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Deer management makes progress, but is it enough?

Scottish deer management groups have made great strides, but Deirdre Stewart remains apprehensive about Scottish Natural Heritage's review of the sector.

In 2008, the Scottish Government issued 'Wild Deer: A National Approach' (WDNA), a 20-year policy document for deer management.

Its first five-year review of this policy in 2013-2014 reiterated how deer management ought to overcome challenges such as the impact of deer populations upon the natural heritage, and the 'pace of change' in terms of deer management groups (DMGs) developing and implementing deer management plans. It laid out priorities for 2015-2020 with which to maximise both public and private benefits from deer management. The Scottish Parliament's Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee at that time asked that the sector be able to demonstrate a 'step change' in its efforts under the voluntary principle and contribution to the public interest, the progress of which would be measured in 2016.

That laid down the challenge for the industry to prove that it could voluntarily deliver deer management for the benefit of the Scottish public without the need for top down intervention from Government.

Against this backdrop, all DMGs were assessed by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) in 2014-2015. The assessments provided a measure for the demonstration of DMGs to meet the criteria of WDNA, including relevant aspects of the public interest, and most importantly to demonstrate the effectiveness of voluntary deer management. 

Assessments have therefore been influential in prompting action by DMGs, in terms of planning and communication/collaboration, by identifying areas that need to be improved.

2016 has witnessed the re-assessment of all DMGs by SNH against the policy objectives, and the industry waits with bated breath as to the outcome of how this data will be represented in the SNH review of the deer sector in Scotland, to be delivered to the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham, in October.

The Association of Deer Management Groups (ADMG) is seeking assurance from SNH of an objective and evidence-based report on the considerable progress made by DMGs since 2014, as well as noting further progress after the re-assessment which concluded at the end of June 2016.

The SNH review of the deer sector will cover many aspects, including Control Agreements, which were exercised under Section 7 of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996. Simultaneously SNH is reviewing the system for authorisations for out-of-season culling and night shooting.

I remain apprehensive about the outcome of this review, despite the huge progress by the DMGs over the past two years.

The political interest in deer remains high and there are some who continue to press for full regulation. 

However, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 provided SNH with additional 'last resort' powers to intervene where voluntary has failed to deliver effective collaborative deer management, and this should be sufficient to deal with persistent failure should that occur. It is worth noting that SNH has yet to resort to its compulsory powers created in the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996.

The opportunity for DMGs now is to continue the excellent progress made, to implement their new deer management plans, introduce habitat impact assessments, communicate regularly with relevant interests, principally through the DMG websites now provided by ADMG, and thus to keep management of the shared deer resource under their own control within the framework of legislation and Government policy. In future, reviews will take place three-yearly, and steady progress will continue to be necessary to demonstrate the great benefit that a well-managed deer population represents to the people of Scotland and wider deer management as a whole. 

I await the review of the sector with great interest, as will the many people connected with the deer industry.