Venison subsidy could help manage deer and deliver nature outcomes

The issue of effective deer management in Scotland has become divisive – in particular a Scottish Government proposal to substantially increase culling using Deer Management Nature Restoration Orders (DMNROs).

Estates and deer managers are concerned that the approach lacks nuance and undermines an existing system of voluntary deer management.

The Scottish Government’s Deer Management Strategic Board is made up of Scottish Government agencies, but a group called The Common Ground Forum, made up of countryside stakeholders delivering deer management on the ground, is working to find a more collaborative approach.

Following several letters and discussions with Cabinet Secretary, Mairi Gougeon, and Minister, Lorna Slater, the Common Ground Forum has issued a statement written by Tom Turnbull, Chair of the Association of Deer Management Groups, Duncan Orr-Ewing, Convenor, Scottish Environment LINK’s Deer Group and Richard Cooke, Chair, Scottish Venison.

The statement says, “Scottish venison is bringing people from all sides of the deer debate together. Of all the qualities that deer management brings to Scotland, be it quality tourism or the skilled craft of our deer stalkers, Scottish venison is right up there as one of the most valuable products to come from our hills and forests. At a time when differences of opinion on deer management are coming to the surface once more, this seems a good moment to write jointly about an issue, and an opportunity, which we each passionately believe in.

“Venison is a healthy meat, low in fat, high in flavour and has featured in Scottish cuisine, both lofty and humble, for centuries. Most of our venison comes from wild, rather than farmed, deer populations that have been part of our landscapes for millennia. While it may have a reputation for being expensive in some quarters, it sits in roughly the same price bracket as Scotch beef and lamb. In short, we have a great product that is distinctively Scottish and highly marketable.

“The clear direction of government policy is that deer populations in Scotland need to be reduced to help enable nature’s recovery and mitigate climate change across more of our landscapes. A greater amount of work will be needed to implement this, with increased costs. Venison sales are often the only income to offset these costs, but current prices fall a long way short of reflecting the true value of this high-quality product. Research has indicated that it does not even cover the costs of hunting, let alone bringing venison to the market.

“And it is here that we see a clear opportunity for Scotland. We have written jointly to the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Islands to ask her to consider allocating a small proportion of the public funding for land management to a venison subsidy. We argue that doing so will directly support the additional deer management needed to allow our woodlands and peatlands to regenerate, while helping at the same time to secure the basis of a sustainable venison market that Scotland can be proud of for years to come.

“The investment required is estimated at £3-5 million per year, a comparatively minor part of Scotland’s annual ~£650 million land management budget. This will contribute to the costs of deer management in delivering a range of vital outcomes everyone will benefit from – for nature, climate change, jobs in deer management and allowing deer, one of our finest national assets, to shine. For all these reasons, we hope that the government will also see this as too good an opportunity to miss.

“The discussions that us led to identifying this opportunity and to jointly write to the Cabinet Secretary took place under the Common Ground Forum, an initiative that brings together all those in the Scottish deer sector interested in a more collaborative approach to deer management, based on mutual respect and consensus building, can contribute to a vision of a greener, healthier and economically vibrant future.”

Separately, the minutes of the last meeting of the Deer Management Strategic Board (23rd October 2023), show that “Cairngorms National Park is exploring options to incentivise an increased deer cull through trialling a venison subsidy in the park.”

At the same meeting, Scottish Government said that it would, “Contact colleagues in [Scottish Government’s Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division] to determine what can be done in relation to agricultural payments to incentivise deer management.”

However, there is concern from Common Ground Forum stakeholders that pilot schemes could just put off effective incentivisation of the Scottish Government’s desired increased cull and therefore delay any further uplift as culling is a net cost exercise in terms of venison production.

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