Young deer face slowly starving to death in Scotland's forests thanks to a controversial new government policy to shoot their mothers earlier, the country's gamekeepers have warned.
The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) said it has been contacted anonymously by deer management contractors working for government agency Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) who believe the policy is ethically wrong and contravenes animal welfare.
They said FLS asked contracted deer managers and employed rangers to begin shooting female red and roe deer in the nation’s forests from Tuesday this week, well before the start of the legal season on Oct 21.
The gamekeepers warned the new policy would lead to mothers, who are still heavy with milk, being killed under authorisation and their orphaned youngsters dying through starvation unless they are also shot.
In addition, they said that it was highly any young calves that are shot will be left on hills as game dealers are refusing to take venison carcasses under a certain weight.
— Scottish Gamekeepers (@ScotGamekeepers) September 3, 2020
But the FLS last night insisted that its approach to deer management was "fully compliant legally" and additional culling was required to "protect young trees and halt losses in biodiversity" following a surge in numbers.
The government agency said it had received authorisation "for the culling of female deer during close season", with its approach having previously been supported by the Association of Deer Management Groups.
A spokesman added that rangers and contractors "understand the need to cull young dependents first before any mothers", meaning they should not be left to starve.
The fierce row broke out following the publication of an independent working group report, which warned there could now be approaching a million wild deer in Scotland, nearly double some previous estimates.
It called for a large increase in culling, with the maximum average density of deer capped at 10 per square kilometre, along with a crackdown on uncooperative estates that breach the limit.
But Lea MacNally, a West Highland head stalker from the SGA Deer Group, said: "What is happening here is a national disgrace.
“Those who approached us are conflicted. They are working people. They need money, like all of us, but they respect deer and believe this is wrong.
“Spotted calves, whose mothers are shot, will die slowly from starvation, unless they are also culled. There won’t even be a use for the carcass because the calves are so small. They are not viable."
She questioned how the Scottish Government, "led by the Greens", could ban the unlicensed culling of mountain hares "yet they are permitting young deer to starve to death on their watch."
— Linda Mellor 🦌 (@LindaMellor) September 3, 2020
The SGA said it understood some FLS contractors will refuse to carry out culls of females this month on welfare grounds and that many rangers reacted "in disbelief" at hearing the new policy.
With lots of vegetation available, they do not believe females and young are causing significant damage to forest trees in September.
The gamekeepers also warned the blanket policy covers all of Scotland, rather than being targeted to areas where damage has been identified.
But an FLS spokesman said the agency "proactively monitors culling operations and as such has confidence that when best practice is followed under these legal authorisations then there are no deer welfare issues."
He added: “We fully recognise that deer control is a difficult and very sensitive subject which arouses strong differences of view and some will find the process unacceptable.
"Nonetheless FLS follows Scottish Government policy, has the consent of the licencing authority Nature Scot and follows best practice in implementation."