Comment number 4.

    Nothing wrong with a red deer cull, as long as it is monitored closely to make sure it is done humanely, by local people (and not rich twits with guns, always a bad mix) to put money into the local economy and teach a skill, and the meat goes into the food chain (again, preferably the local food chain rather than expensive London or Paris shops which do not benefit the local economy). Allowing red deer to over-populate until they can no longer support their own numbers and starve is a lot crueller.

    Or reintroduce wolves, I'm easy on the matter.

  • Comment number 5.

    Can anyone tell me what's wrong with culling deer? Don't people eat venison?Wouldn't wild venison command a high price? I'm vegetarian and I really don't understand what the difference is between breeding animals for meat and killing those that breed themselves. I think the latter is preferable and i think wild deer would probably have no chemicals and have better meat for beingfitter forbeing more active.

  • Comment number 6.

    Conservation and nature are talked about as the same thing but its clear from this piece that they are completley different. Nature is not managed by man, conservation is - man is deciding who survives and really its the same as playing god. If the heather suddenly over runs the moors then I guess deer are back in favour and spared the bullet

  • Comment number 7.

    It's not the fault of the deer, they're only doing what deer do. But this is a situation we've created and we've got a responsibility to protect the landscape and wildlife that are affected by our actions.

  • Comment number 8.

    With regard to the Red Deer cull, can I voice an alternative idea.

    Instead of culling, I think a more effective way of controlling numbers would be to identify the dominant Stag in a Hareem, and castrate or "cut" the male and allow him to defend his patch from other fertile males for a number of years. This should have a greater impact that just taking out stags as shown in your film, as new males will quickly take there place.

    This may be a silly idea but I would like the Autumn watch team to debate it merrits or otherwise.


  • Comment number 9.

    There's too many red deer. They need to be culled and to not do it is irresponsible as we have no wolves, lynx, bear... There are also too many over-emotional TV nature presenters. Yhey also need culling. You never say Attenborough blubbing over a deer being shot.

  • Comment number 10.

    Good post Skeerbs.

    Unless you're a veggie, you can't complain about stalking. I'd rather be a deer on the hill than a farm animal fattened in a shed.

    Well done Autumn Watch for coverage of this emotive subject.

  • Comment number 11.

    Culling is acceptable when done for the correct reasons. Remember grouse shooting has contributed tens of millions of pounds to the economy and supports rural jobs. However, on the point of the lack of large British predators, they became extinct due over hunting and interestingly enough, destruction of suitable habitat.

  • Comment number 12.

    As a vegetarian I don't believe in any sort of human killing of animals

  • Comment number 13.


    Expect part of this follows the Reporting Scotland piece on the red deer cull on Mar Lodge Estate, Braemar, earlier this week. It is just a pity that the estates don't seem able to convince the public that venison is a really GOOD meat to eat - they could be producing a low cost super healthy meat option for our tables AND restoring the natural balance in the Cairngorms at the same time.

  • Comment number 14.

    Hey guys in NZ we routinely cull deer and possoms,the meat goes into the food chain the fur into the textile industry. If we didn,t we would loose our entire native bird population; as the amout of damage these introduced species do is tremendous.
    this is simply because there has never been any preditors in NZ. Now you are experiencing the same thing, no longer any preditors here the deer population explodes and damages the natural environment. you have seen what happened when the mink and grey squirrel were released and you now have a great battle to save the water vole and red squirrel and lots of other smaller Bristish animals. We need to deal with it.Culling and Blocking works. Blocking (neutering feral cats) and it can bring in very needed sources of income for the locals.

  • Comment number 15.

    I love deer, I think they're beautiful animals, but they can do a lot of damage, so when their numbers get too high because we've removed their natural predators, we need to do something about it. I would agree with Skeerbs that culling needs to be done by someone who knows what they're doing.

  • Comment number 16.

    say you were have a trial period were you re-introduced wolfs, for every say 200 miles have a certain number of wolves to try and keep deer numbers steady.

  • Comment number 17.

    I have no problem with a deer cull it is important part of the natrual balance in the natrual world however I have the problem of how it is brought forward to both the public and how it is handeled.

