13 December 2020

The Guardian: “‘People think the deer are lovely. Then they learn more about it’: the deer cull dilemma”

No one owns Britain’s red deer. But if you own the land they live on – or graze from, shelter in, pass through – then you assume responsibility for their management. In Scotland, where their numbers have doubled in the past 50 years, such stewardship has come to mean one thing: the annual cull.

And it is in the Highlands where the country’s deer problem can be seen clearly: they gorge themselves upon gardens and crops and vegetable patches, they run blindly into the road as speeding cars approach. The true scale of the problem is hard to gauge, but our best guess is that there might now be as many as 1.5m deer in the UK, at least half of them in Scotland; more than at any time since the last ice age. They roam bare hills in vast herds – in the Cairngorms they have been seen in herds a thousand animals strong, steam rising from their massed ranks. They swarm over the fells like a plague, covering the land like a cloak, picking it clean, moving off as fast as they arrived.

And with the deer comes plague of another sort: cases of Lyme disease, spread by ticks that use the deer as hosts, have rocketed – in some areas reaching epidemic proportions. But perhaps the most pressing concerns are environmental ones. The red deer eat and eat, overwhelming a delicate moorland ecosystem, trampling the ground, shearing the hillside of vegetation and stripping the bark from the trees.

Cal Flyn

While on the subject of Lyme Disease, the environmental imbalance caused by the eradication of larger predators such as wolves has enabled the deer population in several counties to reproduce uncontrollably, which in turn lead to an increase in the number of ticks spreading this disease to humans. A good example how our interventions in complex ecosystems can create side effects that are hard to estimate. It will be interesting to follow the initiatives to reintroduce wolves to their natural habitats, particularly how well locals can coexists with wolves. But it might prove easier in the southern Rockies, where there is plenty of space for them to hunt and spread, than in the crowded regions of UK and Europe.

A red deer stag feeding on young birch trees
A red deer stag feeding on young birch trees. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

His words recall the writing of the environmental historian William Cronon, who wrote in 1995 that far from being the one place on Earth that stands apart from humanity, wilderness is quite profoundly a human creation. To the untrained eye, the wide-open spaces of Assynt appear an untamed, untameable land. To its occupants, they are laced with human history.

Seen through this prism, the question of what is natural and what is unnatural is a tangled one. Is the proliferation of deer the result of human meddling? In all likelihood, yes. Do we then take responsibility for removing the excess, for returning the land to an equilibrium more in line with what went before? What is the better course of action? What is more moral? What is more natural?

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