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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Deer Management, Crofting Law Reform, Decision Time, Ship-to-ship Oil Transfers (Cromarty and Moray Firths)


Contents


Deer Management

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-05351, in the name of Graeme Dey, on behalf of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, on the “Report on Deer Management in Scotland: Report to the Scottish Government from Scottish Natural Heritage 2016, 5th Report (Session 5)”. I call Graeme Dey to speak to and move the motion on behalf of the committee.

14:14  

Graeme Dey (Angus South) (SNP)

The report that we are considering this afternoon is the result of extensive committee scrutiny of SNH’s report on deer management, which the session 4 Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, as part of its work on the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, asked the Government to produce no later than the end of 2016.

We thank everyone—stakeholders, clerks, the Scottish Parliament information centre and the independent experts that we heard from—for assisting us in the process.

It is fair to say that the topic of deer management provokes strong views; it is also fair to say that so too did SNH’s report. The committee’s task was to sift through the diverse opinions being offered on the content, to consider the evidence and to come to a view as to whether the progress made thus far represented the step change required, or whether that would in any case be delivered were the situation left to continue as it was. Although we recognised that considerable progress had been made in some areas of the country, our unanimous conclusion was that that progress did not and would not represent a step change.

Those members of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee who also served on the RACCE Committee in session 4 had a strong sense of déjà vu while listening to the evidence from some deer management interests. They said that it was too early to judge and that they had not had enough time. That was exactly what the RACCE Committee, on which Angus MacDonald, Claudia Beamish and I served, was told about the deer code back in 2014—that the code had only been introduced in 2012 and that we needed to give it time to see the positive impact.

Biodiversity targets have to be met—and soon. We can no longer proceed with “Mañana” as the mantra. In the upland context, many deer management groups still do not have action plans that adequately address the public interest and will result in positive outcomes for the natural heritage. I will come to the lowland context in due course.

As convener of the ECCLR Committee, I will lay out the series of recommendations that we have made to the Government. The committee has come at the topic from two directions. First, we have identified specific measures that should be implemented by the Government. Secondly, we have suggested that the Government might convene a short-life working group to consider other aspects. The group should call on a range of expertise and, although it should involve deer management interests, it should be chaired independently of those interests and of SNH.

I will deal with those other aspects in order. The committee recommends that the powers under section 80 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 are brought into immediate use and effect and deployed as required. Although we recognise that significant challenges remain around deer management in lowland Scotland, we are looking for that to be addressed as a matter of priority.

We are calling for a strategic approach to managing deer numbers and impacts. SNH should be responsible for determining cull levels in the public interest, deer management groups should carry out deer counts using a clear and agreed methodology in their area on no more than a five-year cycle and return planned deer cull details to SNH, while the Scottish Government, through relevant agencies and local authorities, should undertake deer counts in areas not covered by a DMG.

Sitting alongside that work, the close season for stags should be reviewed with the aim of ensuring that such restrictions on shooting promote rather than hinder effective deer management from ecological and crop protection perspectives. Access to such data will, over time, identify trends on densities and inform appropriate culling levels based upon impacts at a local level. That will allow for local flexibility, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

There is a need for much greater clarity on public objectives and their relative importance should be set against private objectives at a local level and in each DMG area. Appropriate densities could then be set and both the densities and impacts monitored.

The committee is further of the view that the current powers—namely sections 7 and 8 of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996—are inadequate. As the SNH report illustrates, section 7 agreements are failing to deliver. At the time of the report, 11 such agreements were in place. Deer density targets had been met in only six; habitat targets had been met in just three and partially met in two others.

SNH’s failure to use section 8 powers is seen by many as being down to a fear that their use would be open to challenge. The committee recommends that the Government takes urgent action to devise alternative measures and simple provisions that lead to action to protect and to restore habitats and sites impacted by deer. An effective back-stop power fit for purpose is needed.

We recommend that the Government commissions with similar urgency an analysis of incentives and their use in supporting deer management in the public interest. We were also unanimously of the view that an action plan must be prepared to deliver—as the Scottish Gamekeepers Association has called for—a publicly funded network of deer larders across mainland and island Scotland to support greater opportunities for participation in deer culling.

The committee has offered its thoughts on Scottish Natural Heritage’s performance on deer management. We are of the view that SNH has not provided the leadership that might have been expected and there has been a failure to adequately set expectations for deer management in Scotland.

SNH appears to have been unable or unwilling to enforce the legislation to secure the natural heritage interests. Further, we felt that knowledge and data gaps should have been addressed at an earlier stage by the commissioning of work in time to consider and incorporate the findings into the report. That said, the committee is concerned that SNH may not have the capacity to fully deliver all its duties, including deer management, without additional resources.

I turn to the proposal for a short-life working group. When taking evidence, we were struck by the range of expertise and thinking on deer management. We ask for that to be tapped into, to identify how best to deliver the actions that we have called for. That is not about kicking things into the long grass—far from it. We need to bring people to the table to work with a clear remit and to a tight timeframe to provide the Government with practical advice on the way forward for deer management in Scotland. The working group should report back no later than early autumn 2017.

Time constraints prevent me from going into the full detail of the suggested remit, but I will expand on two issues. One of the most striking aspects of the evidence that we received on lowland management was just how little had changed from the RACCE Committee inquiry of 2013-14. By way of example, despite those issues having been flagged up in the previous parliamentary session, and despite SNH advising that a range of work was under way, just one additional lowland deer group had been established in the intervening period. It was acknowledged in the evidence-gathering process that in large areas of lowland Scotland there was no collaborative approach, a lack of data—the local authority performance in that regard was patchy—and there was no model, or mix of models, of deer management to be rolled out. We also learned that the Lowland Deer Network Scotland had not consulted its individual member groups before making its submission to the committee. Richard Playfair of the LDNS told us:

“I would like to think that we promote their views, but we do not necessarily know what their views are at any given time.”—[Official Report, Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, 13 December 2016; c 9.]

That admission seems indicative of an organisation that is, perhaps, not functioning as effectively as it might.

We call on the Government to do three things, albeit with input from a short-life working group: first, to look at piloting a variety of new approaches, taking account of best practice examples; secondly, to review the approach to involving local authorities in lowland deer management, exploring one that encourages rather than requires their involvement; and thirdly, to examine the role and operation of the Lowland Deer Network, consider whether it is sufficiently independent of the agencies that fund its work, and determine what role it should play in promoting deer management in the future.

With regard to fencing, the committee is concerned that the costs are considerable and will continue to rise as existing fencing deteriorates. It was unclear to us whether those significant costs to the public purse are justified, when set against the possible benefits of increased culling. Our opinion is that a rebalancing may be required, but we seek an SNH examination of the evidence base around that issue to inform such a decision.

That is an overview of the report. I look forward to hearing from members of the committee and others as they explore its contents further.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee’s 5th Report, 2017 (Session 5), Report on Deer Management in Scotland: Report to the Scottish Government from Scottish Natural Heritage 2016 (SP Paper 117).

The Presiding Officer

I advise members, particularly front-bench speakers, that we have plenty of time in hand, so members may feel free to take an extra minute if they wish. I call Roseanna Cunningham to open on behalf of the Government.

14:23  

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (Roseanna Cunningham)

Thank you, Presiding Officer—I think.