    I hate the BS that the conservation organisations come out with, the biggest point they miss out is that we humans have destroyed so much of our ecosystem it has never managed to regain to its formal glory, not even by half. We destoryed it for our gain and welth for hundrends of years and continue to do so, also a big factor is that we have detached ourselves from the natrual balance.

    They no longer listen to those who have been in the trade of deer for the last 50 odd years instead asking the advice from suits and universtiy leavers. Deer in a lot of areas are in such a small number that you would be lucky to see them, they do not stay in the same area for a long time either meaning the more they are chased due to "right to roam" and over cull some areas will either benifit or not from their presance. With the uncertainty of the weather and the recent experiance in the last 10 years of very harsh winters some deer forests have dwindeled to scary parportions due to over cull and weather.

    What concervations do not tell you is how they cull deer famously they like to cull them like a turkey shoot with a line of guns driving deer to the guns, shooting by helicopter or employing bad shots. Honest and most likely nature loving deer hunters are outraged at the cull their adivice ignored and the trouble that is deer continues.

    Glenfeshie is a grouse estate, they are not interested in making the eastate a caladonian forest not even half. The estate is dead, it has an eery atmusphere and its horrible no nature despite the deer cull and you will be lucky to see any deer and it will take you all day to see the scared beasts.

    They are not interested in concervation, deer are left out of the loop. They want Scotland to be like the Alps pure and simple and forest fencing is too expensive, culling deer is the cheapest option. These same conservationists have caused the increase of Lymes disease in Scotland due to removing sheep and also have lost rare flowers due to removing deer and sheep. If any estate allows any concervation company in it will be the death to the estate and nature itself, I know that from experiance.

  • Comment number 18.

    I do not see a problem with a trial with both Wolves and Lynx, in the same way as the Beaver trial. They can be tagged in some way and given a set time scale to see how things pan out. However saying that, I would be gutted if they were then removed.

  • Comment number 19.

    Please address the grave irresponsibility of the deer cull shot. That bullet skimmed over the crest of the hill, aimed at a running deer, it could easily have missed. Any creature or hill walker at distances of more than a mile behind the quarry could have been injurred. The deer disappeared from view, the stalker claimed an instant kill, he had no real knowledge as to whether the beast was dead, horribly injurred or painfully limping off beneath the skyline. The stalker should lose his liscence.

  • Comment number 20.

    To reintroducing predators, again there is no where for them to go to live in their natrual habitat. Like the deer, wolves, linx and bear are all wood animals like most of our British wildlife. We would leave them exposed and disturbed due to free to roam and the abundance of stupid people not keeping themselves to themselve iterfeering in wild animals wanting to get close to them or pick them up etc.

    Linx would only be the likely but realisticly unlikely option because they are unlikely to be seen.

    Look what is happening to wild boars and eagle owl after they have been broadcasted on TV, there is a public out cry to destroy the wild boars that are helping the ecosystem and someone shot the female eagle owl. Humans are dangerous species that need to be homed in to help the natrual world that is for us all.

  • Comment number 21.

    @Roger - Sorry mate try learn about deer characteristic and the world of breeding for that matter. You can not castrate the dominant male as it changes all the time and also underdogs get a chance if they can get away with it. If you cut the dominant male whic is likely to be the best condition therefor giving the best genes you are only running the risk of lesser males who have horrible genes to pass on their DNA only to destroy the deer species as a whole.

    Castrating wild animals is too expensive and ivessive prosedure leading to animals most likely to die from the procedure. Doing it to calves would only pose the same problem, what ones are going to be healthy and not to rightfully pass their genes.

    It will not resolve controling the numbers and not culling will only make the species exposed to starvation, disease and over competing.

  • Comment number 22.

    @JohnB - The deer was most likely to have been shot before it ran, the eyes can deceive you. I thought that too but infact after some experiance in the trade, the deer in most cases is shot before it runs then it drops dead. The reason why it runs is fight or flight and it is most likely to be a heart shot (a good shot) then it will drop dead. It takes a long time to stalk a deer so it is not taken light heartely, also under regulations they must track the deer to make sure it is dead and take it home to sell to the meat trade.

    Regarding hill walkers it is their responsibility to make sure before they walk that they find out where they are stalking. No hill walker yet has been hurt but again it is their responsibiliy, there may be a right to roam however they are still responsible for their saftey.

  • Comment number 23.

