In Scotland, the deer hunting business is dooming the forest

Edinburgh (Great Britain), correspondence

Whiskey bottles, pillows, glasses and biscuit boxes… The deer, the symbol of Scotland, is present in all objects traditionally associated with the country. Until the arrival of Covid-19, thousands of tourists flocked every year to see him playing on the plains of the Highlands. This majestic animal, however, became, in a few decades, an ecological plague for the country. Today, nearly a million animals roam freely in the Scottish countryside. A number ten to a hundred times higher than in any European country.

However, deer devour the young shoots of trees and strip the bark of those that have reached adulthood, making them more vulnerable to disease. In the rest of Europe, forest regeneration occurs naturally. With us, we have to build fences almost two meters high or protect the trunks with plastic tubes. »sighs Mike Daniels, fromNGO environmental John Muir Trust.

In addition to forested areas, deer are also accused of damaging peatlands, wetlands that sequester carbon and therefore represent a key element in the fight against climate change. Herds of deer are also responsible for spreading Lyme disease. [1] and lead to many road accidents. The number of collisions caused by deer can actually increase to almost 14,000 a year.

The red deer, a Scottish symbol, could proliferate in the absence of natural predators. CC INYOUR 4.0 / Andrewmckie / Wikimedia Commons

how did we get here ? We must return to the reign of Queen Victoria. Among XIXᵉ century, the British monarch established the tradition of hunting deer in the wild forests of Scotland. Cortes followed suit, monopolizing huge tracts of land to introduce deer there, driving out many ranchers in the process.

Later, at the end of the First World War, many trees were industrially planted to obtain structural timber. These cultivated forests constitute artificial shelters in which deer proliferate, mainly because their natural predators, wolves, lynx and bears, have progressively disappeared from the territory. Despite warning signs from experts, however, no measures have been taken to stem the population explosion. After World War II, there were 100,000 red deer, ten times fewer than today.

It is we environmentalists who demand that we kill more animals »

Faced with this worrying state of affairs, the NGO of environmental protection require a more massive slaughter of deer. A paradoxical situation. The Woodland Trust Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust or even Trees for Life: it is we environmentalists who are calling for more animals to be killed », recognizes Mike Daniels. Currently, around 100,000 deer are slaughtered each year, or 10 % of the total workforce. This local fauna expert, however, thinks it should reach at least 16 % of deer killed to preserve biodiversity.

Deer in Glen Etive, Scotland. The overpopulation of deer damages the forests on which they themselves depend. CC INYOUR 3.0 / Paul Hermans / Wikimedia Commons

Forestry and Land Scotland, the body that administers the Scottish state’s lands and forests, heard their arguments. Last December, the government agency announced that it would slaughter 150,000 deer in five years, slightly more than in previous years. Their concentrations in certain areas are harmful to the creation of forests, the protection of nature, the environments and habitats on which they and many other species depend. »justified the organization.

An effort hailed by environmentalists. However, the Scottish State has only 9 % of the territory. Specific to the country, the overwhelming majority of land is in fact in the hands of private landowners, who are responsible for taking care of the slaughter. However, many are reluctant to increase the number of deer killed annually. And for good reason, as the latter bring them significant income. Rich tourists are therefore willing to pay small fortunes to hunt deer in the Scottish highlands.

In the northwest of the country, Julien, a French expatriate, takes care of an estate covering several thousand hectares with his partner. Every year, both offer tourists the opportunity to come and kill a deer for 500 pounds, or around 600 euros. Before Covid-19, the sale of the carcass to butchers and restaurants could also bring in 100 pounds (120 euros). According to the latest figures, dating from 2016, the hunting industry generates around 15 million pounds a year (20 million euros). It also guarantees many jobs in local communities, argue its advocates.

You don’t get rich hunting deer, you have deer on your property ’cause you’re rich »

But, according to Mike Daniels, the economic argument is fallacious. You don’t get rich hunting deer, you have deer on your property because you are rich. Hunting is a way of life and a social marker. And that’s why the owners feel threatened. » In fact, a report shows that in 2016 hunting expenditure in the private sector was £36m, nearly double the revenue generated.

As for the jobs generated by hunting, the naturalist is also skeptical. The data shows that the number of jobs for deer hunting pales in comparison to those generated by environmental protection. » According to the John Muir Trust, the hunting industry is the source of 716 jobs spread across 26,000 square kilometers of private land. The NGOwhich, however, manage a territory ten times smaller, would have 736 jobs.

Faced with such a picture, why didn’t the government intervene sooner? ? It is because for a long time everything was decided in London, but the parliamentarians were the same ones who owned land in Scotland. », explains Mike Daniels. Since then, the situation has changed a bit. In 1999, Scotland gained its own parliament. But here, again, the reforms undertaken were timid. Nobody wants to alienate this part of the population, least of all in the context of a new referendum on independence. »explains the naturalist.

Behind a biodiversity issue, therefore, lurks an explosive political issue. Julien and his partner are well aware of this. He is a former ecology student and advocates greater clearing and reforestation of the land. But their more traditional neighbors are not of the same opinion. We don’t talk about it with them, we don’t want to offend people »he confides.

In some areas, landowners must now commit to killing a certain number of deer each year. CC IN 2.0/Caroline Legg/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons

In order not to antagonize these powerful landowners, the Scottish government therefore chose the gentle method: encourage rather than coerce. Thus, in most parts of the country, it is only voluntarily that rangers take care of the deer slaughter. They’re all horrible change-resistant bourgeois ? Nature Scot, the government agency responsible for the protection of fauna and flora, slightly qualifies this statement: Some are defensive, but many are also very forgiving. For the past ten years, we’ve seen more and more landowners monitoring the deer’s natural habitats to try to see how affected they are by their proliferation. »explains Holly Deary, wildlife officer.

In certain critical regions, like the one where Julien lives, the government, however, has hardened its tone. For three years now, landowners have had to commit to killing a certain number of deer each year. The amount of the fine in the event of refusal amounts to several tens of thousands of pounds. It is true that no one checks whether the owners’ commitments are respected. But symbolically, a step has been taken, which will soon be able to extend to the entire country.

Just before the May 2021 elections, the government endorsed the findings of an expert report recommending more coercive measures on cull. Elected in May 2021, the new executive reiterated his desire to strengthen legislation during his term. optimists, the NGO are just waiting for an account.

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