Recently, OneKind and John Muir Trust ran a joint workshop to foster a detailed discussion on introducing the 7 principles for ethical wildlife control for deer ‘management’ in Scotland.

We have been promoting these principles for several years, and the possibility that they could be introduced in Scotland is now being considered more widely, including in a recent parliamentary debate.

Until now, consideration of the issue has been largely theoretical, but to see the principles put into action it is essential that the people involved in management are at the heart of decision making and implementation. Their knowledge will be vital for identifying areas where the principles are not yet being met and developing a plan to change that, and the adoption of the principles will rely on them. The aim of this workshop was to bring key people together and begin the process of moving from theoretical to practical.

Representatives of the Scottish Government and its land management and landowning agencies, and several large land-owning conservation organisations, gathered in Edinburgh for a day of discussion. Together, these bodies undertake much of the deer management in Scotland. Animal welfare experts also attended, including one of the authors of the 7 principles.

Deer management has been subject to a history of increasing regulation and scrutiny and is therefore potentially closer to meeting the 7 principles than other wildlife management, making it a good candidate for the first application of them. But there are still many questions about the practicalities of implementation and the changes needed, and we probed these as the day progressed.

Discussing the details

Red deer

The first principle requires human behaviour change, ideally to address the root cause of the problem. This is difficult with deer as the root cause is a lack of natural predators, which has led to a very high deer population and associated habitat damage. Currently, shooting deer is necessary to control population numbers. We discussed some aspects of human behaviour change that affect how management is carried out, such as how to discourage the feeding of peri-urban deer and how to encourage mindset shifts.

The principles require actions to be justified by evidence, and to be planned and monitored. Although this is largely practised in deer management, challenges around a lack of population data, determining what constitutes ‘substantial’ harm (‘damage’ and ‘significant damage’ to agriculture or the environment in deer legislation terms), and differing objectives between neighbouring landowners were discussed.

There are genuine welfare concerns if no control of deer is carried out, due to unnaturally high populations which result in winter starvation, road traffic accidents, and chronic poor nutrition. Welfare concerns associated with shooting include the competency of the shooter, and the potential for orphaning young deer (which is largely offset by close seasons). While standards are generally high, they are currently voluntary.

The lack of an exit plan was discussed; currently there is no long-term strategy that doesn’t involve continued shooting of deer. The conversation also touched on communication with the public, financial costs related to the changes discussed, the lack of an exit plan, and whether the principles should be put in place by individual landowners, regionally or nationally.

Next steps

This workshop was an important first step towards enacting these principles in Scotland, and we thank everyone who attended for sharing their knowledge and views. Such collaboration is a vital part of improving the lives of wild animals. There was an interest amongst attendees to continue working together on this, and we will be planning next steps in the weeks and months to come.