    Good stuff from the Kiwis as usual blazing trail with clever solutions that are sustainable and help maintain rural communities.
    The Scots need to increase the venison output along the lines of their salmon business.
    I worry for any future English woodland with the noisy bambi hugging minority likely to stop future widespread deer culling down here. Meanwhile there are now 6 distinct deer herd species with population out of proportion to their habitat limits. We will soon have to fence in saplings in order to get any decent specimen trees for future generations!
    Safe and methodical professional culling is needed now. We do not want to let deer numbers to get away like grey squirrels otherwise the sapling damage will be disastrous. Come on Forestry Commision/Wildlife Trusts/MOD/National Trust and RSPB, to name but a few major land managers in UK; get your act together and plan stategic culling NOW.

  • Comment number 24.

    @PalauKW - Again humans releasing gray squirrel and mink to only destroy our ecosystem. Also our irresponsiblness dealing with pet cats, allowing them to go about unspayed/neutered meaining they are breeding native wild cats.

    My point is to help our enviroment we have to get our heads screwed on that we can not blame the animals all the time. We are the primary cause of the problem.

  • Comment number 25.

    liz is a grreat presenter of natural history

  • Comment number 26.

    Dont have a problem with culling deer but this bit of filming was not great autumn watch tv. Generally as I understand it, those tasked with culling are meant to cull the sick, the elderly and the weak. The guy who shot at the deer did not seem concerned about that only to get his cull of the day infact he seemed more concerned that it took him 5 hours of waiting to get his shot in. Poor stuff from Autumn watch moment as it really did not tackle 'good practice' culling.

    Oh and at 10.10 tonight as on previous nights this last coupel of weeks a vixen was out calling for a mate in the Ashford area of Kent.

  • Comment number 27.

    If you create an artificial ecosystem you have to manage it. That can be cutting out scrub from reedbeds (what I do) or replacing predators by a man with a rifle. To do anything else would simply be irresponsible.

    I just hope the meat wasn't wasted but used to generate income to keep the estate properly managed.

  • Comment number 28.

    two menny spailing mestakes in these commints

  • Comment number 29.

    Without predation, culling is vital for the wellfare of the deer population and their habitat. But it's a huge responsibility to do it as selectively and humanely as possible. Be under no illusions, stalking red deer is no walk in the park for chinless wonders but hard, hard work. If you want to learn a little more about what goes into managing a highland estate go to www.naturesgrip.blogspot.com

  • Comment number 30.

    I don't think re-introducing natural predators will help control deer numbers, for a very simple reason: there are too many sheep farms in this area. Think logically; if you were a wolf, would you sportingly hunt after a very fast, very fit, very large deer, or would it not be easier to take smaller, slower sheep instead?

    Hill farms can be vast here- far larger than many farms further south, and I suspect if large predators were reintroduce they would inevitably overlap with these animals' territories. If wolves were reintroduced, the only way to prevent them mixing with sheep and other farm animals would be to fence the wolves and the deer in, thereby causing problems with overgrazing of certain habitat, and no benefit from the deer in others.

    I am not against the reintroduction of predators, but I think it is a little short sighted to expect it to prevent the need for deer culls.

  • Comment number 31.

    I live on the edge of the Peak District, where in addition to managed herds of Deer, we have several large wild (originally feral) herds of Red Deer, and the issues which Liz raised in her report and blog, are just beginning to rear their heads.
    Thank you, Liz and Autumnwatch, for opening up the subject in a thoughtful way. I expect that here in the Peak, with the vast local population, the topic will become far more emotive over the coming years and generate deep feelings, which will require even greater wisdom and patience to work through.

  • Comment number 32.

    Up until now I have enjoyed Autumnwatch but last nights piece on the deer culling was not acceptable especially coming from an estate where the only interest is the money they make from shooting grouse. Also it should not have been shown when children were watching the program, even my wife had to turn away in disgust. It was heartless and presented in an unfeeling way. This is what Glenfeshie is really about so why was this not mentioned:
    "A golden eagle was found dead on the Glenfeshie Estate, Cairngorms, in June 2006. It was the second golden eagle found this year, after the eagle found poisoned a few months earlier on the Dinnet & Kinnord Estate in nearby Ballater. Both birds had ingested the illegal pesticide Carbofuran."

    The RSPB put up a reward for information leading to the conviction of the people responsible for both eagle deaths. No arrests have been made.

