Red alert - Education News - Education - The Independent

Red alert

A report from the World Wildlife Fund highlights the fact that slack management of deer is resulting in the destruction of acres of Scotland's forests. But that is not the only bad news: the now rutting red deer is diluting itself, reports Daniel Butler.

As the final stages of the red deer rut come to an end, Highland keepers are shaking their heads in sorrow. It looks almost certain that yet again, many of next year's calves will be bastards, the result of chance matings between native red hinds and sika stags, originating from the Far East.

The result of the matings between the native "hill" reds and the smaller, greyer sikas, is unpredictable, but tends to be a creature halfway between the two in size, with a mixture of the two species' behavioural characteristics. No one is quite sure of the full implications of the process, but prophets of doom warn of dire consequences.

Interbreeding presents both practical and emotional problems. On a pragmatic level, sika are more damaging to forestry: naturally preferring woodland to moor; browsing at a more damaging height, and, being much shyer, therefore difficult to control. In addition, because sportsmen pay handsomely for trophies, were sika genes to reduce antler size, it could affect a vital source of revenue in one of Europe's last wildernesses.

On the more emotional level, hybridisation risks threatening Scotland's distinct "hill" deer, which are smaller and more at home in open ground than other European reds. The problem stems from the sika's original introduction last century, but it was not until recently that the hidden dangers emerged. Now an increasing number of the Scottish red deer herd are being found to have "alien" DNA.

"The two species are distinct," explains Edinburgh University's Dr Josephine Pemberton, who is halfway through a three-year study of Scotland's deer. "Sika are much smaller, and are spotted in summer. In addition they behave and sound very different." At present, she says, Scottish reds can be divided roughly in two, with the A9 marking the border between pure and hybrid. In western areas such as Kintyre, crosses are common: to the east there is little or no hybridisation - so far. Yet she adds that after countless releases of imported animals by Victorian landowners trying to "improve" their sport, it is doubtful how pure hill deer are in reality.

"It's not just sika which have mixed with the herd," says Andy Rinning, director of the Deer Commission. "For over a century there have also been introductions of related species from Eastern Europe and America."

The dangers besetting Scotland's deer are not unique. "Crosses occur naturally in the wild and there is evidence to show that occasionally it may be important in species' development," explains Mike Bruford, head of the conservation genetics group at Regent's Park's Institute of Zoology. In addition, the injection of fresh genetic material can prove vital for flagging populations. For example, in 1900 Britain's red kite population was reduced to 15 individuals. This was recovering painfully slowly until the Twenties, when a solitary female was blown in by storms from Germany. The fresh genetic material revolutionised breeding success and today numbers are healthy.

But while scientists agree that natural instances of genetic mixing are perfectly acceptable, most feel that a distinction should be drawn between these and the results of man's intervention. A good example of the latter is the ruddy duck, originally imported from Carolina, which now threatens Spain's white-headed duck. "The ruddy is much more aggressive, and drakes drive off white-head males to mate with their females," says the RSPB's Chris Harbard. "The offspring look like neither parent, but they're fertile and carry on the hybridising process, so within a few generations we could lose the white-head altogether."

Mike Bruford agrees that hybridisation is an all too efficient way of losing a species. He explains that the worst problems come when one species has a numerical advantage over another and swamps it, leading to the rapid loss of pure genes.

In Ireland, in a matter of decades, County Wicklow's red deer have blended completely with imported sikas to produce a herd that is neither one nor the other. But, says Dr Pemberton, there is no evidence this will happen in Scotland: "Given the choice, hybrids tend to stick to their own dominant genes," she says. "So where possible sika 'types' breed either with pure sika or other lookalikes, rather than red deer."

In any event, it is now too late to stem the tide. "It is questionable whether we should waste time and effort trying to prevent the inevitable," she says. "What we can do is prevent damage in areas where we really can make a difference. For example, we should ban any deer releases in the genetically-isolated Outer Hebrides and all introductions of new species."

Suggested Topics
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK wedding show jilted
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

PE Teacher (Female)

Negotiable: Randstad Education Bristol: Teacher of Girls PE for Wiltshire scho...

Head of Science Required

Competitive & Flexible: Randstad Education Cambridge: The JobRandstad Educatio...

KS1 Teacher

£105 - £120 per day + Competitive Rates: Randstad Education Maidstone: Randsta...

Primary Supply Teacher's Urgently Required in Hull and Grimsby

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: We are looking for KS1 & KS2...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week