Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Red Deer and the Monadhliath Mountains – Drew McFarlane-Slack

Last year, Ben Goldsmith’s wrote an article in Reform Scotland titled ‘Time to Rewild the Highlands?’  It has prompted me to reflect on my last seven years as the independent Chair of the Monadhliath Deer Management Group (MDMG). Rewilding is not a term I use to describe our work in the Monadhliaths, but Ben’s comments prompted a rethink. I will describe who we are and what we are doing and argue that our direction of travel is in line with the principles of Rewilding.

The Monadhliath mountains are, for many visitors to the Highlands of Scotland, a rather remote and untravelled land. They contain, however, the largest and arguably most successful modern Deer Management project in the whole of the UK.

The MDMG was formed in the 1960s. It comprises of over 40 private Estates including one owned by the Scottish Government. Its boundaries stretch from Spean Bridge in Lochaber to Tomatin near Inverness and from Fort Augustus in the West to Kincraig, near Aviemore in the East. It includes around 175,000 hectares of land. Some of the owners have long histories of continuing stewardship going back to the 1800s, some are relatively new to the rights and responsibilities that come with estate ownership and management.

The group’s initial aim was to increase the Red Deer population in the Monadhliaths. At that time most estates wanted to grow the number of stags available for sport as this was, and still is, an important element of their business.  An increase in shooting of marauding stags on low lying farmland crops was the problem, so the owners decided to take action to secure their stag numbers for the future.

Their immediate decision was to erect a deer fence separating the high ground from the vulnerable farmland, hence protecting both the farming and shooting interests. It was no mean feat, stretching along a 175-mile perimeter and over the years it has proved difficult to maintain.

By the late 1990s the Red Deer population within the fence had grown beyond what was required. Several of the larger estates began to increase their culls.  The motivations were different. Some wanted to improve grouse populations for sport, while others were keen to restore habitats by natural regeneration of woodlands. This diversity created tensions within the DMG.

In addition, the EU Natura 2000 Directive had led to discussions with Scottish Natural Heritage, (now NatureScot) about measures, including land management plans and incentives which could be put in place to encourage owners to operate their estates in sympathy with nature conservation objectives and in a more collaborative manner between private and public interests.

Scottish Natural Heritage also had powers to impose sanctions to reduce Deer numbers with the purpose of improving degraded peatland to a ‘favourable condition’.

The members of the DMG and NatureScot argued, peacefully, about how to proceed and after much discussion, it was agreed to resolve the matter by producing a 10-year Strategic Deer Management Plan (SDMP).

With the support of an external team of specialists (StrathCaulidh Ltd), the details of the SDMP were agreed over a two-year period, which included face to face discussions with each estate member. In 2015 at its Annual General Meeting, the majority of MDMG members approved its implementation.

Its principal objective was to halve the number of Red Deer inside the fence within the first three years by increasing the hind cull and thereafter implement maintenance culls. This strategy was based on research into Red Deer which began on the Island of Rum in the early 1950s and continues today. It allowed relatively more stags to be available to estates for their sporting businesses during the cull as the overall herd size reduced and fecundity increased.

We are now in year seven of that plan and about to begin the process of mapping our next 10 years. I took over the Chairmanship of the project in 2015 from Jamie Williamson of Alvie and Dalraddy Estates, who remains part of the Executive Group. Jamie had helped drive the change despite his well-founded scepticism about government intervention in private land management. A generation earlier, his father had been encouraged to drain the same peatland he is now rewetting and restoring.

Our aims and objectives translated into the following actions.

  • Providing sufficient stags for estates’ sporting requirements while maintaining the herd at a sustainable level. This helps existing businesses operate with some expectation of success while ensuring they play their part in meeting Scotland’s climate and biodiversity targets. Importantly we believe that our SDMP is aligned with the thrust of the Scottish Government’s Deer Working Group (DWG) final report in 2020.
  • Encourage a rapid increase in new woodland planting, both native and commercial, and improve the condition of existing native woodlands. This objective recognises the role of both open range and woodland deer management as we move forward, and the equally important role strategic fencing will play in the management of deer to meet public policy objectives, while providing economic activity and employment in fragile rural areas. Currently our members’ existing new woodland plans exceed our expected target.
  • Restore to good condition degraded and drained peatland within the Monadhliaths. In the last 5 years with the support of NatureScot’s Peatland Action team, 14 estates in the MDMG have collaborated to restore peatland. We identified local contractors able to carry out this complicated work and encouraged them to invest in staff training and new equipment. At this point in early January 2022 our project, managed by Strath Caulidh Ltd., has successfully completed 5,000ha of restoration works, the largest and most successful private sector peatland restoration to date in Scotland.

These achievements are due to the foresight of our membership, forward-thinking private estate owners who collectively as members of MDMG supported our SDMP, which gave us the authority to carry out the actions outlined. After this reflection, I am content that our members got it right in 2015. Through active management the MDMG is delivering, in spades, the ambitions of rewilding outlined by Ben Goldsmith creating meaningful landscape-scale change while retaining the glory of the majestic Monadhliath Mountains and Deer in their natural balance with that landscape.

Drew McFarlane-Slack MBE is Chairman of the Monadhliath Deer Management Group