  • Comment number 33.

    The same "conservation" logic would force us to cull human beings when they are found to be affecting negatively a natural ecosystem. Any person that destroys heather, builds a road or develops a building in a natural area would be fair "game" to sanctioned "human controllers", would he/she not? Especially if they carefully chose those humans with fewer prospects (lower IQ, infertility, unemployed). If we have Ethics that stop us to cull humans, even if ecologically would make perfect sense, we should apply the same ethics to stop us culling deer, or any other wild animal.

  • Comment number 34.

    very well said Jordi - completely agree

  • Comment number 35.

    This is a very emotive subject, but where the numbers of a species is too high, and there are no natural predators (as is the case here), ecological degradation becomes an important factor. As has been stated above, by completely removing vegetation cover, major soil erosion may result, which will ensure that an ecological system has no chance to recolonise the area eroded. Introducing predators sounds to be the most 'natural' solution - but there are sheep farmers and their livestock in the equation (Britain has no true 'wilderness' left). Their interests would surely preclude the re-introduction of either wolves or bear - and the grouse shooting estates would object to lynx, I should imagine.
    I've lived in Africa, and heard many of the same arguments debated, especially regarding elephants (a much larger and, because of the herd structures and intelligence of the animals, more complex issue).
    Although I still have reservations, I do think that culling is probably the only viable solution, at least in this country.

  • Comment number 36.

    @Balbuzard - No offence but you are not doing your children any good by keeping them away form facts of life. This is a big problem in this country where too many people know very little, that they think that food is magicly given to them from the food fairy. I know more children under 10 that can deal with things like this more than anyone over the age of 14. Chidlren are more than capable of understanding and dealing with it however if you wrap them in cotton wool you will have problems.

    After a hunt the younger children love getting a full on bioldgy lesson by showing them the lungs, heart etc and they are so inqusitive when we slice the eye open to show what a lense looks like. Its a shame, we should be educating chidlren in this way because they are so calm and keen to learn, I feel they are missing out on how the world works then we maybe able to look after our enviroment better.

  • Comment number 37.

    @Gemma: You are having a laugh are you not. This is nothing to do with hunting which I abhor in every way possible. Maybe your world works in that way but mine certainly does not. Young children need to be protected from viewing animals being shot in cold blood.

  • Comment number 38.

    Without predators to keep numbers of deer down to a natural balance with their habitat, culling is the only answer but should concentrate on taking out the old, weak, sick & some young. This won't please the Estates, as they like to sell on their venison from culling.
    Personally, I would love to see the Wolf re-introduced. to the Highlands, back where it belongs after over 200yrs away. The Lynx, Bear, Wisent & Boar are also needed up there, to help bring back the Forest of Caledon, and bring about a natural order.

  • Comment number 39.

    @Earth Hart: I agree completely about the re-introduction of the wolf and the lynx but sadly they would probably become the next targets. It seems we cant stop interfering with the natural order of things. None of these estates have a natural habitat as they are managed purely for profit with little care for the wildlife

  • Comment number 40.

    Anyone who believes that these stalkers always get in a clean shot are living in cloud cuckoo land. Often the deer are wounded and die a long slow agonising death much worse than starvation. Even the best shot will make a mistake, remember to err is human and these estates are erring big time. I would never eat venison or grouse or any other game bird for that matter.

  • Comment number 41.

    For those of you questioning the statement that the deer was shot cleanly in this film I would like to confirm that we found the deer exactly where it was shot, it had died instantly and did not run off into the distance injured. The deer was cut open and we looked at its heart, which clearly had had a bullet pass straight though it. We did film this, but is was deemed more graphic than was necessary to put in the program.

  • Comment number 42.

