Deer in Highlands may be culled to save rare plants

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The Independent Online

The wild red stag may be known as the Monarch of the Glen, but in one part of Scotland its days may be numbered.

A slaughter of deer is being considered because their growing population has devastated scientifically important and environmentally fragile nature reserves. Scotland's landscape has changed much over the past couple of hundred years as sheep-grazing and the advent of sporting estates has encouraged the red deer to venture out of its natural woodland habitat and roam the hills.

But Scottish Natural Heritage has warned that unless drastic action is taken numerous species of plants and other wildlife could be endangered by over-grazing.

Without natural predators, bears and wolves having been hunted to extinction centuries ago, the deer has been left unchecked to dominate the Highland landscape.

For decades they have been allowed to breed unchallenged, helped by the provision of winter food from the owners of the sporting estates. Scottish Natural Heritage has warned that at least 14 estates between Ullapool and Lochinver have a problem with deer threatening environmentally important sites.

They are particularly concerned by the effects on the national nature reserves of Inverpolly and Inchnadamph in the north Highlands, which have some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Scotland.

The reserves, which are listed as sites of special scientific interest, are home to blanket bog, dry and wet heaths, native woodlands and grasses along with rare plants and birds.

Four estates have been reported to the Deer Commission Scotland, which has the power to order estate owners to carry out a cull or to do it themselves and present the estate with the bill.

"The deer have caused widespread damaging impacts on the natural heritage on these reserves," said Professor Des Thompson, principal uplands manager for Scottish Natural Heritage.

Both Inchnadamph and Inverpolly are candidates to be made European special areas of conservation. "The effects on woodlands are particularly noticeable, since deer ... kill young trees and shrubs," said Professor Thompson. "As a result, woodland regeneration is suppressed, trees die out because they are not replaced and woodland cover is lost."

The Deer Commission will investigate before negotiating with the landowners on how to remedy the situation. Nick Reiter, of the commission, said: "Most areas of Scotland have seen a general trend for increases in deer populations but we need to see for ourselves to what extent these areas have been affected."

Estimates by Scottish Natural Heritage suggest that Inchnadamph is home to more than 50 deer per square kilometre, while on Inverpolly there are only about eight per square kilometre.