With restaurants in lockdown and demand for venison plummeting, Dr Terry Mabbett reports on the potential havoc set to be caused by the UK’s unmanaged deer population.

THE ongoing COVID pandemic and accompanying lockdown has seen venison sales and prices slump and deer culling collapse accordingly. Deer numbers continue to rise and place trees and woodland under even greater threat from herbivory.

The dearth of natural predators continues to underpin a remorseless rise in the deer population, although annual culls in parts of the UK, including Scotland, go some way in mitigation, sparing some wooded landscape from their attentions. But the COVID pandemic has changed all that, according to recent reports.

Sales of venison to supermarkets and butchers have stayed relatively strong, although sales have fallen by up to 60 per cent to the hospitality sector with prices for fresh venison slumping, says the Scottish Venison Association.

The environmental implication is a projected increase in deer damage to woodland. Increased grazing and browsing from considerably higher deer numbers means unprotected planted trees are browsed to extinction, with seeded trees and shrubs unable to regenerate, thereby blunting ongoing efforts to increase tree cover.

READ MORE: Plan to introduce lynx to Scotland 'will help save forests'

In the distant past, native natural canine and feline predators like the grey wolf and Eurasian lynx preyed on deer, but their extinction many centuries ago left culling as the only check on numbers. A 2020 Scottish Government report on deer numbers estimated up to one million wild deer roaming the mountains and glens of Scotland, almost twice previous estimates, posing a real threat to already overgrazed landscapes.

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The Scottish Government says that, since 1959, there have been “substantial increases in the distributions and numbers of Scotland’s four species of wild deer”. The number of deer shot in Scotland has also increased considerably over that time, indicating existing culls are failing to keep deer populations in check. Over 100,000 deer are regularly culled each year, but not during 2020 when numbers culled fell by 80 per cent as the COVID pandemic impacted on the demand for venison from the hospitality sector and the price paid for the meat.

Dick Playfair of the Scottish Venison Association told The Independent: “In Scotland we have been doing what we can to keep supply chains moving and encourage alternative routes to market.

“There has been some shift towards local sales through butchers, mail order and click and collect but this doesn’t compensate for the massive loss of demand through the restaurant, catering and hospitality sector.”

Furthermore, the implications of Brexit and now the actual impact of this colossal political and economic event continues to impact venison markets.

Mr Playfair said: “Exports are also more difficult. There were some issues towards the end of the Brexit transition period and there are still aspects to resolve to ensure smoother access to European markets going forward. This lack of a route to market has left prices for venison in freefall, reducing the profitability of sales. Prices paid to estates for venison have dropped from £2.20/kg last year to around £1.00/kg or less this season, so estate/stalking businesses are taking a hit on venison sales as well as a significant loss on stalking income.”

Martin Fowlie, a spokesperson for the RSPB, said: “Deer are an integral part of our ecosystem, but in the absence of natural predators here in the UK, deer populations need to be maintained at sustainable levels. And this maintenance needs to be done by people. Too high a density of deer does damage, and strips away the variety within habitats to create uniformity that is less good for other wildlife.”

He cited the current situation of the iconic nightingale as one already struggling species suffering even more from deer damage to the woodland environment.

The Scottish Government has made a £50,000 grant available to the Scottish venison sector to support marketing in the UK. This campaign was planned for December, but with the Christmas lockdown of restaurants it will now launch in March this year.

The SVA says it is vital to encourage more people to eat more venison and to buy venison wherever they can, emphasising its health benefits are unequalled by any other red meat, and eating venison has significant upstream benefits for the UK’s ecosystem.

In the wider arena and longer-term period, rewilding would appear to be a more sustainable answer, which means the relevant authorities will have to lift their current objections to the reintroduction of the Eurasian lynx and perhaps even the grey wolf.

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