    An interesting subject and one very close to my heart. I understand the need to keep red deer numbers down (no-one has mentioned the roe deer, this is being culled the same way) if done legally and in a humane manner. Gemma, you mentioned shooting from a helicopter - this should concern everyone as not only is it an outrageous way to cull animals it is also, as far as I am aware, illegal. Under the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 it is an offence to discharge any firearm, or discharge or project any missile,from a moving vehicle. If this is happening then the authorities need to be told surely? SNH/BDS? Maxine - you mentioned that you thought only the elderly, sick or the weak animals were in line for culling. In my experience that is unfortunately not the case. As far as FCS is concerned it is a numbers game - in our area deer are being culled with projected figures in mind of how many deer are allowed to survive per hectare. FCS have fenced our area off on a massive scale, so that the remaining deer cannot reach lower pasture and the woodland that is their natural domain in winter months particularly when they are in need of shelter. So the deer that remain are out on the open hill in wind,rain and snow - not natural and sure to increase suffering; so in my view the number of deer being culled to what they think is an acceptable level is immaterial. It is those that are left that suffer.
    ChMurray - did not actually see the Reporting Scotland piece on the Mar Estate, but know that the systematic slaughter of red deer on that estate has been closely scrutinised and by many condemned as 15 years of mismanagement. In The Scotsman it was reported that experts are recommending that the trust should erect strategic fencing, with provision for adequate winter cover and foraging. This is the crux of the matter - downfalls should be provided where deer have been following natural corridors for many years. This is something FCS need to recognise and implement.
    FCS should be applauded for trying to reinstate natural forests that man have destroyed in years gone by.........but tell me, what happens in 50/100 years (or however long it takes) when they harvest the trees, as they surely will?

  • Comment number 43.

    I am vegan, so understandably this story made me feel a little uncomfortable...at first. However, having read the full article and watched the well-produced programme, I really understand why this is a reasonable solution. If we (humans) hadn't eradicated the natural predators then it wouldn't be an issue. And if the culled deer weren't being put into the food chain then I would object. However what the cull is doing is putting humans into the role of predators and reforming the food web. I choose not to eat meat myself, but for those who do, I agree with comments above that it is far better for animals in this natural habitat than the unearthly conditions of much modern farming. The word ‘cull’ is synonymous with contention, however this is essentially the ‘circle of life’, and I certainly can’t see why any omnivores would object.

  • Comment number 44.

    There is a far better alternative to culling, and one that is truly vegan (I am vegan myself, by the way). In the case where the ecosystem is truly threatened (not in the cases when it may be threatened in the future, or it is simply "altered"), then capturing key animals, sterilising them, and releasing them back to the ecosystem, could solve the problem. This would control the population without the need to kill anyone. It would be complex and expensive, but a better alternative. When is a matter of Ethics, the economics or practicalities should not matter. It is a lot more complex and expensive to keep for life prisoners that received a life sentence rather than execute them straight after the trial, but if Ethics make you abolish the Death Penalty, this is what you need to do, no matter how expensive will turn out to be. We are talking about the life of deer here, not just the pulling of a metal trigger. Nobody should be "sacrificed" for the benefit to the community. We have the resources to solve the problem without the need to spill blood. If we do not do it is simply for laziness or convenience, so do not let yourselves persuade by those who say we cannot do better.

  • Comment number 45.

    the obvious solution here is to reintroduce wolves... they're relatively low key, wont take more than they need, and wont bother humans... plus, they are quite beautiful.

  • Comment number 46.

    Be honest, the introduction of wolves is never going to happen. Its too late for that. Man Is the apex predator, and it is only right that the overpopulated red deer be killed for the benefit of All the wildlife in the estates including the red deer themselves.

  • Comment number 47.

    @Balbuzard - "Dying in cold blood" ha ha, why do you even watch nature programs if you come out with this rubbish. Nature is nature, you can't pick and choose, you have to live with it all. My world is sure better than yours, we don't lie to children and they respect us more for it. I know many children raised on estates and farms who are more switched on and mature than most chidlren. I would rather that than shove my child in front of the tv and claim that the likes of "high school musical" true to life.

    We have been hunting on this planet for thousands of years, there are still children out there learning to hunt with their tribe for survival are they in need of protection!!! Children need protection from cotton wool!!

  • Comment number 48.

    @Balbuzard - Regarding to your comment about estates not caring for wildlife, what world do you come from. Are you a vegatarian/vegan by any chance as they have a habbit of going over the top and tend to relate one bad instance to everything in that field. Not all estates are bad and I know plenty where nature is booming and most of PROTECTED. Do you know that I know more concervation controled estates to be more lacking in nature than private ran ones. I should know as I work in this field and live in the area.

  • Comment number 49.

