Considering the ragged state of Scottish forests1, many people point the finger at deer2-3. While human activity and overharvest shrunk Scotland’s forest cover, deer have prevented much of it from recovering4. The last British wolf was killed in the 17th century4, and since then deer have lacked natural predators, only being eaten as venison. With populations no longer kept in check, their numbers have exploded5, and our forests are feeling the impact.
Deer are flexible herbivores who eat all kinds of vegetation, and lots of deer need lots of food. Deer stop forests from regenerating because they eat the youngest shoots, which can’t then mature into adult trees tough enough to protect themselves. With few deer, enough seedlings escape to continue the forest, but with too many deer almost every shoot is eaten. The future of Scottish forests lies in deer control, and stalking alone isn’t enough.
The least intensively managed way to control deer, and invigorate our forests, would be to rectify the mistakes of medieval hunters and reintroduce our large predators. One predator which could be reintroduced to current forests is the lynx, and the Lynx UK Trust have developed a proposal for exactly that6.
They plan to release and monitor twelve adult lynx, to see whether the environmental effects are what we expect. The plan has been opposed by farmers, who worry about lynx predating livestock, as happens in Norway, but this is largely due to negligent Norwegian shepherds grazing sheep in the forest7, banned under UK farming subsidy.
(Photo: Lynx UK Trust)
Lynx predate mostly on roe deer, one of the Scotland’s most common species5, but also take fallow and sika. Sika deer are non-native and particularly hard to stalk as they prefer particularly dense woodland. Only red deer are too large for lynx, but these are the most sought-after for meat and stalking, so can be viably controlled otherwise until larger predators are reintroduced.
If lynx reintroduction is successful in the UK, it paves the way for other reintroductions. With these, we may eventually attain a self-regulating ecosystem containing some aspect of the rich flora and fauna our ancestors cleared centuries ago. Many organisations are working towards this in Scotland, for more information ‘Rewilding Britain’ (http://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/) and ‘Trees For Life’ (http://treesforlife.org.uk/) are two excellent places to start.
- Rudel, T. K., Coomes, O. T., Moran, E., Achard, F., Angelsen, A., Xu, J., & Lambin, E. (2005). Forest transitions: towards a global understanding of land use change. Global environmental change, 15(1), 23-31.
- Putman, R. J. (1996). Ungulates in temperate forest ecosystems: perspectives and recommendations for future research. Forest Ecology and Management, 88(1), 205-214.
- Côté, S. D., Rooney, T. P., Tremblay, J. P., Dussault, C., & Waller, D. M. (2004). Ecological impacts of deer overabundance. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 113-147.
- Rackham, O. (1986). The History of the Countryside. JM Dent and Sons, London.
- Edwards, T., & Kenyon, W. (2013) SPICe Briefing: Wild Deer in Scotland. Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh.
- Eagle, A., & Chance, C. (2015) Lynx UK Trust’s Proposal for a trial reintroduction. Launceston, Cornwall: Lynx UK Trust.
- Odden, J., Linnell, J. D., Moa, P. F., Herfindal, I., Kvam, T., & Andersen, R. (2002). Lynx depredation on domestic sheep in Norway. The Journal of wildlife management, 98-105.