Page last updated at 08:18 GMT, Monday, 15 February 2010

Why deer are losing a battle with the elements

By David Miller
BBC Scotland environment correspondent

Red deer
A lack of fat on deer means they run out of energy in long cold spells

Wildlife experts say they're increasingly concerned about the impact the harsh winter has had on Scotland's deer population.

Thousands of animals are thought to be at risk of starvation and walkers in many parts of the country are being warned they'll almost certainly come across dead or dying animals.

It's been a cruel winter for Scotland's deer.

Layers of snow and ice have prevented them feeding and it's becoming clear that large numbers of red and roe deer have lost their battle with the elements.

Many more are expected to die before spring.

The annual cull of red deer hinds ends on Monday but several estates stopped shooting weeks ago, when it became clear that large numbers of deer were starving to death.

In a long spell of cold weather, they run out of energy reserves
Dr John Fletcher
Deer vet

On a windswept hillside on Royal Deeside the consequences of the big freeze are clear to see. Colin McClean is the Wildlife Manager here at the Glen Tanar Estate and he quickly leads me to the body of a young deer.

He says: "This is a red deer calf, which probably died about a month ago and has been buried in snow most of that time. It's got in behind this rock to shelter on a cold winter's night and it's just run out of energy and faded away here.

"As the snow melts and people return to the hills, they will find dead deer. There's no doubt about that. The sheer depth of snow has prevented deer getting at their food in certain places and the frost has frozen the snow and they can't dig through it. It's nature at work."

Landowners are worried they will face allegations of mismanagement as walkers take advantage of the improving weather conditions and return to the hills, only to discover large numbers of dead deer.

Natural mortality

Robert Balfour, the Chairman of the Association of Deer Management Groups, argues it's nature, not sporting estates, which is to blame.

"It is nature taking its course", he says. "It's nothing to do with management of the deer. Bear in mind that the stags have been doing what comes naturally to them at the back end of the year and they are frankly shattered.

"They haven't got reserves of energy and the weather can take them very easily."

Red deer in particular are associated with the rugged Scottish landscape. So it may come as a surprise to learn that the animals often struggle to cope with the Scottish weather. Snow and ice are real problems but driving wind and rain can be killers too.

Dr John Fletcher, a specialist deer vet, tells me: "They are very good at anticipating changes in weather and moving into shelter where there's no wind. They can use topography, the lie of the land, very efficiently to hide away and shelter where there's zero wind speed.

We'd encourage deer managers to get out and make sure they are removing the animals at greatest risk
Robbie Kernahan
Deer Commission for Scotland

"But in a long spell of cold weather, they run out of energy reserves. They don't have much fat, which is why they are so good for us to eat. They will not last long if they get a spell of really bad weather."

The Deer Commission for Scotland advised land managers to continue culling red deer hinds in the aftermath of the big freeze.

Open season ends on Monday but the annual roe deer cull continues until March.

Robbie Kernahan, the Commission's Director of Deer Management, believes animal welfare must be the prime consideration.

He said: "The question is to what extent should deer managers intervene? Natural mortality is on ongoing event but this year it's going to be much greater than normal because of the weather we've had.

"We'd encourage deer managers to get out and make sure they are removing the animals at greatest risk, which are likely to suffer through March and April."

'Low ebb'

Walkers are being urged to avoid disturbing herds of deer. The animals' energy supplies are now so severely depleted that the act of running away from humans could leave them exhausted and vulnerable.

Mr Kernahan says: "Be alert to the fact that we're trying to minimise disturbance to deer at this time of year. They are at a low ebb."

Establishing how many deer have been lost as a result of the winter weather will be a difficult and time consuming process. But deer stalking is an important contributor to the economy of rural Scotland and it's already clear that sporting estates will suffer financially.

In Sutherland, there are fears that an entire generation of deer will be lost due to the winter weather.

Opinion appears divided on the extent of those potential losses elsewhere, but these are worrying times for anyone who cares about the welfare of the monarch of the glen or the lucrative business opportunities stalking provides.

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