    Balbuzard - Just reading on other comments, you are everything that is wrong with the world. You have no clue what you are talking about, me and you need to hook up sometime and you will get to see what it is all about. Better that than the rubbish you are reading. Some teachers abuse children and I bet you still send your children to school, reason being not every teacher is an abuser same with not every stalker is heartless. I know more stalkers that love/care for nature than anyone else and they will walk all over the estate till they are exhausted to find the deer BUT most of all deer stalkers have to pass a shooting test to be able to get a licence so if they do not come up to scratch they don't get to keep their job.

  • Comment number 50.

    @Jordi Casamitjana - Sorry but your comment is lazy, you have not done your homework on nature. They can not be sterilised, how would you now of how many and which ones are going to grow up to pass on the strong genes. You are talking about thousands of hinds, more than stags by a large number potentally all having a calf every year. It will be a stressful and damaging for the deer you will run them to the ground with fear and panick. Mothers will have to be caught as well as the baby so the mother does not run and leave the baby to die, seporating them from the protection of the herd. Also deer need to coserve their energy in winter and by running around the hillside being chased by people after their babys it will only cause starvation.

    No offence but I love nature its in my life and blood, it angers me when people who do more web browsing than getting their hands dirty need to be careful what they say. Unfortunatily for you veg/vegans have a bad reputation of knowing very little about natural world/farming and knowing too much of their own biased propaganda.

    Your suggestion will kill the deer for sure, sorry.

  • Comment number 51.

    As someone heavily involved in deer management I've found both the programme and comments hugely valuable.

    I'd like to congratulate the BBC and Autumnwatch on running this item - and doing it so well. Really for me the epitome of responsible public broadcasting - a really difficult subject it would be easy to avoid.

    I've been pleasantly surprised at how many people are so aware of the issues, that man has removed predators & that deer can destroy not only their environment but themselves too. Decriotions of literally herds of starved and frozen deer trapped dead against fences in the snow in the Highlands are horrific.

    What also came across very strongly is that for the people working for organisations like FC Scotland this is not a sport: it is about habitat management and nothing else and deer are killed only when absolutely necessary. Killing a superb animal like a deer can never be undertaken lightly and it is something all the Rangers I have worked with think deeply about. And they do not leave wounded deer - if a deer is wounded it must be found and put out of its pain. Conservation bodies are sometimes criticised for not doing the difficult things their purpose demands - its worth noting that RSPB have, bravely, done a fantastic job at Abernethy alongside FC Scotland to get out native pinewoods regnerating again for all the fantastic wildlife Liz showed us. Red Deer are a crucial part of that environment and noone in FC or RSPB is suggesting trying to wipe them out - it is about keeping them in balance with this stunning environment.

  • Comment number 52.

    @Gemma. I am a zoologist so your on "homework" comment is out of line, which is not surprising considering that you think that "veg/vegans" have bad reputation (well, they do have bad reputation among hunters, bullfighters, factory farmers and fur traders...fortunately). Does Gandhi have a bad reputation...or Leonardo da Vinci...or Albert Einstein...

    In the same way that sanctioned stalkers do not kill any deer, but those "selected", so a similar method could be chosen to select who to sterilise. And you do not need to do it as young. You could even allow them to breed once (ensuring that their genes are passed to the next generation) and then sterilise them preventing that they have too many offspring. However, I am only talking in cases where the ecosystem is really about to disappear because of the deer. In most occasions, I would do nothing, and let that the population find its balance with the new altered ecosystem, or I would re-introduce natural autonomous predators (but not those breed in captive breeding programmes)

  • Comment number 53.

    I would like to congratulate Autumnwatch & BBC Natural History (& Liz Bonin,) for bravely tackling a subject like this which is incredibly emotive. It helped increase a lot of people's understanding of these issues.

    It was treated very sensitively and was not unnecessarily graphic. (I've got a fairly old and small T.V, but I couldn't see any deer go down and am not entirely convinced that the shot of them running over the hill was actually at the precise moment of the shot.)

    It is good to see that this has been followed by a fair and reasoned debate on this blog. Those who have posted here seem to be quite pragmatic when it comes to this subject, even when it goes against their usual sensibilities.
    I look forward to learning more about practical conservation across the country, (whether controversial or not,) when Springwatch returns.

