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Red deer stocks in the Highlands of Scotland

A drastic culling of deer may not be the best strategy to arrest erosion of heather cover.


Grazing by hill sheep and red deer prevents the regeneration of woodland in many parts of the Scottish Highlands and has also led to extensive loss of heather cover1,2,3. Conservation bodies claim that there has been a rapid rise in Highland deer numbers caused by inadequate management and that these need to be drastically reduced4. Here we show that the recent increase in red deer stocks has probably been overestimated and suggest that the gradual rise in numbers since 1970 may be a consequence of a reduction in sheep stocks and of changes in winter weather, rather than of a reduction in culling rate. Although there would be environmental benefits in reducing deer numbers, there is an equal need to reduce the numbers of hill sheep in many parts of the Highlands.

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Figure 1: Estimates of changes in red deer populations in the Scottish Highlands since 1960.


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Correspondence to T. H. Clutton-Brock.

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Competing interests

Though the authors have no direct financial interest in deer management, in the course of their research they have received financial or logistic support from several bodies with interests in deer management (including the British Deer Society, the Highlands and Islands Development Board, the Deer Commission (Scotland), Scottish Natural Heritage and the Macauley Institute, as well as from two private estates). These bodies have diverse views on problems of deer management and have in no case sought to influence the authors’ position on the issues discussed in this paper.

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Clutton-Brock, T., Coulson, T. & Milner, J. Red deer stocks in the Highlands of Scotland. Nature 429, 261–262 (2004).

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