In my previous incarnation in this job, between 2009 and 2011, I spent a lot of time in discussions about deer management with colleagues, environmental non-governmental organisations and land management organisations. There are still a few members left who might remember that on-going debate. For much of that time, I was preparing for and then taking through the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Bill, which of course became an act—a piece of legislation that, among other things, set out to address the shortcomings of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996.

It is with a slight sense of déjà vu and with some disappointment that I return to the issue again, with many of the same claims and counterclaims still being made about how deer are managed in Scotland, the economic benefits that they provide and their impact on the natural environment.

My first point is that the situation is not exactly the same as it was in 2011. There has been considerable progress, but that progress has been patchy. Many of the DMGs have done well, but some have done very little, especially when assessed against public interest criteria. There are DMGs that are newly established, and perhaps it is not realistic to expect to see much progress from them in a narrow timeframe, but in other areas there are no collaborative deer management arrangements in place at all.

In its report, SNH notes that, despite the progress that has been made, grazing by deer and other herbivores is a major cause of “unfavourable condition” status in protected areas, and deer grazing is a major factor in limiting the recovery of native woodlands. The crucial point is that, if deer densities were lower across much of Scotland, the economic benefits could be retained while, at the same time, a reduction could be brought about in the costs associated with deer-vehicle collisions and in the impacts on forestry.

The Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee has now produced its comprehensive and detailed look at the issues associated with deer management. I am very grateful to the committee and its staff for the thorough job that they have done in examining the issues. I am grateful also to the stakeholders and others who gave written and oral evidence in support of the committee’s work. It is significant that the committee has come to broadly the same conclusion in its report about the present position of deer management in Scotland as SNH did in its report—that, although progress has undoubtedly been made, much more remains to be done.

Where the reports diverge is on what needs to be done. To be fair to SNH, I should say that we did not ask it to come up with solutions in its report. The report was commissioned to answer a specific question that was agreed with the then Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee in 2013. That question was whether, by the end of 2016, the present voluntary system had delivered a step change in effective deer management. I think that that was the discussion that Graeme Dey referred to in his opening comments.

As such, the SNH report is a snapshot of deer management in mid-2016. It is a comprehensive snapshot, however, that brings together much new information and analysis, focusing in the main on the impacts of deer management on the public interest and bringing together information on the socioeconomic impacts. It is fair to say that the conclusion of the SNH report is that the step change had not been delivered by the deer sector and that there was a lack of confidence on the part of SNH that the present track would deliver that change, particularly with regard to the achievement of the 2020 biodiversity targets.

As we know, the committee’s report goes further in calling for changes that include new legislative back-stop powers, new powers for SNH to set cull targets, consideration of a new statutory duty to manage deer and the establishment of an independent short-term working group to provide advice on those issues. Nevertheless, I know that there are other views and proposals among stakeholders—for example, proposals to set a Scotland-wide deer density target and for a new management standard for deer—and we are still very much in listening mode.

I have found the SNH report and the committee’s work very helpful in formulating my thinking, to which I am confident that the debate will also contribute. Although I am not giving a formal Government response today, I can say that I am determined that we will take the necessary steps to address the concerns that have been expressed. I do not want to think that, in another five years, we will be having the same debate again. However, we will seek solutions that recognise the realities of the world in which we live. There are no large sums of public money to hand out, and the impact of Brexit on our own legislative timetable is still being assessed. Balance will be the key—the balance to be struck between maintaining economic benefits and protecting and restoring the natural environment and the continuing desire to build and carry consensual support from all those with an interest in managing deer.

14:28  

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

I am delighted to open the debate on behalf of my party because I have a real interest in the subject, having been a main board member of SNH for six years—although, admittedly, that was some years ago.

Deer management continues to be a contentious issue—it certainly was in my time, and I am sure that it will remain so going forward. The most fundamental challenge facing us is the lack of up-to-date population estimates for all species of deer. I welcome the fact that SNH is working with the James Hutton Institute to provide numbers across the red deer’s main open-hill ground range, but the lack of systematic monitoring of deer in lowland areas and in woodland means that we have only limited information on roe, sika and fallow deer.

That said, we do have some estimates of those numbers. We know that numbers of red deer increased markedly from about 1960 and reached a peak in 2000. Since then, numbers have stabilised. Based on the estimates that we have, it seems that deer density in 2016 was around 12.5 deer per km2, which is more than enough to contribute to damage to natural features. If we compare that with the estimated figure of eight deer per km2 in 1960, there would appear to be a need to reduce numbers. However, out of the 14 deer management groups that were scrutinised, only five had culled to a level that was needed to reduce the population.

Grazing—by not just deer but other herbivores—is a major cause of the unfavourable condition of natural features in protected areas. We also know that more than a third of native woodlands are in an unsatisfactory condition because of the impact of herbivores, and that they limit woodland condition recovery and natural regeneration.

In addition to the environmental benefit, good deer management has clear economic benefits. Given that more than 700 full-time jobs are associated with deer management, we should acknowledge the importance of that work in contributing to the viability of our rural economy. Deer stalking supports increasing levels of tourism and, of course, the sale of venison. In that regard, I support and welcome the call for public funding for the establishment of a network of deer larders across Scotland.

My experience in this field comes from my work with SNH rather than from work in the countryside with deer management groups, but I have concerns about DMGs. They are having mixed success on the ground, and fewer than 50 per cent of them have adequately identified actions in their plans to manage the impact of herbivores on designated features. I am glad that improvements have been made in quantifying and auditing resources through the planning process. That said, I still have concerns about the success in linking planning with implementation through identifying the specific steps that are necessary to deal with management issues.

However, as Scottish Land & Estates has pointed out, it is right that we give DMGs the time to deliver further improvements. We must also recognise that two years is far too short a period in which to see real improvements in biodiversity on the ground.

I note the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee’s specific criticism of the lack of a formal structure for lowland deer management and the lack of leadership from SNH on the matter. Although there is some management in the lowland areas on private land through deer stalking, I recognise that that will need to be looked at further to ensure that we are hitting the required targets. The lack of leadership from SNH has quite possibly contributed to the delay in the development of deer management plans, and that is a result of SNH’s failure to be clear about its expectations from the start.

There is undoubtedly more to be done—and some deer management groups need to be encouraged to do much more. However, I welcome the progress of DMGs so far and I hope that we in the Parliament can continue to support their plans as we seek to protect natural features in protected areas. I would argue that we need to give the process more time to bed in and to start showing the results that we all want to see—namely, deer numbers at sustainable levels, healthy animals on the ground, and our natural heritage and biodiversity in better condition.

14:33  

Claudia Beamish (South Scotland) (Lab)

The Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee welcomes the fact that progress has been made in deer management in Scotland in recent years, but it remains a complex issue that involves competing objectives within and across deer management groups, with local communities often having little involvement. Some areas do not have an established deer management group, as we heard from Graeme Dey and Roseanna Cunningham.

According to the forest policy group’s briefing for the debate, the committee’s report is “a timely alarm call.” The briefing also states that our recommendations

“show that the entire regulatory system needs to be re-calibrated to meet the legitimate expectations of society in the 21st Century.”