    While I agree with the necessary culling/killing (I don't really care whether it's called one or the other,) of deer, one thing I would like to add and to remind people of is this:

    Attempting to understand something does not mean that you necessarily condone it.


  • Comment number 54.

    Further to my confirmation in comment 41 that the deer was shot cleanly I should also make it clear that Derrick the FCS stalker did take a perfectly safe shot and would not have done so had he not felt that he was in a position to do so. Obviously a single camera shot in the film does not show the entire landscape situation clearly. Having been taken from a low angle, lower than from where the rifle shot was taken the camera shot is deceptive. Consequently it did not reveal the further hill brows beyond, which were clearly devoid of people.

  • Comment number 55.

    I think deer culling should be carried out by the system best designed to do so. This, as shown in Yellowstone, is best carried out by the Wolf. Obviously no-one wants animals to suffer and the use of the wolf to cull red deer is in some ways a contradiction when discussing deer culling and animal suffering. But anyone reading Dr Doug Smith's books and articles on the Yellowstone re-introduction will know that a wolf re-introduction benefits the environment greatly. These are a keystone species that should be returned IF we are seeking to redress the natural environment we have destroyed. Just like the Beaver, Wild Boar, Cranes or Great Bustard we shouldn't step away from controversial issues such as a wolf re-introduction.

  • Comment number 56.

    I am studying hnc Gamekeeping and wildlife management at a college in scotland, I am outraged that the practitioner was shooting with an unsafe backstop and i'm suggesting that he gets some training like we are.

  • Comment number 57.

    Andy Murray. Please see comment 54. The deer was shot against a safe backstop. You may like to watch the film again and see that you only see one, low camera angle. It is unfortunately deceptive. And the shot you see is of the deer falling, not of it standing as the bullet hits it. It was shot stationary, before it ran 5m and then fell. As I understand, this is the common reaction of deer when shot straight through the heart, as this one was.

  • Comment number 58.

    @Jordi Casamitjana - Good for you that you are a zooligist but that does not mean you know what you are talking about.

    I have lived and worked all my life outdoors and also under the guidence of my stalker who has a career of near enough 40 years in the business. However it takes common sense to see that your suggestion does not work no matter what age you sterilies the beasts. I am a bit confused about your statment, do you think that one stag has one large group then thats it. It does not not work like that a groups never remain the same number, quite possibly not have the same stag and need to cover several times during the rut. So how is it possible the steralisation considering one stag can breed for good few years in its life time and would yet meet its prime. You are suggesting to steralise any breedable male then what wait a few years till others grow up the ranks which leaves the species vunrable. This is not my main concern, you have no clue of the job that it entails and the damage it will cause by disturbing herds of animals WHICH WILL CAUSE damage that is down right cruel worse than stalking.

    I have been amung nature most of my life more than yourself I imagine as I am sure zooligy takes up a lot of your time then have you ever had time to experiance anything before that!!! By your answer no and also you have a lot to learn. Not my fault that we have different experiances and I do not need to be a zooligist to know what is happening, I have the greatest teacher nature herself you just need to stop and look.

  • Comment number 59.

    @Andy - Have some self respect you have not even finished your training and like I said before, film can desieve you as it does not capture true to life things like this. A heart shot and sometimes head makes the beast run then drop. When you walk in the Highlands you think you are reaching the top or the bealoch but your not there is still way to go so there is quite possible a back drop.

  • Comment number 60.

    @LISBURN_MARTIN - May have excaped your notice but Scotland is considerably smaller than yellowstone. Also does not offer the same ecosystem, like the red deer wolves proper home is amung the trees. Humans have made sure of that, we are the imediate threat to trees not deer!!!

    Wolves would also not work due to the amount of fools we have in the world now with no common sence. It would be only yet another animal humans could kill due to our lack of knowledge.

  • Comment number 61.

