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Submission on review of Deer management on Mar Lodge Estate

08-01-2012

Sir Kenneth Calman,

Chairman,

The National Trust for Scotland
Hermiston Quay,

5 Cultins Road
Edinburgh, EH11 4DF

 

Dear Sir Kenneth,

 

1. Concerns Over Possible Changes to Deer Management on Mar Lodge Estate.

 

We write to express concern over possible changes to the management of deer on Mar Lodge Estate, particularly with regard to red deer culling to achieve regeneration of the Old Caledonian Pine Forest following on statements by yourself in the media regarding revision of the NTS’s policy. Since criticisms of NTS policy on deer management on Mar Lodge Estate have essentially voiced local concerns about the impacts on local economic interests, we write to express what we feel is a wider overriding national and international perspective.

 

2. Pre-eminence of the National and International Interest on Mar Lodge Estate

 

When the NTS took over the management of the estate in 1994, it was foreseen that such opposition was likely to be expressed to new land management approaches and aims by those with deer stalking interests and commitment to an embedded dominance of sporting estates in the area. At that time, Dr Adam Watson and myself, Mr Drennan Watson, wrote to the then NTS chairman, Mr Hamish Leslie Melville. We both had been involved in past issues on the estate, but Dr Watson in particular has had a strong involvement dating back at least forty years. Our letter addressed the basic of “What is the land for?”. We stated, “To a great extent, the answers to this question are pre-set by the designation of much of the land as part of the Cairngorms NNR, and the statement of priorities in land use in the management agreement that is legally binding on heritors. This designation, more than any other in the area, defines the national and international interest, and therefore must be a guiding factor for an organisation like the National Trust, which holds land only in the national interest. Even much of the land outwith the NNR, about half the estate, ought to be fundamentally influenced by this designation, as experience of the protection of mountain areas shows that what happens in the outer zones ultimately decides the fate of the core zone. Also, present boundaries of the NNR within the estate are not biologically meaningful boundaries, but simply reflections of political and land use constraints that should disappear under the Trust’s stewardship.”

 

The replacement of NNR designation by international EU designations under the Habitats Directive strengthens the case of the national and in particular the  international interest and is reflected in the Trust’s own statement in its Mar Lodge Management Plan for 2006-2011 which states that, “The principal and overriding aim is to manage the Land in a sustainable manner, for the benefit of the nation, ensuring the continuing conservation and restoration of its internationally important geology, flora, fauna, wild land quality and archaeological value.”

 

The Trust has made considerable progress towards meeting its aims under this plan and is to be congratulated on such measures such as the removal of many kilometres of bulldozed track and deer fencing, and the wider use of Mar Lodge itself. Further, after much effort and culling of deer populations, significant regeneration of the pine forest is now being achieved.

 

3. Concerns Over the NTS’s Proposed Review of its Deer Management Policies

The Trust proposes to appoint “independent reviewers” of its deer management policies in the light of local criticisms of its current policies. We would voice the following concerns regarding the current approach.

 

3.1 The Focus of the Remit on Deer Management Policies Solely on Those on Mar Lodge Estate is Too Narrow

Red deer are mobile animals indifferent to estate boundaries. Any understanding of their behaviour in terms of a review must take into account the diverse deer management policies and practices of the range of estates such as Mar and Atholl estates over parts of which the deer found on Mar Lodge Estate may also range. Hence the remit of the review should cover the deer management policies of such estates, not just Mar Lodge Estate.

 

3.2 Neighbouring Estates Have Carried Out Actions That Influence the Movement of Deer

Neighbouring estates may complain that deer from their ground move onto Mar Lodge Estate as a result of culling policy on Mar Lodge Estate. However, while mobile within a relatively small herd home range, research at the then Institute of Terrestrial Ecology and elsewhere demonstrated that deer do not readily move in large numbers outwith that home territory to which they are hefted, except under pressures, especially population pressures, within that territory, even onto better grazing or shelter. Similar concerns by estate owners about their deer moving to nearby land where numbers are being reduced have been well tested and rejected, e.g. at Inshriach and Invereshie by NCC/SNH, at Creag Meagaidh by SNH, and at Abernethy by the RSPB. 

 

A cursory oversight of management on surrounding estates around Mar Lodge Estate points to some causes of pressures on red deer, owing to removal of large areas of deer range by deer fences. On Mar and Invercauld Estates, large areas of sheltered low-ground wintering ground have been fenced off, and the deer were driven out before fence erection, loosing extensive grazing. Formal evidence on this was the basis for complaints about this registered with the Deer Commission Scotland some years ago. Dr Robert Moss and later Dr Adam Watson made separate complaints about different related issues, and both eventually became involved in the same investigation by DCS, SNH and FC. However, in the end, the investigation ended with no conclusions or suggestions for firm action. This was a collective failure of coordination between the three state bodies, The Forestry Commission, The then Deer Commission for Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage.  For example, Dr Watson pointed out to Mr Alistair Clunas and others at Mar Lodge that the exclusion of deer on most of the low ground on the Corriemulzie part of Mar Estate, within sight of Mar Lodge Estate and with only a river-width of separation, posed a severe threat to what the NTS were trying to do. It had the potential to wreck their policy or at least confound the issue so much that the NTS would be unable to provide robust evidence on which actions or policies by NTS had been successful or not. The fencing off of a very large part of the Morrone NNR wood compounded matters. More recently a large area above the golf course at Braemar has been deer fenced and ploughed straight up and downhill for tree planting, removing more deer grazing areas. Parallel to that, management policies on Mar Lodge estate have enhanced both cover available and grazing quality for deer.