That is indeed the case. Scotland has battled a growing problem with wild deer for over 150 years, but the issue has developed to damage some of our woodland and to threaten biodiversity, public safety and the welfare of the deer themselves in some instances. Although it would serve us well to remember that deer are wild animals and belong to no one, the issue of shootable stags on properties that manage stalking is one of the reasons why deer management has not been properly addressed in the public interest.

Overfeeding can undermine woodland regeneration efforts and has a broad knock-on effect on important habitats and biodiversity. As we heard from the committee convener, Graeme Dey, Scotland’s handling of deer management will be pivotal for biodiversity improvements for the future, and there will need to be a redoubling of efforts to achieve the Aichi 2020 target. As we heard in committee, the evidence shows that deer in Scotland can be three times smaller than deer in Norway because of environmental conditions and competition for food. It is untenable to continue to allow this public resource to go undermanaged and, in some places, inappropriately managed.

As a member of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee in the previous session of Parliament, I took through deer management amendments to the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, along with Mike Russell. It is encouraging that the deer management parts of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 are now being implemented. It was my amendment to the bill that ensured that the code of practice will be reviewed every three years. Given the variability of performance among deer management groups, that regular monitoring is vital for identifying progress and challenges.

Are those and other efforts enough, however? The Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee has suggested that there should be a statutory duty to comply with the code of practice on deer management—that duty is clearly necessary. The code of practice was brought in as part of the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011, but it has always been voluntary for everyone apart from public bodies. At present, SNH cannot set cull targets; it can only request returns. We need a clear expression of the public interest at the local scale, using tools such as the land use strategy, regional land use partnerships and deer management groups, which should be applying herbivore impact assessments. Once we have seen that expressed spatially and it is publicly available, SNH should set cull targets to accord with the best land use outcomes for a specific area.

In that context, I draw attention to the committee recommendation that is stated in paragraphs 319 and 323 of the report. It is a difficult issue because, as the cabinet secretary said, in straitened times, it is hard to know how some things will be funded and supported going forward. However, it is a very important issue for the whole of Scotland.

Turning to lowland deer management, our committee report states:

“There are significant challenges for deer management in lowland Scotland and the Committee is disappointed that there has been so little progress and in much of lowland Scotland there are no formal collaborative structures”.

It continues:

“This needs to be addressed as a matter of priority.”

Vehicle collisions with deer, the intrusion of deer into suburban areas, fencing costs and culling costs are serious concerns. Without more formal collaboration than the present Lowland Deer Network and without real Scottish Government support for capacity and training for local authority involvement, those challenges will remain intractable.

Changes must also support sustainable deer harvesting. I recently met the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, which is

“building a constructive case for incentivising the public interest in deer management through the development of community larders and the utilisation of the existing local skills base.”

That would support local employment and the marketing of venison to help with food poverty or for high-end purposes, such as Tweed Valley Venison’s Thai fillet of venison recipe.

Mike Daniels of the John Muir Trust has stated:

“These modest reforms proposed by the environment committee offer us a way out of the endless cycle of debate towards a brighter future for our land that would benefit nature, local communities and the entire nation.”

I call on the Scottish Government to set up a working group that is chaired independently, as highlighted by our committee’s convener, in order to help take things forward. However, there are actions that should be happening now. I commend the report to the Scottish Government.

14:39  

Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

I begin by reminding members that I am the parliamentary liaison officer to the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity. I also take this opportunity to thank my fellow MSPs on the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, the clerks to the committee, the witnesses and everyone else who has been involved for their work on the committee’s report.

It is clear from Scottish Natural Heritage’s report that progress has been made on deer management in Scotland in recent years, and that is welcome. As the committee’s report reflects, however, it remains a complex issue. Deer management groups across the country often have competing objectives, and many areas do not have established groups.

In November 2013, Rob Gibson MSP, the then convener of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, said:

“The issue of how we manage our deer populations and their social, economic and environmental impacts can be a controversial one. These issues have also divided some local communities.”

That is still true today, because there are significant differences between the management of deer in the uplands and the lowlands. It is the lowlands that I am concerned about, as particular issues exist there.

Lowland deer management is achieved in a number of ways, ranging from informal arrangements with local deer management groups and landowners and more formal stalking that is leased from larger commercial forestry companies to the 11 formal lowland deer groups. Those variations are a result of the range of species, different behaviours of red and roe deer and differences in patterns of local land ownership. There are also practical challenges in managing deer in lowland settings, where there is far more public interest and indeed more public access.

Increasingly, there is an expectation that deer management should support public benefits. It is also clearly vital to Scotland’s biodiversity strategy and the plans for climate change mitigation through woodland expansion and peatland restoration.

In areas of the lowlands, there has been insufficient progress in ensuring that formal, collaborative structures are in place for deer management. In the south of Scotland, we have reasonable coverage, with deer management groups in south Ayrshire and Wigtownshire, central Galloway, east Dumfries and Galloway, Eskdalemuir and the Borders. However, there are still uncovered areas, which, the committee notes, results in a lack of the information that is necessary to control the environmental impact of grazing deer.

However, as the Association of Deer Management Groups points out in its briefing to members, it is not always correct to assume that, where there is no deer group, no deer management is taking place. There are over 6,000 deer managers in Scotland who are qualified to deer stalking certificate level 1, and many of them will be active in the lowlands in promoting voluntary collaborative management and encouraging engagement from the farming and landowning sectors and local authorities.

As the cabinet secretary pointed out in her evidence to the committee, SNH is not solely responsible for delivering a step change in deer management, and deer management groups and private deer managers must share that responsibility. I am therefore of the opinion that SNH must strive to work collaboratively with the groups. That will involve serious consideration of the evidence-based views that are expressed by deer managers, who often have an excellent understanding of how best to achieve a balance between the environment, employment and deer welfare.

I was pleased to hear SNH confirm at committee that work is under way to highlight areas where it can develop better collaborative structures with the Lowland Deer Network Scotland. A pilot project is under way that is looking at that range of approaches. There are recreational stalkers who want to go out and do more stalking but do not have their own land, and SNH is looking at matching such people with landowners who want deer to be managed. The Forestry Commission, which is a key player in the lowlands, with large landholdings, is a partner in that piece of work, which is due for publication this year.

I hope that SNH will work closely with the Lowland Deer Network Scotland, private deer managers and local groups to move towards a more structured approach in some lowland areas while being mindful that deer impacts are often more important than numbers and should be considered in a local context. We certainly need to consider an organised, structured and professional approach to the management of deer populations that is based on environmental impact and not necessarily on their numbers.

14:44  

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

I welcome the opportunity to take part in today’s debate on deer management. I also welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitment to make improvements, because deer management is not up to the mark. The report on deer management that SNH published in 2016 showed that the present voluntary approach is not sustaining or improving natural heritage.

Wild deer are important to Scotland’s rural economy. They provide us with healthy food and recreational opportunities that bring tourism to the country, and they are integral to Scotland’s ecosystem. However, the ecological impact can be great when deer numbers get too high. Unmanaged deer populations can lead to the suppression of tree and shrub regeneration, which can cause a loss of species diversity. That will ultimately damage Scotland’s natural heritage.