    I would like to congratulate the BBC Nature Watch on the article about the Highland deer cull presented by Liz Bonnin. In my view the subject was approached with sensitivity and was well balanced.
    It may have helped the programme to have informed the viewer about the education, training and qualification process required of those undertaking deer management. The qualifications are required by FC/FCS and all of the major forest companies engaged in the management of the deer. The process is competency based and candidates for Deer Stalkers Certificate Level 1 and Level 2 may take 3 years to gain their qualification. The process starts with a course lasting up to a week where candidates have to demonstrate that they are sufficiently knowledgeable of deer ecology, biology, and legislation, are competent shots and are safe with a firearm. Estates letting recreational stalking also require participant to demonstrate competency and they are accompanied by professional stalkers to ensure the process is carried out humanly.
    The idea of introducing predators has been raised many times over the years and rejected for sound reasons. Comparing the UK to the American wilderness does not stand up to scrutiny. The last remaining wilderness in the UK is the Knoydart Peninsula and that is a tiny area for predators to produce a natural balance. What are we to do? Transport all the deer to Knoydart? The notion of wolves roaming Scotland would cause alarm. The quaint cottages, villages and towns one pass while touring the highlands contain people that would be at risk should wolves be introduced.
    Many good points have been raised in the programme and in the blogs about why culling is necessary but insufficient consideration has been given to the deer themselves. A red hind might not reach maturity and give birth for as long as 5 years due to nutritional stress caused by over grazing. Once in reproduction a hind might not give birth each year as she fails to reach a critical weight again due to nutritional stress. Reducing the number of deer addresses this issue.
    Man shares the habitat with deer and conflicts arise. If you have ever driven through Glen Clunie on a dark December night with the rain lashing against your windscreen you may have come on a 32 stone stag standing in the middle of the road dazzled by the headlights of your car. This is a frightening and dangerous experience. Then one might question why deer are not better controlled.
    The present system of deer management using trained and competent stalkers is the only practical system of controlling numbers that has been identified to date. Perhaps Autumnwatch could widen the topic to include some of the issue mentioned above.

  • Comment number 62.

    I find the views expressed by Thomas MacDonnell in his video baffling. He suggests that if wolves were reintroduced, they would reproduce so well as to eradicate the red deer population and then would come looking for other sources of food in towns at villages. Surely this flies in the face of all we know of predator prey relationships? As the number of red deer fell it would become harder for wolves to find food and so they would reduce- this would in turn cause the red deer population to rebound and this in turn would cause the wolf population to do so. In other words we would have a natural predator prey relationship.

    The first problem he raises with wolves is that the uk is now too small and heavily populated to allow wolves. Firstly size, the highlands of Scotland (just the wild parts) could support a population of 500 or more wolves (healthily without damaging the ecosystem). Secondly the human population- Is he really suggesting that an area in Scotland widely recognized as one of the least populated areas of Europe has too many humans??? Surely this is ridiculous.

    Both these faults in his argument are borne out by the fact that wolves survive when not persecuted in far denser populated regions on continental Europe. The simple fact of the matter is that it is only because of the channel that we are having this discussion at all. Were wolves able to repopulate naturally it is likely that individual wolves would have already tried. South France where wolves have appeared from Italy has more humans, Spain and Portugal is more densely populated. Here I am only talking about western Europe. Eastern Europe still supports large numbers of wolves in land far less wild than Scotland.

    I do agree with the comment above, that comparing Scotland to america is wrong, but I see no problem with comparing it with countries in Europe.

    In terms of benefits, apart from reducing over time, the number of deer in Scotland to more sensible numbers, the climate of fear that they would create in deer would greatly reduce the number of collisions with cars (as roads are open and therefore deer would avoid them far more than currently). This fear factor would keep the remaining deer moving which would give the saplings a greater chance of healthy growth.

    Tourism in the highlands would benefit (though I would think of this as a secondary benefit, rather than a benefit to the ecosystem and its management)

    The cost of the cull is in itself quite expensive.

    There are of course negatives as well.
    Walkers would be fearful of being attacked. While this would be a small risk, it is widely recognized that healthy wolves rarely allow themselves to be seen let alone approach a human (this seen in eastern Europe where wolves are rarely seen by anyone despite a large population existing). Dogs of walkers might be in greater danger.

    There is the likelihood that occasional livestock would be taken. While this is a reasonable assumption there are several things that should be noted. Wolves in eastern Europe tend to ignore livestock in favor of wild prey. Also when they take livestock it tends to be the old and ailing (a natural mechanism for thinning the weak from the gene pool). Furthermore if guard dogs are left with flocks wolves rarely approach.

    In conclusion I think that the benefits far outweigh the negatives. The current system of humans using large amounts of resources to manage deer populations is something that we will have to continue to do permanently, and would be done far more effectively by natural processes.


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