 

It must also be borne in mind that deer forest owners now market their stalking on the basis of the number of stags that will be shot by clients rather than the experience of an enjoyable hunt of a wary animal and hence with uncertain outcome. The current marketing approach requires a density of stags on the ground that causes a marked reduction in the height of ground vegetation, a shift from heath-dominated to grass-dominated habitat and hence likely damage to the wider biodiversity.

 

Clearly, the deer management policies within Mar Lodge Estate have to be viewed within the context of such management practices, current and historic, on neighbouring estates as well as Mar Lodge Estate and the remit of any review broadened appropriately.

 

3.3 Concerns Over the Possible Reversion to Use of Deer Fencing as a Means of Achieving Forest Regeneration on Mar Lodge Estate

 

We would be firmly opposed to the reintroduction of deer fencing as a means of obtaining forest regeneration on Mar Lodge Estate for a range of reasons. Given the Trust’s national and international responsibility in its management of the estate, and the fact that it also forms a key part of the Cairngorms National Park, the full range of impacts of deer fencing on biodiversity, landscape and outdoor recreation must be taken into account.

 

Research by the Game and Wildlife Conservancyation Trust has shows theirthatdeer fences can have a major impact on capercaillie mortality through collisions with the fences.  and oOther peer-reviewed research shows itsimilar impacts on blackgrouse. Also, within the fences, in the complete absence of the major herbivore, ground vegetation becomes highly atypical.

 

Regarding outdoor recreation, deer fences impede free-ranging access, create unnatural hard lines of regeneration in the landscape and are visually prominent. Much of the land on the estate comes within Bands A and B of the Cairngorms National Park Authority’s Wild Land zones and deer fencing would almost certainly breach their wild land protection policies within these bands. More broadly, for similar reasons, they would infringe at least the spirit of the wild land policies of Scottish Natural Heritage that finances the Trust’s deer management on the estate.

 

The National Trust, on purchase of Mar Lodge Estate, based its crucial deer/natural tree regeneration policy on past sound evidence from other places where the same policy had been followed successfully, such as Inshriach, Creag Meagaidh and Abernethy. This approach is now also succeeding dramatically in Glen Feshie. Also, SNH gave much grant-aid to NTS for years, and based its decision to do so upon the robust evidence from these successful earlier examples. It would require dramatic evidence for a reversal of that policy to be justified, and it would be difficult to see how SNH could support it given the impacts outlined above.

 

3.4 Complaints About the Economic Impacts of NTS’s Deer Management Policies on the Local Economy

We do not support the grounds for these complaints. One concern expressed is that fewer red deer now appear around Braemar where they have been part of the tourist attraction and that this reduction in deer sightings can be attributed to NTS’s deer culling. Dr Adam Watson has observed this situation in some detail and has pointed out obvious reasons why deer have become scarcer in Braemar. Connections between Braemar and the high ground on Morrone have become narrow and fragmented due to deer fencing measures on Morrone in particular both within the National Nature Reserve there and above the golf course. He has also pointed out  that much more of the area in and around the village is now taken by new buildings with fenced gardens, where previously there was open grazing, e.g. up Chapel Brae, behind the games park and the new council houses at Balnellan. Areas like the caravan park and the golf course have also been fenced off while various new car parks in and near the village or newly paved areas have replaced grazable ground. It is more difficult for deer to reach the village and there is less to attract them there. Notwithstanding, deer are still usually visible on the Glenshee road, sometimes in excessive numbers.

 

4. Conclusions

In conclusion, we strongly urge that the National Trust for Scotland should  :-

 

4.1 Ensure it safeguards the national and international interests, for biodiversity, landscape and outdoor recreation, that are the sole reasons for its ownership of Mar Lodge Estate. We would re-emphasize that the Trust’s membership and the public at large expect the Trust to safeguard the national and international interest on Mar Lodge Estate and failure to do so would result in very bad publicity at a time when the Trust is already having to cope with fundamental internal problems.

 

4.2 Base any review of deer management broadly considering deer management on Mar Lodge Estate and the surrounding estates collectively.

 

4.3 Strongly resist pressures to resort to deer fencing to achieve regeneration of the forest and be aware also of the negative impacts of such fencing on wildlife broadly, landscape and outdoor recreation and associated policies on wild land protection.

 

4.4 Insist that all complaints regarding negative economic impacts be based on firm evidence. Loss of income from deer stalking to neighbouring estates, for example, may largely be self-inflicted through such actions as described previously.

 

4.5 Assess and publicise the economic benefits of its management of the estate to the local economy through such things as increased visitor numbers, any increase in employment on the estate and a more commercial use of Mar Lodge itself. These things are often a matter of balance of benefits and disbenefits.

 

4.6 Accord voluntary bodies that reflect a national and international interest, the courtesy of a meeting as was accorded to local interests with yourself, as chairman, along with other relevant NTS staff.

 

Be assured we continue to support and wish the Trust well in its efforts to maintain and restore the national and internationally valued assets of Mar Lodge Estate.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

 

 

R Drennan Watson SDH, Bsc(Hons), DIC, OBE

Brig o Lead,

Forbes,

Alford

Aberdeenshire AB33 8PD

 

CC – Mr Andrew Bennet, NTS, Balain Ho Huntley St, Inverness, IV3 5HR.

         Mr David Frew, Manager, Mar Lodge Estate Office, Braemar, Aberdeenshire

 

 

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