The native woodland survey of Scotland found that more than a third of all native woodlands were in an unsatisfactory condition because of herbivore impacts. Evidence suggests that deer are a major factor in limiting woodland condition recovery. There are also socioeconomic benefits to deer management, as it supports employment, contributes to rural tourism and provides sporting income. There is also the sale of venison.

A major area for improvement must be how we manage lowland deer in the future. I am disappointed that there has been little progress towards proper deer management in much of lowland Scotland. In many lowland areas, there are no formal collaborative structures for deer management, and that has to be addressed urgently.

A number of challenges undoubtedly surround how we improve lowland deer management, some of which are highlighted in the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee’s report. They include the complex land ownership picture; the fact that a collaborative approach is not in place in large areas of the lowlands; patchy local authority performance; having no model of deer management to roll out; and a lack of landowner investment. Although I do not doubt that those challenges are real, they are not barriers that are impossible to overcome.

There seems to have been little improvement since the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee recommended in 2014 that the Scottish Government should address the lack of success in lowland deer management. Since that committee’s report, only one additional deer management group has been established. It is therefore clear that we need to do more.

The ECCLR Committee has recommended that

“the Scottish Government give further support to the piloting of new approaches”;

that there should be a fresh look at the role of local authorities in managing the deer population and the incentives and legislation for that; that how the Lowland Deer Network is working should be explored; and that much better working with the lowland deer management groups should be encouraged. Deer panels are one way of providing considered advice. I welcome the increased local community engagement that those panels can now take part in.

The committee has suggested that the Scottish Government should act to make regulations that give deer panels further functions that relate to community engagement and that SNH should give full consideration to the appointment of deer panels, particularly in lowland Scotland. Such steps could overcome problems in various parts where deer management groups do not exist.

Progress has been extremely slow. It is time for the Scottish Government to take responsibility and implement a lowland deer management strategy that will properly protect Scotland’s ecosystem.

I completely support the ECCLR Committee’s recommendation to the Scottish Government that an independent short-term working group should be established as a matter of urgency to provide clear advice on the way forward for deer management.

The ECCLR Committee has provided the Scottish Government with a thorough and comprehensive report, and it is imperative that the Scottish Government now addresses the issues that are highlighted in it.

I call Angus MacDonald.

14:48  

Is there time in hand, Presiding Officer?

There is plenty of time in hand, Mr MacDonald. Speak at length.

Angus MacDonald

Thank you.

It is fair to say that deer management in Scotland has turned into a long-running saga—not quite one of Icelandic saga proportions, but a long-running one all the same. The arguments about what constitutes effective and sustainable deer management are not new. The passing of legislation to control deer and amendments to that legislation have continued since the Deer (Scotland) Act 1959 came into force, and the issue has so many aspects that it is impossible to cover them all in the debate.

When I served on the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee in the previous parliamentary session, I became acutely aware early on that Parliament and the Government needed to grasp the issue and that drastic improvements to deer management were needed. One frustration of my former colleagues on that committee and of the current members of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee has been SNH’s failure to properly use section 8 powers. I admit that I do not feel comfortable criticising SNH because, as a rule, it does a good job in undoubtedly challenging financial times. However, sometimes it does not do that, which may be because the legislation is lacking. There is a strong argument to suggest that that is the reason for SNH’s reluctance to implement section 8 powers.

In evidence to the committee, SNH admitted:

“we perhaps have not used those powers”

under sections 7 and 8 of the 1996 act

“or pushed the use of those powers as quickly as we might have done. However, our hand has sometimes been stayed by threats that our evidence base is not good enough and that therefore there would be a challenge.”—[Official Report, Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, 24 January 2017; c 61.]

As a result, the

“Committee questions the ‘risk appetite’ of SNH in this respect.”

When Ian Ross, as the chair of SNH, gave evidence to the committee, he admitted that there had been frustration at board level as well as further down the line and that enforcement had not been utilised to its full extent.

There is therefore a strong argument—in fact, it is the committee’s view—that the legislation that aims to protect the natural environment from deer impacts is not fit for purpose. It was clear to the committee that SNH has failed to provide leadership in managing the impact of deer, albeit that that is not entirely the organisation’s fault.

The impact on the environment has been a running sore in the Scottish countryside for decades, if not centuries, and it has caused environmental degradation and high costs to the public purse. Scarce—and soon to be scarcer—Scottish rural development programme funding has been used to erect miles and miles of deer fencing. That money could have been put to other uses. For example, £23.3 million of public sector funding was spent on deer fencing—enough to cover the distance between Scotland and South Africa—between 2003 and 2012. Given that there is an issue with the deterioration of the fencing, which covers huge distances, the SNH report suggests that if public funding was used to replace fences at the end of their operational life, a further £100 million could be required at 2016 prices.

The committee was unclear as to whether the significant cost of fencing to the public purse is justified when it is set against the benefits of increased culling levels. That is why we recommended that SNH should examine the full costs and benefits of different approaches to deer management, based on the available information.

There is no doubt that unsustainable deer numbers are impeding the achievement of Scottish Government targets on biodiversity and climate change mitigation through woodland expansion and peatland restoration. We need urgent action from all parties—SNH, local deer management groups and the Scottish Government, to name but three—as time is of the essence if we are to meet our international commitment to the 2020 Aichi biodiversity targets as well as the targets in the Scottish biodiversity strategy.

It is not just the ECCLR Committee that is frustrated that section 8 remains unused when use of the power might be justified. In evidence to the committee, Simon Pepper of the Forest Policy Group stated:

“The fundamental key to an effective system is whether there is a credible back-up power”

and claimed that we do not

“have a credible back-up power in place.”—[Official Report, Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, 13 December 2016; c 53.]

It is fair to say that other stakeholders held a similar view, to varying degrees.

As a result of the comments that were received about section 8 powers, the committee was firmly of the view that, if new backstop powers are to be introduced, they must be supported by clear direction from the Scottish Government, and SNH must be empowered and resourced to deliver them.

In closing, I will touch on an issue that was raised with me by landowners during my travels in the Hebrides, and which has been raised in the past by lowland deer management groups: the need for more deer larders—to which the convener referred—as well as the refurbishment of existing larders. The committee has recommended that the Scottish Government should prepare an action plan for wider supply chain development for deer carcases and that it should deliver public funding for the establishment of a network of deer larders throughout Scotland, including the islands, to support greater opportunities for taking part in appropriate culling activity.

A good outcome of our committee’s work would be a fit-for-purpose deer larder network across Scotland, and—importantly—the introduction of legislation that allows SNH to ensure that culls that are in the public interest are delivered, ideally without legal challenge.

14:53  

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I welcome this committee debate on the perennial, and often vexed, question of deer management in Scotland. I thank all those who participated in the inquiry, and I highlight the contribution of experienced members who served on the predecessor Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, which took such an important lead on the topic.

Some progress has been made over the years, but the latest SNH report reminds us that we have yet to see a step change in the management of deer populations so that they can exist within the carrying capacity of the ecosystems that they inhabit. Some of the debate among stakeholders on the SNH report was about the accuracy of precise deer counts from helicopters and on foot, but that largely misses the point. The step change that SNH calls for is about meeting the public interest objectives on the ground. Although there are undoubtedly excellent examples of deer management groups that are achieving those objectives in full and profitably, we need to drive progress across the board.

