‘Rewilders’ and farmers lock horns over plan to cull 25,000 deer from Cairngorms National Park

Red deer stag - Wayne Marinovich/iStockphoto
Red deer stag - Wayne Marinovich/iStockphoto

More than 25,000 deer face being culled under controversial plans to “rewild” parts of the UK’s largest national park.

Rural workers have claimed that the proposals, which bosses at Cairngorms National Park say are needed to allow for the restoration of woodland and peatland, will threaten rural jobs and are inhumane.

Shepherds and hill farmers have also raised fears that the push to allow swathes of the park to naturally regenerate, in a bid to tackle climate change, could backfire and is not backed by solid evidence.

A key part of the plan, which is being finalised by the public body which runs the park, is to reduce the number of deer roaming in areas uncovered by woodland to between five to eight animals per square kilometre, around half of current levels.

A report published in 2021 found that there were up to 79,000 deer in total in the national park, which covers a huge area of the Scottish Highlands.

Targets for woodland

There are believed to be up to 56,800 deer living in uncovered areas, a figure that would have to be roughly halved by the end of the decade if the park is to meet its targets for woodland and peatland.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association said that the huge planned culls went beyond nationally agreed targets which had already resulted in thousands of deer in the park being shot.

Alex Hogg, the organisation’s chairman, said deer managers often expressed alarm over a policy of constantly slaughtering “an iconic species, much loved by the people of Scotland”.

He added: “Further culls of up to 50 per cent more again, with a preference against the use of fencing, will unquestionably place more stalking jobs at risk on estates.

“It also has the potential to be self-defeating if the park wants to retain qualified deer managers, as it states. Not everyone agrees with a management style which is becoming normalised across some areas of the park, seemingly with encouragement.”

Red deer stag / male (Cervus elaphus) on moorland in the hills in winter in the Scottish Highlands - Arterra/Getty Images
Red deer stag / male (Cervus elaphus) on moorland in the hills in winter in the Scottish Highlands - Arterra/Getty Images

The proposals for the expansion of deer culling and rewilding are included within a five-year plan published by the national park, which is being finalised and will be sent to SNP ministers for approval later this year.

The woodland expansion and deer management plans divided opinion in a consultation.

Some claimed that large-scale culls of deer were necessary as their numbers have expanded dramatically over recent decades and their natural predators have been wiped out. They often eat or trample saplings, thwarting efforts to grow new trees.

Hold an online protest

However, land managers were set to hold an online protest om Wednesday claiming the move to create 35,000 hectares of new woodland by 2045 threatened their way of life.

“We are protesting because the draft plan will make game businesses economically unviable, leading to job losses in the park,” said Leslie George, a gamekeeper who works in Donside. “People in authority are pushing agendas, not the residents.”

He added: “The plan favours rewilding but no assessment has been done on how rewilding will support red-listed or declining species such as curlew, mountain hares and capercaillie in the park.”

Some estimates suggest there could be one million wild deer in Scotland, compared with roughly 500,000 in 1990. The numbers culled has also risen to about 135,000 per year.

Mike Daniels, policy director for the John Muir Trust, a conservation charity that promotes rewilding, said there was an “urgent need” to reduce deer numbers “radically” in the Cairngorms.

“Across Scotland deer populations are excessively high due to the extermination of their natural predators centuries ago, and a focus on a Victorian model of deer stalking that encourages unnaturally high populations,” he said.

“These unsustainably high numbers have led to environmental degradation of our hills and glens for decades. Our fragments of ancient native woodland can’t regenerate and our fragile peatlands are trampled and eroded. Reduced deer numbers will lead to healthier habitats and healthier deer.”