Red deer are by no means rare in Britain; they’re present from the south west all the way up to the far north of the Scottish Highlands. But to see them up close is an uncommon experience for a city dweller—one I very much enjoyed on a recent family holiday in Scotland, where we visited the Red Deer Range in Galloway Forest Park.
They are majestic animals, and the males make for an especially impressive encounter with their broad antlers and intimidating bellow.
There are beautiful cities in Scotland, but it’s the countryside that always tempts my extended family back each year for a big holiday. We stay in the southwest of Scotland, Galloway, a place that takes its name from the Gaelic i nGall Gaidhealaib, which loosely translates to “among the Stranger-Gaidheil,” a reference to the mix of Gaelic and Scandinavian people who lived here in the Middle Ages. The area is relatively untouched by tourism and development; it is bounded by the ocean to the west and south, the Galloway Hills to the north, and to the east, the River Nith, a vital winter feeding site for many bird species. In the north you will find the largest wilderness in Britain south of the Scottish highlands, and there is so little light pollution that on a clear night you can see the Milky Way. It is a magical place full of rolling hills and dense forests, and particularly so in autumn; as the golden light illuminates the fiery leaves soon to fall, it feels like a different and impossible world. On gloomier days, when the dense fog hangs low over the hills and trees, creating an eerie quiet, time itself seems to move differently.
This experience, so far removed from my usual day to day life living in Manchester, one of Britain’s busiest cities, really captured my imagination. Thus the days after this visit, on my sad return to normal life, were filled with reading about Red deer and how they interact with their environment
“People think the deer are lovely. Then they learn more about it,” read one headline—“it’, in this case, being the havoc the deer wreak on their environment. Roaming the hills in their hordes, they devour all the shrubs, heather, grass, and tree shoots they encounter, thereby destabilising their own already vulnerable ecosystem. In a stable and functioning ecosystem shared with natural predators, like wolves, bears, and lynx, their numbers are kept under control. But the deer’s last predator on this island, the wolf, has not been seen here for hundreds of years, and the deer population has snowballed.
300 deer can become 3,000 in under 15 years in the absence of predators, so it is no surprise that the population has increased exponentially. The wild wolf population in the UK began declining around 1000 A.D., and the last was killed here officially in 1680, although there were sightings up to the mid 1800s. Wild bears have been extinct here since the middle ages, and the lynx was hounded into extinction through hunting and habitat destruction by our ancestors around 700 A.D. As a result, the deer population is now over 2 million, the highest in a thousand years.
In these conditions the deer have become semi-domesticated, grazing “like lazy cows” as Paul O’Donoghue, a wildlife biologist and chief scientific advisor to the Lynx UK Trust puts it, warning that we are producing “parkland pets.” Even slight overgrazing can hinder biodiversity, but on this scale it can kill off entire forests, gradually disabling their ability to regenerate as all the new growth is consumed.
Here’s a screenshot from the BBC Four Documentary, Unlocking Nature’s Secrets: Serengeti Rules, demonstrating starkly what happens to a forest when the deer are kept out:
This is why many conservationists have become passionate advocates for deer culls, with many demanding a mass cull of 50-60% of all deer in the United Kingdom. It is a bizarre situation, in which wildlife charities are campaigning for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of animals at the hands of humans.
At the moment around 350,000 deer are culled across the UK each year, with 100,000 of those being killed in Scotland. Culling is often carried out by the rich who pay for the supposed privilege of hunting these beautiful animals. But this “solution” is little more than a porous plaster on an open wound. Not only is it upsetting, it is also hugely costly, time-consuming, and is still not enough to solve the problem. “Nobody goes into nature conservation to kill things,” says Paul Wilkinson, chief executive of the Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, “but we need to be grown up about it. We have to recognise that deer no longer have a natural predator.”
I want to see our forests and woodlands regenerated and protected, but I am also, and always have been, a big softy when it comes to animals. I feed the geese that live along the canal outside my flat (although admittedly this is mainly so they will treat me as a friend and stop honking at me as I walk to the gym), and I feed the stray cat colony that lives around the corner under a railway bridge; my girlfriend always says I could make friends with a cat anywhere. We’d barely got off the coach when we reached Reykjavik last year before I was sat in the snow stroking a ginger cat. I once spent 40 minutes catching bugs to put them outside an old flat (my flatmate chose to just kill the ones that had gotten into his room). I haven’t eaten meat for some time.
All this got me thinking that there must be another way, one that seeks to rebalance our ecological system rather than just paper over the cracks with violence, and while I was researching my last piece for Popula, about how it is both doable and necessary to plant 2 billion trees in the UK by 2040, I first read about reintroducing a natural predator of the deer in order to help recreate that balance.