The time for bolder action is now, because many of our important and threatened habitats recover slowly. Failure to take action now, combined with climate change and a dwindling pot of post-Brexit funds for habitat restoration, could tip those habitats over the edge. Peatlands, montane scrub, broadleaved upland woodlands and Caledonian pinewoods are captured by our Aichi biodiversity commitments, but grazing pressure, soil erosion, tree damage and habitat fragmentation are all strongly connected to deer population levels that are simply too high.

That underlines the need to act positively on deer management and to bring into life the national ecological network, on which we recently voted and agreed in the chamber. It would be great if, in closing, the cabinet secretary reflected on the progress towards establishing that network. The fact that fewer than a quarter of DMGs have properly identified the sustainable levels of grazing for their areas demonstrates that the step change has not yet happened, as does the fact that less than half of DMGs have identified practical actions to manage deer impact on habitats that are meant to enjoy protection.

It is clear that SNH’s resources and powers to intervene are not adequate and that a simple and effective compulsory backstop is needed to drive voluntary good practice alongside practical incentives. Alongside that is a case for implementing immediately the section 80 powers under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 to establish DMGs where there are gaps and where more community involvement is required. However, the compulsory backstop needs urgent examination and the starting point should be a short-life working group.

The committee agreed unanimously that a new framework is needed in which SNH determines the cull level that is required to deliver the public interest and DMGs monitor deer levels and submit plans to SNH for discussion and, if required, revision. In addition, the working group needs to consider questions such as the cost to the public purse of fencing and the approach to deer management in the lowlands.

We considered it important for such a group to be tasked with looking further afield at deer management in other countries. There is much to learn, especially from our Nordic neighbours. The evidence that the committee took from Norway was compelling. The approach there focuses on the health of the animal first as an indicator of the health of the ecosystem that sustains it. Lower deer population densities in Norway have resulted in higher carcase weights, greater fecundity and more impressive antlers compared with Scottish deer with similar genetics. It is not surprising that long-term studies of the deer population from Rum have highlighted that for decades. Norway has a live system of management that appears to work well and which has also controlled another major cost to the public purse—that of road accidents.

What do shooters and tourists expect to see in Scotland? Is it herds of emaciated deer sweeping across the moor or the monarch of the glen, resplendent with his 12-point antlers? There have to be economic advantages to putting deer and ecosystem health first.

One of those advantages could come from developing deer larders and supply chains for venison, especially in the lowlands. The lowlands are a gap that points to the need for more extensive networks of gamekeepers and stalkers to gather the data and manage populations. More, not fewer, jobs would help to manage an ecological network across the country.

I look forward to action from the Scottish Government and to the committee returning to pick up the thread of scrutiny when the working group reports.

14:58  

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

Deer management has been a controversial and complex issue ever since I was first elected to Parliament back in 1999. I was a member of the Rural Affairs Committee, and we looked at the issue in our very first parliamentary session. It is interesting that on my return to Parliament for the fifth session, the committee responsible for the issue is now the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee and not the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee—I see the REC Committee convener smiling at that.

There has been a welcome stabilisation in overall deer numbers in the past 10 years, but concentrated excessive deer numbers are still having a significant impact on the environment, and the committee has noted the urgency of addressing the challenge. Scottish Natural Heritage’s report highlights its belief that half of all deer management groups have failed to identify the actions needed to control the activities of deer, so the scale of the problem is huge. Identifying the scale of the problem is a necessary first step before identifying the way forward in solving the problem.

The committee has taken the view that despite the best attempts of SNH and the Association of Deer Management Groups, it cannot be confident that they are capable of delivering the change that is required. The committee calls for a statutory duty of sustainable deer management. It believes that SNH should be responsible for determining cull levels and that deer management groups should carry out effective deer counts and return information on their planned deer culls to SNH, with agencies of the Scottish Government being responsible for that in areas that are not covered by deer management groups.

I find it surprising that at the same time as calling for more involvement from SNH, the committee is severely critical of the organisation for failing to provide the required leadership on deer management. SNH appears to the committee to have been unable or unwilling to enforce the law as it stands to protect our natural environment. Indeed, the committee states in its report:

“The Committee shares the frustration of many that Section 8 remains unused where use of the power might be justified.”

We have heard members say the same thing in the debate. The committee goes on to say that it

“is not convinced the currently available suite of powers are adequate”.

When a committee uses the phrase “not convinced”, we all know that it is diplomatic speak for, “The current legislation is not fit for purpose.” I see that the committee convener is nodding his head.

I am not convinced that new legislation is the answer. Why? SNH recognises that there has not been a detailed assessment of the barriers to improved deer management and confirms that it has not carried out a full analysis of how incentives, for instance, have been taken up or how effective they could be. I suggest that that must be the starting point. Why has no effective assessment been carried out to date? The issue is not recent; it has been years in the making.

Positive reinforcement of good practice is always, in any field, more effective than wielding a big stick. I suggest that the Scottish Government starts by finding out which incentives are effective in improving deer management rather than simply going down the road of saying that we must have more legislation.

We surely want a situation whereby everyone—

Will the member take an intervention?

Yes, of course.

Claudia Beamish

How much more time is needed for those groups that are not getting their act together in the public interest and are not involving communities? Indeed, how much more time is needed for those places where this is just not happening? We are looking back years; do we have to look forward years as well, Mr Rumbles?

I understand the frustration of the member but that is no reason to jump to legislation.

I am not jumping.

Mike Rumbles

I am not saying that the member is jumping to legislation; I am just concerned that the Government could jump to legislation.

I reiterate the point—why have we not looked at what incentives are effective? It is natural in any walk of life, as I have just said—Claudia Beamish is shaking her head. We get far better results from people if we can incentivise them to do something correctly, rather than using the threat of punishment. That might be the difference between the political perspectives in the chamber.

We surely want a situation whereby everyone gains—where land managers gain through incentives, the public gain and our environment gains. At the very least, we should find out which positive incentives to improve deer management would be most effective; I am astonished that that has not already been done.

15:04  

Linda Fabiani (East Kilbride) (SNP)

A few of my colleagues have expressed surprise that I have asked to speak in a deer management debate. However, there is a particular aspect of deer management that I feel has to be addressed—peri-urban deer.

The report and all the discussion refer to lowland deer, but I feel very strongly that peri-urban deer, which is much more specific, have not been well-enough recognised by either SNH or the Lowland Deer Network, or, indeed, in popular opinion. My colleague Gordon MacDonald has just told me that when he moved to Cumbernauld, his father was attacked by a stag, so there you go—who would have thought it? It was not that long ago—he looks a lot older than he is.

Reducing the environmental impact of wild roe deer in the central belt is a real and challenging issue that has not been adequately monitored or managed. Investment, attention and energy have always focused on deer management in the Highlands of Scotland, for very valid reasons, so I welcome the fact that the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee’s report acknowledges some of the issues that need to be addressed. It recognises the rapid increase in wild roe deer numbers in the central belt, which is causing jeopardy to road users and environmental impacts on public and private grounds. Something that a local deer manager said to me has stuck in my mind, which is that of course that is happening, because we are carrying out all sorts of infrastructure projects and building houses but, actually, the deer were there first.

