Effective deer management
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Niall Rowantree looks at factors to consider and questions to ask yourself with a view to effectively managing the deer population
At the time of writing this piece, the weather in general has been kinder to the west coast of Scotland than many parts of the UK. This is an important factor when talking about deer management as local weather can have a distinct effect on both the local wildlife and its particular habitat.
For example, a particularly cold winter with deep snow for a prolonged period will have an effect on the deer herd inland, but is unlikely to be an issue for coastal deer which find themselves in a drier mild snow-free environment; on the other hand, howling gales from the southwest and heavy rain can play havoc with the population on the coast and leave inland populations sheltered.
Red deer have the advantage of being one of the most researched mammals in the country and much of the work undertaken on the island of Rum has given deer managers a suite of information that they can use to balance their decisions.
There is little doubt in my mind that population density is one of the most important factors in making decisions about your deer population and as densities rise, the impact on reproduction survival and growth is huge. For people looking for a healthy stag population, understanding this is essential as stags are first affected by increasing hind densities - and antler size and survivorship undoubtedly declines as populations rise.
It's important to balance this in your mind when following this theory, which is used heavily by people seeking to restore habitats with a vision of a paradise with two or three enormous deer. This simply would not be the case, so the art is balancing your density of deer with your habitats and objectives and then being a wildlife detective (in that you seek out the information that either confirms your decisions or encourages you to rethink them). When making decisions about deer population and building a model that you want to deliver, questions to ask yourself should cover some if not all of the following:
* Are my ambitions for the deer population I manage compatible with any environmental designations that exist on the land and will they have no long-term damage to the range the deer live on? If you can answer yes, that's a good start as failure to take these issues into account will, in the long term, lead to conflict, challenge and ultimately disappointment to say nothing of the welfare of a natural resource - which should be paramount to any decision making.
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* What do I hope to achieve from the plan that I have developed? It's perfectly credible to wish to increase sporting revenue, venison production or tourism opportunities and to add capital value to a land asset, but bear in mind that the mosaic of land ownership in this country has changed significantly and in some deer management group areas, different objectives can make difficult bedfellows. In the early 1900s, Sir Donald Cameron of Locheil stated: "Good fellowship and a perfect understanding between neighbours are desirable in all forms of sport". Where deer are concerned, it is essential. What one very quickly comes to realise is it's not so much what you seek to achieve as the scale on which you seek to achieve it. If you are fortunate enough to have an area where both males and females are hefted and it provides all of the range that's required, you are halfway there.
* Do I have the time and resources to see my plan come to fruition? On Ardnamurchan, the history of the management of the herd goes back a long way. At the time of the sale of the estate in 1850, the records paint a picture quite different to today. At that time, the nearest red deer were to be found on Ben Resipol, some 10 miles from our eastern boundary today.
* What is notable is the knowledge of the individuals who put the wheels in motion, the land they selectively chose and fencelines placed in right locations, set in motion a plan which didn't fully come to fruition for at least 20 years. To see significant change, time has to be committed and this is when you enter the selection phase of what you seek to do.
WORKING WITH (AND FOR) NATURE
In many areas, I feel that shooting deer for shooting deer's sake has overtaken deer management planning and there is an old adage: to fail to plan is to plan to fail. Put another way, deer are a natural component of the complex ecosystems of this outstanding country and quite how we got ourselves to the position that we feel challenged by them, rather than celebrate them, is hard to comprehend.
They are first and foremost an iconic resource, a landscape engineer and valuable asset and as hunters we're at the forefront. The fact that selective management by man secures rural communities can demonstrate effective management and keep this iconic resource in tip-top health and in balance with the environment - surely this work cannot be overlooked even by the most urban of societies?
Effective deer management has an important role to play in focusing public understanding of what goes on in our wild and secluded places, and it is probably easier to demonstrate this element with land and hind management than it is with the stags.
The red stag, out of no fault of his own, has become caught up in a frenzy surrounding his antlered head. Unfortunately, it would appear that the urban disconnect has led us to a situation where people either can't or won't accept that any well-managed mammal population will have surplus males, and good management requires you to remove some - done selectively with a high-powered rifle, which is both humane and essential for the wlefare of the species.
Whether culled by a guide or by a sportsman led by a guide, there is irrefutable evidence that the best managed deer populations in this country lie in the hands of estates and owners that exercise some of the basic principles discussed above.
I wish each and every one of you a prosperous, happy and successful 2020 and an opportunity to showcase what we do and the love we have for the natural world.