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15 May 2023

Red deer in Glencoe

Written by Stuart Brooks, Director of Conservation & Policy
A view of Glencoe, with the golden sun shining through the dark clouds at the far end. The road snakes through the bottom of the glen, as towering mountains rise either side.
Glencoe NNR
Director of Conservation & Policy Stuart Brooks explains more about how the Trust is managing this iconic species in Glencoe.

The National Trust for Scotland has recently been criticised by the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) for our approach to managing red deer at Glencoe National Nature Reserve. A poll organised by employees at several neighbouring sporting estates suggests there is considerable anxiety among some members of the local community.

We are not dismissive of these concerns and understand that change can seem threatening, especially where people feel they have little control. In Scotland, red deer are not ‘owned’ by individual estates; and where estates have different objectives reliant on maintaining different levels of deer population, there can be conflict. We all have a duty to try and minimise that.

As a conservation charity, we are committed to stabilising and improving the condition of our estate, and to allowing nature to flourish, as set out in our ten-year strategy. Our actions at Glencoe aim to regenerate native woodland in some areas of the glen and improve habitats generally throughout. Some designated habitats within the National Nature Reserve have been in poor condition for many years and this cannot go on. To address this, we need to reduce the grazing pressure placed on the landscape by unsustainably high red deer numbers, which reached an eight-year peak in spring 2022 with 600 animals counted in the glen.

Many years of detailed habitat monitoring by ourselves and NatureScot within the NNR have provided evidence that natural tree growth is being suppressed by red deer. This is also causing damage to our blanket bog and peatland habitats, a vital carbon store.

Suggestions made in the recent poll that we will reduce deer numbers in Glencoe NNR to zero are simply untrue, and we have made this clear on numerous occasions. We want to bring deer numbers down to a more healthy, sustainable level, but deer remain an important component of biodiversity in the glen and we recognise their value to others too.

Our approach is a response to help tackle the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. It is consistent with Scottish Government policy and follows the recommendations of the independent Deer Management Working Group; we expect updated regulation to follow. It is also fully supported by our local area team at NatureScot. Similar strategies to reduce deer population density are being pursued by other estates in the region too.

A red deer stag is almost silhouetted against the sepia tones of a tall mountain, with a light dusting of snow.
Deer remain an important component of biodiversity in the glen.

We have sought to work in an open and transparent way, explaining our intentions through extensive consultation and listening to the views of our community.

  • The Trust is an active member of the Black Mount Deer Management Group (DMG). We held a dedicated meeting with neighbouring estates, community representatives and NatureScot in August 2022, providing a detailed briefing on our plans and an opportunity to discuss them further. While concerns were expressed by some, these concerns were not shared by all parties present.
  • Our local team attends monthly Glencoe and Glen Etive Community Council public meetings, providing regular updates, the opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns.

The reality is that to make a real difference within the National Nature Reserve, we need to instigate some changes, and these have not been welcomed by the SGA and some of those involved with neighbouring sporting estates. However, we have certainly not encountered universal opposition. Many members of the local community and visitors to the glen have shared their support for our plans to reduce deer numbers to enable nature to thrive across one of Scotland’s most cherished landscapes.

We want to reduce overall deer numbers in the glen and to change their patterns of behaviour. In spring 2022 we counted 600 deer across the NNR, which is around 17 per square kilometre across accessible areas. Numbers fluctuate by year, but the trend is a rising one over the last 20 years; the average sits at approximately 500 deer. It is widely acknowledged that to achieve conditions for natural habitat regeneration we require a deer density of 5 per square kilometre, or less.

Our ecologist and NatureScot advisors envisage an optimum density close to 1–3 deer per square kilometre in the heart of the glen to establish natural tree regeneration, and 3–5 deer per square kilometre to support our dry heath habitats at the eastern end of the estate, which borders neighbouring sporting estates. Such deer densities would equate to a sustainable population of around 120 deer living in the NNR. We believe lowering deer densities will bring a beneficial balance to both habitats and species. This includes the red deer. There may be fewer animals, but they will be healthier.

We appreciate people’s concerns and therefore intend to achieve this reduction over time rather than a one-off cull. We are moving to a year-round, little-and-often approach to deer management, rather than the traditional short stalking seasons for stags (July to October) and hinds (October to February).

This approach follows recommendations by an independent Deer Working Group, supported by the Scottish Government. It will enable us to target the winter, when our land suffers the most from a high deer density, and to influence the grazing habits of our resident deer population throughout the year. We want to discourage deer from dwelling in any one spot for too long, which causes maximum damage to our habitats.

In order to do this, last October we obtained an out-of-season licence for stags and a night-time shooting licence for the short winter days. 228 deer were culled between summer 2022 and spring 2023, when we traditionally complete our annual deer count – around 40% of these were out-of-season stags. These numbers are not exceptionally high when compared to some of our culls over the last 20 years, but they are higher than in the last few years. We are continuing our deer stalking through the spring and summer, focusing on stags while hinds are raising their young, to minimise welfare issues.

Looking up a hillside where a narrow path winds its way. Small trees grow either side of the path.
Deer management approaches at Glencoe draw on our well-documented approaches at Mar Lodge Estate NNR.

While we respect the perspective of those who oppose our approach to deer management, we are confident that a reduced red deer population in Glencoe NNR will not have a negative impact on neighbouring estates or pose a direct threat to their workforce. We draw upon our own well-documented experience at Mar Lodge Estate NNR where, over the last 20 years, we have delivered woodland regeneration alongside our own and neighbours’ sporting objectives.

To achieve the Scottish Government’s objectives for sustainable deer management on a landscape-scale, and to maintain progress as woodland recovery begins to build momentum, it is likely that more (not fewer) experienced stalkers and estate workers will be required across the Highlands in coming years.

As custodians of Glencoe NNR since the 1930s, our charity makes a significant contribution to the Lochaber economy and delivers a range of public benefits.

  • We employ around 32 FTE staff – 18 year-round staff, rising to around 40 individuals between April and October.
  • We inject around £1.5m a year into the economy through our spend on wages, suppliers and local contractors.
  • We care for the iconic Glencoe views and mountain landscapes that attract over a million visitors every year, including maintaining over 60km of footpaths and an active ranger service.
  • We welcome over 250,000 visitors a year to our visitor centre, one of Lochaber’s top visitor attractions.
  • These activities benefit a wide range of Lochaber tourism and hospitality businesses, from accommodation providers to mountain guides and travel trade operators.
  • We offer volunteering opportunities for all ages, learning experiences for local schools, holiday events for local families, and higher education training placements for students from the UHI and other universities.
  • We have worked in partnership with our community and Highland Council on major projects worth over £1.8 million to improve visitor infrastructure in the glen and address the challenges faced as a result of visitor popularity.
Glencoe Visitor Centre was enjoyed by around 250,000 visitors last year.

Deer numbers do need to be managed. We know from experience that this can be done sensitively and safely, and in a way that ensures one of Scotland’s most recognisable species will still be found in one of its most famous landscapes.

We are at an early phase of this new management approach. We will continue to closely monitor how our work is affecting the red deer population, wider habitats and, of course, the local community.

In making these plans to control deer numbers, we are working to carefully balance a range of different factors to deliver multiple public and nature benefits, ensuring Glencoe National Nature Reserve can thrive into the future. A future that, of course, includes people and red deer.