Edinburgh (UK), correspondence
Bottles of whiskey, pillows, cups and boxes of biscuits … The deer, the symbol of Scotland, is present on all the objects traditionally associated with the country. Until the arrival of Covid-19, thousands of tourists flocked to each year to watch it frolic on the plains of the highlands. This majestic animal has nevertheless become an ecological pest for the country in a few decades. Today, almost a million animals roam freely in the Scottish countryside. A figure ten to a hundred times greater than in any European country.
But deer devour the young shoots on trees and tear the bark of those who have reached adulthood, making them more vulnerable to disease. “ In the rest of Europe, forest rejuvenation occurs naturally. With us, we have to set up fences almost two meters high or protect the trunks with plastic pipes »sugar Mike Daniels, fromNGO environment John Muir Trust.
In addition to forest areas, deer are also accused of destroying peat areas, these wetlands bind carbon and therefore represent a key element in the fight against climate change. Deer herds are also responsible for the spread of Lyme disease  and lead to many traffic accidents. The number of collisions caused by deer can actually increase to almost 14,000 a year.
- The red deer, the Scottish symbol, can spread in the absence of natural predators. CC BY–HER 4.0 / Andrewmckie / Wikimedia Commons
How did we get here ? We must return to the reign of Queen Victoria. In the middle of XIX. Century, the British monarch established the tradition of hunting deer in the wild forests of Scotland. His court imitated him and monopolized vast tracts of land in order to introduce deer there, expelling many peasants in the process.
Later, at the end of 1. World War I, many trees were planted industrially to obtain structural timber. These cultivated forests constitute artificial shelters where deer reproduce, especially as their natural predators, wolves, lynx and bears, have gradually disappeared from the area. However, despite warning signs from experts, no measures have been taken to stem the explosion of their population. After World War II, there were 100,000 red deer, ten times fewer than today.
“ It is us, the environmentalists, who demand that we kill more animals »
Faced with this troubling situation, it has NGO of environmental protection requires a more massive slaughter of deer. A paradoxical situation. “ The Woodland Trust Scotland, the National Trust for Scotland, the Scottish Wildlife Trust or even Trees for Life: it is us, environmentalists who are asking for more animals to be killed », recognizes Mike Daniels. At present, almost 100,000 deer are slaughtered every year, or 10 % of the total workforce. However, this specialist in local fauna believes that it should reach at least 16 % of deer killed to preserve biodiversity.
- Deer in Glen Etive, Scotland. The overpopulation of deer damages the forests on which they themselves depend. CC BY–HER 3.0 / Paul Hermans / Wikimedia Commons
Forestry and Land Scotland, the body that manages Scottish state and forests, has heard their arguments. Last December, the state government announced it would slaughter 150,000 deer over five years, slightly more than in previous years. “ Their concentrations in certain areas are detrimental to the creation of forests, the protection of nature, the environments and habitats on which they and many other species depend. »justified the organization.
An effort praised by environmentalists. However, the Scottish State has only 9 % of the territory. Country-specifically, the overwhelming majority of the land is actually in the hands of private owners, who are responsible for taking care of the felling. However, many are reluctant to increase the number of deer killed annually. And with good reason, as the latter gives them a substantial income. Wealthy tourists are thus ready to pay small fortunes to hunt deer in the Scottish mountains.
In the northwestern part of the country, Julien, a French foreigner, takes up with his companion a property of several thousand hectares. Each year, both tourists offer the opportunity to come and kill a deer for 500 pounds, or about 600 euros. Before Covid-19, the sale of the carcass to butchers and restaurants could also bring in 100 pounds (120 euros). According to the latest figures, which date from 2016, the hunting industry generates almost 15 million pounds each year (20 million euros). It also guarantees many jobs in the local communities, its defenders claim.
“ You do not get rich by hunting deer, you have deer on your property because you are rich »
But according to Mike Daniels, the economic argument is flawed. “ You do not get rich by hunting deer, you have deer on your property because you are rich. Hunting is both a lifestyle and a social marker. And therefore the owners feel threatened. » In fact, a report shows that hunting spending in the private sector in 2016 was £ 36 million, almost double the revenue generated.
As for the jobs created by hunting, the naturalist is also skeptical. “ Data show that the number of jobs for deer hunting pales in comparison to those generated by environmental protection. » According to the John Muir Trust, the hunting industry is the source of 716 jobs spread over the 26,000 square kilometers of private land. That NGOwho nevertheless manage a territory ten times smaller would be carriers of 736 jobs.
Faced with such a picture, why did the government not intervene before? ? “ This is because everything was decided in London for a long time, but the parliamentarians were the same ones who owned land in Scotland. », explains Mike Daniels. Since then, the situation has changed a bit. In 1999, Scotland got its own Parliament. But here, too, the reforms implemented have been reluctant. “ Nobody wants to alienate this part of the population, let alone in connection with a new referendum on independence »explains the naturalist.
Behind a biodiversity issue therefore hides an explosive political issue. Julien and his partner know it well. He is a former ecology student and is in favor of greater felling and replanting of the soil. But its neighbors, more traditional, are not of the same opinion. “ We do not talk about it with them, we do not want to offend people »he confides.
- In some areas, landowners now have to commit to killing a certain number of deer each year. CC BY 2.0 / Caroline Legg / Flickr via Wikimedia Commons
In order not to antagonize these powerful landowners, the Scottish Government has therefore chosen the gentle method: to encourage rather than to force. Thus, in most of the country, it is only on a voluntary basis that the game wardens take care of the deer killing. Are they all terribly bourgeois resistant to change ? Nature Scot, the government agency responsible for the protection of fauna and flora, qualifies this statement slightly: “ Some are defensive, but many are also very accommodating. For ten years, we have seen more and more owners monitoring the deer’s natural habitats to try to see to what extent they are affected by their spread. »explains Holly Deary, who is in charge of wildlife.
However, in certain critical regions, such as the one where Julien lives, the government has sharpened its tone. Landowners have now for three years had to commit to killing a certain number of deer each year. The amount of the fine in case of refusal amounts to tens of thousands of pounds. Admittedly, there is no one who verifies that the owners’ obligations are met. But symbolically, a step has been taken that may soon extend to the entire country.
Just before the May 2021 election, the government approved the results of an expert report recommending tougher measures against killing. Elected in May 2021, the new Executive Board reiterated its desire to strengthen legislation during its term. Optimists, the NGO just waiting for a bill.