There are particular difficulties in managing the deer on public ground, because the response from local authorities is really patchy. As with so many other agencies, local authorities in the central belt do not recognise the particular issues. The committee is right to say that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work and I was pleased that it recommended setting up a short-term working group. I cannot recommend strongly enough that that working group should include expertise from local urban deer managers with the skills, experience and knowledge to help us to move this agenda forward. SNH trained many recreational deer managers in the central belt to a very high standard, so there is a significant resource in central Scotland that we should use to much better effect to manage deer. We find that deer management is often commissioned from private contractors, rather than from those who have been keeping our roads, streets and towns safe for many years.

I think that I mentioned the South Lanarkshire deer group earlier, which is a group that I have been working with for many years. It is well noted for the standard of its collaboration between deer managers and other partners, and it has been recognised for its contributions to training and the deer code. In fact, the development of other deer groups has been modelled on that group. I do not understand why groups such as that are not routinely included in deer management plans, because it means that their local knowledge and expertise are ignored. Again, that is about a one-size-fits-all approach, which we should not be pursuing.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

It is interesting that there are urban areas in which deer come into conflict with the population, not only on roads but in gardens. Does Linda Fabiani feel that fencing and excluding the deer from those problem areas could play an important part in making sure that we can still see wildlife in urban areas?

Linda Fabiani

While that sounds like quite a good idea, the complexity of deer management in cities, towns and urban settings requires to be looked at a lot more, rather than coming up with instant solutions. That hits at the heart of the problem: we have not really looked at the issues of urban deer management and are still trying to apply solutions that are perhaps better for areas where deer herd, for example, than for areas where there are individual family units of deer, such as there are with the roe deer in the central belt. The SNH report did not demonstrate detailed knowledge and understanding of the very different challenges that exist for peri-urban and urban deer management as opposed to rural deer management.

Urban Scotland is no longer swathed in woodland. We have farms, smallholdings, private land, publicly owned land and housing estates. They need very different solutions and relationships, so the short-term working group is welcome, but we need to ensure that we cover all aspects.

I would like to move on quickly to another aspect, if there is time, Presiding Officer.

There is time in hand. You rarely speak, so I will be generous.

Linda Fabiani

Another aspect of deer management that the committee report covers is the establishment of deer larders to help with the processing and marketing of venison products, which a few colleagues have mentioned.

Venison—deer meat—is one of the most nutritious forms of protein that we produce in Scotland. It is grown naturally and is abundant in the central belt, but it is not available to consumers in central Scotland. One of the most valuable forms of protein is on our doorstep and close to big population centres, yet we are the only people who are not able to consume it, other than in tiny quantities, because most of that valuable resource is exported directly to Europe. That is great, but it should also circulate in the local economy. The reason why it does not is a lack of infrastructure.

Although we have many highly qualified deer managers in the central belt, there is no infrastructure to deal with deer after they have been culled. Therefore, I ask that we look into setting up larder facilities, so that deer can become a local venison resource that benefits the communities that, often, would benefit most. We could produce good-quality food with a low number of food miles, could reduce the sickening behaviour of some poachers against wildlife in our area and could also help employment.

I am pleased that South Lanarkshire deer management group—

I have been very generous but I am not overly generous. Please conclude.

Linda Fabiani

We have a deer code for all in Scotland, but it seems that no councils or nature reserves in the central belt are taking a bit of notice. I would like a pilot scheme to be set up specifically for central belt deer management and the central belt deer managers to get the respect that they have deserved for many years.

I call David Stewart to close for the Labour Party. You have six minutes or thereabouts, Mr Stewart.

15:12  

David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Thank you for your generosity, Presiding Officer.

I thank the members of the ECCLR Committee for their input into the report and debate. I also thank those members who spoke who are not members of the committee. It has been an interesting and insightful debate.

There are a number of key issues: how to manage deer; what the landowner’s responsibility is; how we measure the effect of deer on the natural environment; the role of the DMGs, local authorities and SNH; and the role of the public interest clause. In the report, those issues have been thoroughly scrutinised, and I acknowledge the work of the environmental NGOs such as Scottish Environment LINK, the forest policy group and the John Muir Trust in giving evidence for it. All the NGOs that I mentioned have welcomed the report, which I appreciate.

Previous efforts at deer management have been largely voluntary. Although some inroads have been made, improvements have plateaued and further action is required. Not tackling the deer issue will have a negative effect on biodiversity, climate change mitigation, peatland restoration and woodland expansion as well as adding to the public costs of coping with the issue through fencing, culling and a mixture of both.

Proper deer management should have a firm impact on environmental issues and would also help to create jobs in fragile rural communities such as those in my region, not only through efforts with the deer on the ground but, as many members have said, through the provision of more larder and abattoir services to deal with an increase in culling, allowing the meat to be processed and distributed throughout Scotland and avoiding a missed opportunity to help the food sector.

As Claudia Beamish said in her speech, evidence shows that our deer can be three times smaller than deer in Norway due to environmental conditions or competition for food. It is untenable to continue to allow this public resource to be undermanaged and, sometimes, inappropriately managed.

A number of members have referred to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 and to the fact that, due to an amendment by Claudia Beamish in the previous session of Parliament, the code of practice must be reviewed every three years by SNH.

The convener of the committee opened the debate by saying that it was important to have extensive scrutiny of SNH’s report. There are strong views on deer management and, as the convener said, there are also strong views on SNH, and we must recognise that.

The situation with deer management groups is mixed. Some are still lacking action plans while others have clearly done an excellent piece of work. The committee, of which I am a member, wants a short-life working group to be set up. That is a sensible solution in order to get some action and next steps.

Graeme Dey asked about the public objectives when it comes to deer management. He also pointed out what he felt was the inadequacy of the legislation—section 7 agreements and section 8 powers. For example, there has been no use of section 8 by SNH. I have picked up on some fear of legal challenge, but my view as a member of this Parliament for a number of years is that if legislation is not competent, it should be reintroduced to Parliament. Is there a wider reason why SNH is not using that particular section? I would welcome any view that the cabinet secretary might express on that issue in her winding-up speech. The committee has suggested introducing a backstop power, which I think is a sensible way forward.

Clearly, there are issues around data gaps and it would certainly be helpful in that regard if more resources were given to SNH.

On a personal note, I felt—and a number of members agreed with me—that having a clearly external and independent expert peer appraisal would be useful, and I would welcome the cabinet secretary’s view on that issue, too.

The convener also raised the issue of assessing the expense to the public purse. Clearly, fencing is extremely expensive. We need to perform a cost benefit analysis of large-scale fencing versus small-scale fencing versus culling versus no action at all. The public spends a lot of money on this issue and we need to know that we are getting good value for money.

The cabinet secretary talked about deer management groups, some of which are clearly doing a good job. She also raised the issue of deer-vehicle collisions, which a number of other members also mentioned. However, she also made the point that the step change that we require has not been delivered. She made a useful point when she said that, although the Scottish Government will take steps to address concerns, there are not going to be large sums of money to hand out for this issue, particularly in a post-Brexit Scotland.

I apologise to the members I have not been able to mention. This has been an excellent debate. As a member of the committee, I obviously support its recommendations, but it is important to say that this is an important subject in relation to climate change, biodiversity and food miles. We need to take action on this issue. As Claudia Beamish said, we have been sitting on our hands on this issue for many years and it is now time to take action.

