Weekly Nature Watch

Weekly Nature Watch 11th September 2020

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A crucial time is approaching for our red deer. Stags, currently divesting themselves of the velvet that has covered their newly grown antlers, are increasingly aware that their hormones are telling them that once again it is that time of the year.

Something inside them is beginning to stir, making them feel that bit more tetchy. As September advances towards October, that tetchiness will give way to downright temper and passion as the sap rises and they are seized by the season of the rut. Mind you, even when that day dawns, not all of them will gain fulfilment. The privilege of siring the next generation of red deer is restricted to the master stags – those which have established a place at the head of the herd, albeit that as the rut approaches there are battles to be fought to finally determine pecking orders. 

The forthcoming battles will finally determine the future of those that have real ambition. There will be many challenges laid down and battled over before that is finally achieved as older stags find that they are past their best and younger animals seek to replace them. Life for the ‘has beens’ in red deer society can sometimes seem cruel. There is no peaceful pensioner-class among red deer stags and those whose duty it is to control numbers of red deer will know just which of the animals in their care have passed their zenith and are likely to suffer the consequences. Life for ‘the monarchs of the glen’ as they once were, can indeed be cruel.

The day of reckoning for old stags may come any time before October 20th.  The increase in the number of deer in the Scottish countryside means that competition for food sources is keen.  Indeed, it may be said that the biggest enemy of each deer is another deer and in recent times it has been noted that many culled deer have been quite badly emaciated.

However, it is the red deer hinds and female roe deer which have become the target of those who are determined to reduce the numbers of deer at large in Scotland which it is estimated now heads towards a million animals.  The problems of having so many deer in our landscapes relates especially to the planting of new forests. The Scottish Government is dedicated to growing more and more timber and the presence of so many deer is seen as a threat to that ambition. Deer can make a big impact on newly planted forests, damaging young trees to such an extent as to make the difference between profit and loss.

It has just been revealed that authorization has been given for staff and contractors of Forest and Land Scotland, formerly the Forestry Commission, to shoot the female animals during the closed season while they have youngsters running at foot which are still reliant upon their mothers for sustenance in the form of milk. However, the suggestion that hinds or does with calves or kids running at foot, should now be shot out of season thus leaving their off-spring to go hungry and  in all probability starve to death has horrified keepers and stalkers universally.  The Scottish Game Keepers Association (SGA) believes that the policy is ethically wrong and contravenes animal welfare.

Well-known and respected expert on red deer and head stalker for the SGA Deer Group, Lea MacNally, has condemned it as a national disgrace and says that he finds it hard to understand how the Scottish Government, backed by the Green Party in Parliament, can on the one hand ban the unlicensed culling of mountain hares, yet allow a situation that will undoubtedly lead to many young deer dying of starvation.  “It shows little or no respect of our deer,” he said.

His reference to the culling of mountain hares relates to the management of grouse moors. Mountain hares are blamed for spreading ticks among grouse, hence the culling programmes regularly carried out in parts of Highland Scotland. Now, as a result, populations of mountain hares are believed to be under threat once more putting those who manage grouse moors at odds with conservationists. However, there is some good news in relation to grouse moors which is extremely heartening. It has been announced that hen harriers, now our rarest birds of prey have had a bumper season by producing no fewer than sixty fledglings across Britain this year.

The continuing persecution of hen harriers down the years has seen their populations fluctuate alarmingly with those who run grouse moors all too often blamed for their demise across considerable swathes of the country. Grouse, especially young birds, are certainly on the menu of these magnificent birds of prey but the persecution is not by any means confined to harriers. There are repeated incidents involving the killing of eagles, peregrines, buzzards and kites which always seem to occur close to or on grouse moors. As a result, there are those who suggest that grouse moors should be in some way licensed depending upon the management of wildlife, simply because of the continuing slaughter that has been happening in these upland areas for many years in the past.

Hen harriers are very much moorland birds. The male bird is grey in colour with prominent black wing tips. By contrast, the females known as ringtails, are brown, their ringed tails the reason for the nomenclature. Both male and female birds also boast a prominent white flash above the tail. Harriers generally fly low over the moorland in their search for small birds and voles but often, given the chance, will take young red grouse as well. The reason for their success this year is said to be down to the fact that this has been a particularly good vole year. By contrast, harriers when courting soar to considerable heights and make dramatic food passes from male to female.

Voles are the staple diet of so many animals and birds but the population of voles varies from one year to the next. Good vole years benefit many creatures including for example, the short-eared owl, a diurnal hunter which inhabits those same open moorlands as the harrier. In fact, so many creatures depend for their living upon voles that the fluctuations of vole numbers influence many aspects of wildlife.

The slaughter of wildlife in many of our upland areas is all too often associated with grouse moors which of course, compete with one another by means of the annual bags of grouse killed. It strikes me that in an age when the conservation of wildlife species is such a popular aim, the grouse moor managers have to clean up their act. I’m not using the blame game to get at the managers of such resources. I just think we have to guard our precious wildlife resources when so many species, including the likes of hen harriers are under threat. We need to care more for the planet rather than destroy it.  As for the culling of red deer hinds and roe deer does when they are still suckling, I suggest the Scottish Government should think again.




Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods