It may look noble. It may be a Highland icon, the monarch of the glen. But open season should be declared on the red deer in Scotland, which is devouring the habitats of the rest of the country's wildlife, the Deer Commission suggests.
Britain's largest native wild mammal has tripled in numbers in 40 years north of the border, to more than 400,000 individuals, and is now so numerous it is damaging huge tracts of vegetation and young trees on which other wildlife depends.
Two leading conservation groups, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the World Wide Fund for Nature, have said this year that the Deer Commission, the special body that monitors red deer numbers in Scotland, does not have the powers to deal with a problem that is deteriorating out of control.
Now the commission has proposed a drastic extension to the traditional stalking season, when stags are shot as trophies. It has submitted a report to the Scottish Executive suggesting stalkers should be allowed to take stags all year round, rather than during the present 14-week autumn season, and the time-limit during which hinds can be shot should also be extended.
Not since the 1950s has there been any change in the hunting season, when legislation was laid down that stags can be shot only between 1 July and 20 October, which coincides with the animals' annual rut, when the stags are at their most impressive with their antlers, and have most sporting value. Hinds are allowed to be culled only between 21 October and 15 February, which allows them to be shot before they become heavily pregnant or have young to care for.
Nick Reiter, director of the commission in Inverness, which oversees the national cull by estate owners, said: "Deer welfare issues are our main concern and we would expect any proposals to lead to a lively debate where a whole range of views would be expressed. We approached the Government to review the seasons for stags and hinds, and research has to be done before any decisions are made. We do need to keep on top of populations but it is important to identify the problem areas first."
Many environmental groups are hoping the commission's review will lead to a 50 per cent rise in the number of animals killed, in an effort to keep the population under control. But many of Scotland's sporting estate owners, who charge stalkers up to £275 for a stag and £150 for a hind, have treated the annual hunting season as a valuable source of income, and they are concerned that any attempt to increase the season might result in them losing control of the cull.
Peter Fraser, of the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association, claimed that "hype" surrounding the figures was false, and that in areas there had been a drop in deer numbers. "It is true that there are areas of increase but, equally in some areas deer numbers have gone down," he said. "Any problems are localised and not general. We are totally against the changing of the seasons. We are here for the welfare of the animals. If it was extended through the winter you would start to see venison being sold which was in very poor condition, not fit for public consumption.
"In the winter months and the cold conditions, stags lose a considerable amount of body weight, their health suffers and the quality of venison suffers. The seasons are designed so that this does not happen."
The Association of Deer Management Groups, which represents many of the big sporting estates, is also against any change in the present seasons. "It is only right that the deer have some respite from the culling pressure," a spokesman said.
Most of the red deer in Britain are in Scotland, but smaller wild herds roam in south-west and north-west England, East Anglia and the north Midlands. As Britain's largest wild mammal, stags can stand 1.5 metres (5ft) high at the shoulder.
Red deer can interbreed with the introduced Japanese sika deer and in some areas, hybrids are common.Reuse content