I commend the report to Parliament.

15:18  

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Before I speak in this debate, I would like to say how much I have enjoyed it. My interest in and enjoyment of this subject is not because I own a deer forest, as some have suggested, although I own a farm with a few roe deer on it, but because I have spent a huge part of my professional life managing deer. I have drawn up deer management plans, including plans for the Cairngorm and Speyside deer management group and other deer management groups, and some of them are still running. In my professional life before I became a politician, I ensured that those plans were implemented on the ground, which is sometimes not an easy task.

This debate has proved to me that, although much can be learned from taking evidence and listening to experts, there is no real substitute for actual experience. That came across during a lot of the evidence sessions that the committee held and which I listened to.

When I read the report, I was pleased that it identified some key and important facts. However, before I consider those, I want to remind members of a simple fact, which is that red deer are an iconic Scottish species and should be treated as such. However, it has become clear to me that some people are fixated by deer management and micromanagement. Two committees in this Parliament have carried out reviews of deer management, two assessments of deer management have been carried out by SNH, one report has been produced by SNH and there have been two further consultancy reports. It all seems like overkill to me. It should be a warning to those people who are out there managing deer that they need to step up to the plate, because the Parliament is giving the issue scrutiny that some might argue is not truly deserved.

Turning to the report, I want to mention four of the key points that have been highlighted by SNH. First, deer numbers might have increased since 1960, but they peaked in 2000-01 and those increases have stopped. Secondly, cull numbers dropped in 2011-12, due to an actual physical event on the ground—two extremely hard winters when there was a huge amount of natural mortality. One estate that I know lost more than 200 hinds in that winter alone. However, the culls have now returned to the high levels that were achieved in 2004-05. Thirdly, roe deer culling across Scotland has increased by about 30 per cent, with 38,600 animals culled each year. Fourthly, there is a huge economic impact from deer management. It employs 722 people—probably more—and benefits the rural economy by in excess of £15.8 million a year.

As someone who has managed deer, I want to mention five key facts that I think are fundamental, and which have been picked up in the debate. First, deer management is not about numbers. What counts is the impact on the environment, as well as the result of grazing in those environments by other herbivores such as sheep, rabbits and hares. If we are truly to look at habitat management, which is what we should base deer management on, we need to look at the management of all herbivores on hills.

Secondly, I accept that deer management groups have made progress on deer management plans, and although the committee welcomed the collaborative approach, we must recognise that it takes a huge amount of time to move things forward, as Peter Chapman and Emma Harper suggested. From personal experience, I can tell members that drawing up one deer management plan took about three years of my life, and it was about balancing the needs not only of the estates but of the Forestry Commission, SNH and other interested groups, such as the local community.

Thirdly, effective deer management must be responsive. I mentioned the hard winters of 2010 and 2011, when there was huge mortality. Wet spring weather can bring the same effect, and we must ensure that whatever is put in place effectively takes account of events on the ground as they occur, so that we do not get tied into the numbers game.

Fourthly, there were numerous generalisations in the report that I felt were perhaps misleading. For example, there was a comment that deer condition is determined by nutrition and that the fewer deer there are the better their condition will be. That is fundamentally not true. There are other things that contribute to deer condition, such as parasitic burden, overall health and obviously genetics. Bigger deer do not just appear. We all have to understand that deer across Scotland will be genetically suited to the environment that they are in. Deer on Lewis are naturally smaller than those on the mainland, and parkland deer are naturally bigger than deer on the high hills of the Cairngorms. That is genetics and that is where they come from.

My final key fact is about SNH’s suggestion that there should be centralised targets. That concerns me because I have seen it before, when we had the Deer Commission for Scotland, which set centralised targets. We used to go to the deer management group’s annual meeting every year and be given targets, but those targets did not necessarily achieve what they were supposed to do. It has also been suggested that there should be an increase in the length of seasons, particularly the stag season. My reason for concern is that that usually means that there are not enough people on hand to carry out the stag stalking season when it needs to be done. I accept fully that deer larders would be helpful, but markets for venison would be helpful, too. We have a limited number of game dealers.

I could go on about other things, but I do not think that I have the time.

You have another two or three minutes.

Edward Mountain

A working group would be extremely helpful, and engagement with the deer management groups across Scotland would be useful. The loss of the Deer Commission for Scotland, which was absorbed into SNH, was a mistake. If we are going to take deer management seriously, we ought to look at re-establishing the Deer Commission for Scotland with the specialisms that it brought.

We should accept that deer are an important part of our heritage. Also, they are vital to the rural economy, providing income and employment. The debate about deer management should always be about habitat management, not about the number of deer, and we need to ensure that we manage all herbivores that impact on those habitats. Further, we should encourage the formulation of deer management plans through the deer management group process and, if necessary, we should get more deer management groups involved. Finally, responsive and local management is vital when dealing with living animals; centralised and bureaucratic control based purely on numbers is a mistake.

On that basis, this Parliament is advised to encourage deer management groups to work a lot harder on collaborative management that is based on achieving good habitats around Scotland, rather than spending time and money on trying to centralise and micromanage deer. That is not helpful to the deer or to the habitats that we are trying to protect.

I call the cabinet secretary—you have seven minutes or thereabouts.

15:26  

Roseanna Cunningham

I will do my best to use up the extra time that is available.

The debate has been useful, as I hoped it would be—I mentioned that in my opening speech—in helping us to crystallise our thinking on the important issue of deer management. A lot of valuable points have been made and I would like to make some key points in response.

A number of members have referred to deer numbers and it is worth putting the current estimates on record. We believe that there is a total of between 587,000 and 777,000 deer in Scotland. The annual cull sits at around 100,000, which is about 13 to 17 per cent of the total. It is worth reminding ourselves of the actual numbers when we talk about deer numbers.

The use of current powers was raised by a number of members, the first of whom was Claudia Beamish. Some of the discussion at the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee questioned whether the current legislative provisions for deer management are adequate and whether SNH has made best use of its powers to secure natural heritage interests. I reassure the Parliament that SNH is determined to move forward decisively to ensure that the control agreements that were established under section 7 of the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 achieve the desired benefits for the natural heritage. Since publishing its report on deer management, SNH has undertaken a review of the eight existing section 7 control agreements. I have no doubt that, where section 8 orders are required, they will be brought forward.

As part of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, SNH was given new powers to address deer management. I should be clear that all the new powers have already commenced and that SNH will look to use the powers as part of its duties in deer management. I understand and share the frustration with the pace of change in that area. The temptation is to think that new powers will automatically fix a situation, but further refinement of or addition to the powers that are available to SNH might be required. I have an open mind about that at this stage, but it would be sensible for SNH to try the intervention powers that are available to it through section 8 before we conclude that the powers are not adequate. The difference between the management of section 7 and moving to section 8 has been the issue.

I hear what the cabinet secretary says about the application of section 8, but we have had those powers since 1959. Does that not tell us something about Government’s inability to act on that issue?

As I indicated a few minutes ago, SNH is quite clear that it is working very hard on the section 7 agreements and I have no doubt that, when section 8 orders are required, they will be brought forward.

Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention?

Roseanna Cunningham

Can I press on just a little? Otherwise I will completely lose where I am in my speech.

I am cautious about proposals for new powers that might require significant extra SNH or other public sector resources to operate. I must be absolutely blunt about that. We do not have unlimited money to spend on this. As I indicated in my opening speech, I am looking for solutions that take on board the issue and allow us to move forward without a huge burden being placed on the public purse; in many cases, that money would be being spent on deer management that is itself a commercial enterprise. We have skited over that issue a little in the debate, until Edward Mountain got to his feet towards the end. I am grateful that he did that, because there is a tendency to forget that, underlying this area, there are many commercial enterprises. That in itself is an issue about how much the public purse should be expected to step in for private enterprise.

David Stewart

On the section 8 powers, is the legislation totally adequate and not requiring any remedial action, or is SNH having difficulty in getting evidence, so that any action it took would be legally challenged if it went to court?

Roseanna Cunningham

I am going to be diplomatic. I would like to see SNH pushing section 8 before we make a decision about whether it is fit for purpose. If the power has not been tested, it is difficult for us to know that.

I have used up quite a lot of the extra time already, so I will briefly refer to lowland deer, which were mentioned by a number of members including Peter Chapman, Emma Harper and Linda Fabiani. Obviously, MSPs have seen the evidence for themselves. There is a great deal of risk for lowland deer and, indeed, as Linda Fabiani reminded us, peri-urban deer, not least the risk of vehicle collisions, which is a significant issue in many urban areas. I suspect that that might even be an issue for peri-urban deer, but we just have to accept outright that we are talking about deer in urban areas. Clearly, the deer need management. However, the problems are not the same as those in the uplands, which means that the solutions and the structures are not the same.

The Lowland Deer Network Scotland has made a good start by bringing together those with an interest, mainly recreational deer stalkers. There is no doubt that more needs to be done. That includes involving local authorities, those who manage our highways and railways and other public and private landowners.

SNH recently held an event to share good practice targeted at public bodies and local authorities. The event was well attended. I hope that that will begin to have an impact. As I have indicated, I know of Linda Fabiani’s long-standing interest in the issue and that she will continue to push on it.

Those who are interested will want to know that the latest evidence on trends and changes in the occurrence of deer vehicle collisions has just been published.

A number of members, including Peter Chapman, Angus MacDonald and Mark Ruskell, talked about the use of venison and deer larders. I could not agree more with them in that regard. SNH has organised venison butchery master classes, although people might wonder why SNH is doing that. That is an interesting question. Is that really what SNH should be about? It has done that, and members might be happy to know that, over the summer, I will open a new deer larder in Caithness.

Today, I have heard a comprehensive and robust review of the evidence and the SNH report. I welcome the committee’s scrutiny and evidence taking on the issue. It is clear that considerable progress has been made, but more needs to be done—and we will look for a redoubling of the efforts from the deer sector and from SNH. We will shortly set out a clear plan of action to focus on the need to build on and maintain momentum and to ensure that land is managed to safeguard public interest.

I call Maurice Golden to close for the committee. You have eight minutes, or thereabouts.

15:34  

Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

It is an honour to close the debate on behalf of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee.

The committee welcomes the progress that has been made in deer management in recent years, although it remains a complex issue in which there are competing objectives within and among deer management groups, and in areas that do not have an established deer management group. We have heard much about that today, and there is strong cross-party consensus with respect to the issues and the mechanisms that should be employed to improve the current situation. Graeme Dey ably outlined the key committee recommendations, and I will echo many of his comments in my remarks. The cabinet secretary stated that “progress has ... been made” but that there is still much to do. We can all welcome the fact that the Scottish Government is in “listening mode”.

On behalf of the committee, I will highlight, as part of my closing remarks, key areas of the report: the environmental impact, a strategic approach to managing deer, the variable performance of deer management planning, the capacity of Scottish Natural Heritage, the development of the wider supply chain and, finally, conclusions on steps forward.

On environmental impacts, although there has been a decline in overall deer numbers in the past 10 years, deer still impact significantly on the natural heritage, so greater focus and urgency are now needed to address the challenges of deer management across Scotland. The Scottish Natural Heritage report to the Scottish Government highlights the fact that 50 per cent of deer management groups have failed to identify in deer management plans actions to deal with deer impacts in designated sites. Habitats take a long time to recover; the committee considers that we do not have time to wait in delivering the Scottish biodiversity strategy. The scale of the action that is needed to address deer impacts on the natural environment is significant.

We need a deer management system that is developed collaboratively and which covers the whole of Scotland, based on clear expression and spatial articulation of the public interest, in particular in relation to biodiversity and climate change. Deer management plans need to take an inclusive habitat approach that focuses on deer densities and impacts at the local level.

We also need to take a strategic approach to managing deer numbers. SNH should be responsible for determining cull levels in the public interest, and deer management groups should carry out deer counts in their areas and return their plans for deer culls to SNH.

Why are 50 per cent of deer management groups not performing those tasks properly? I could not find out from the report.

Maurice Golden

The committee took evidence on that question. Some deer management groups have only recently been established, so it will take time to deliver their deer management plans. We took evidence that in other groups the appropriate rigour had not been employed to control deer in a manner that we expect for the public interest.

Nevertheless, with regard to the variable performance of deer management planning that Mike Rumbles highlighted, there has been a notable increase in deer management planning across the sector since 2013, but with considerable variation. Some deer management groups have worked to develop deer management plans with the support of the Association of Deer Management Groups and Scottish Natural Heritage, and some DMGs have had substantial and rapid change in their performance. However, progress on the ground, with positive outcomes, cannot be evidenced in all areas. The committee is extremely concerned about the lack of progress in lowland Scotland, in particular. That needs to be addressed as a priority.

The committee is of the view that SNH has not provided the level of leadership in deer management that might have been expected, and that there has been a failure adequately to set expectations for deer management. SNH appears to have been unable, or unwilling, to enforce the legislation to secure the natural heritage interests. The committee recommends that the Scottish Government engage in early discussion with SNH about priorities for delivery; that it review the adequacy of resourcing in the light of the potential additional calls upon SNH and the extension of duties; and that it report back to the committee on the outcome of those discussions.

The committee also recommends that the Scottish Government prepare an action plan for wider supply-chain development for deer carcases, and that it deliver public funding for the establishment of a network of deer larders across Scotland, including its islands, in order to support greater opportunities for taking part in appropriate culling activity.

Following careful consideration of the SNH report, the committee can see no compelling reason why the interim measures that allow SNH to intervene to amend and lead on drafting deer management plans should not come into effect immediately. That should provide a backstop to ensure that all deer management plans adequately address the public interest. The committee therefore recommends that the powers under section 80 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 come into immediate effect and be used as required.

Looking forward, the committee recommends that in order to address some of the issues that have been highlighted the Scottish Government establish, as a matter of urgency, an independent short-term working group to provide clear advice on the way forward for deer management, and that the group should report back in early autumn 2017. The group should have a very tight remit and should consider the recommendations that are contained within the committee’s report. The group should also consider the cost to the public purse, whether there are alternatives to fencing that could deliver the objective, the approach to deer management in the Lowlands, and lessons from management approaches elsewhere in Europe.

The committee believes that the Scottish Government should act on the recommendations in its report with the utmost urgency.