Not only would a natural predator help bring down the number of deer in the UK, but more importantly, they would bring back the fear factor and keep deer alert and on the move. Even in such high numbers their grazing habits would slowly return to their natural state; deer would learn to graze lightly and search for food across larger areas, rather than grazing until destruction as they do now. “Trophic cascade,” is the ecologists’ name for this process, which occurs when the relationships and interactions between predators and prey modify whole ecosystems.
The Wild Place Project in Bristol has recently opened Bear Wood, where they have introduced brown bears, grey wolves, Eurasian lynx, and wolverines—animals that have not lived together in the UK for over 1,000 years—into a 7.5km enclosure. This is undoubtedly incredible, ambitious, and something I’ll be booking a visit to Bristol for, but it is not an attempt to recreate balance out in the wider woodland. Rather, it is an exhibition. There are, sadly, few serious suggestions of reintroducing bears to the British wilderness, nor wolves, despite their presence across much of mainland Europe.
(As a child around age 6-7, I had a set of four recurring nightmares concerning wolves each night for an entire year, until my Dad painted “NO WOLVES ALLOWED” on a rugged old piece of wood in bright red paint and hung it above my door, after which the nightmares immediately ceased and I never had one again. The nightmares were so vivid and repetitive that I can still see them in my mind when I think of them today, so believe me I can understand the fear when it comes to the idea of letting wolves run wild in the UK, although now, I would love to see it.)
Despite the fact that wolves are naturally shy and seldom attack people, similar to bears, their release into the wild in Britain is not likely to be considered any time soon, even though they can rapidly restore balance to ecosystems, as has been shown in Yellowstone National Park in the US. But a recent YouGov poll showed that 45% of Brits want to see the reintroduction of the Eurasian lynx, 44% are for wolves, and 30% for bears. If reintroduction of lynx populations works out in practice, perhaps we can foster and build on the idea of humans coexisting with large predators, as plenty of the rest of the world does.
A proposal from Paul Lister, owner of the Alladale Wilderness Reserve, to introduce wolves to the reserve has met with heavy criticism, mainly because it would require the electrification of the surrounding fences. “Even if gates were included, the fence would seriously undermine Scotland’s world-renowned public rights of access,” the Ramblers Association said. “It would create a dangerous precedent; essentially allowing landowners to ban public access simply by claiming their land as a paid-for reserve. What Mr Lister is proposing is not rewilding as most proponents would recognise it, but instead a large, fenced zoo with major restrictions on public access.”
This leaves us with one option remaining out of the deer’s natural predators that used to call this island home: the Eurasian Lynx.
The Eurasian lynx is a wild cat of medium size, and although their tufts of hair, bobbed tail, and visually unusual, powerful rear legs remind me of Jim Carey’s Grinch with a paint job, they are absolutely stunning animals. They have short reddish-brown coats in summer, and a thick silver or grey-brown coat in the depths of winter – with their white neck and chin retaining a lack of colour all year round, looking somewhat like a beard. They have disproportionately large furry paws that allow them to travel easily through the snow, and are native to varying geographies, from Siberia and the Himalayas to the forests of Western Europe. The case for their reintroduction to Britain is strong, though I’m bound to admit I’m biased, I love cats more than any animal on this planet! The Eurasian lynx used to roam the British wilderness, and it is time we brought them home, and this is exactly what the Lynx Trust UK is trying to do.
Towards the end of 2018, Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove turned down the Trust’s application to release six wild lynx into the Kielder Forest in Northumberland. After reconsidering the location, the Trust are almost ready to submit a new proposal, and are now looking at several sites in Scotland. The lynx would be kept in a pen at first to allow them to settle in, and then released into the wider forest with camera-equipped tracking collars. The hunting of deer by the lynx will help to enable the regeneration of forest vegetation. Although the number would be small at first, if successful, the program will be expanded. Eventually, the impact on carbon capture by the regenerated forests could be sizeable.
For the sceptics, or those stone-hearted souls who are uninterested in biodiversity and ecological wellbeing, there is another benefit; cold, hard cash. The reintroduction of lynx would boost tourism substantially. O’Donoghue says “It will be the number one wildlife destination in Britain by an absolute mile… there will be tourists using cafés, pubs, village shops, bed and breakfasts, hiring bikes. We estimate the snowball effect of just six lynx will be worth well over £10m a year to the rural economy.” This isn’t just a fanciful predictionl it is a view backed up by the experience of a similar project in the Harz mountains of Germany, where the wild cats boosted the local economy to the tune of £12.5m.
There are fears, naturally, from farmers in the area concerned about their livestock, and those who worry for the safety of hikers. These fears are relatively unfounded. Lynx prefer to stay in the cover of the forest, shying away from the open farmland that livestock call home, and the Lynx Trust UK has published research carried out in Switzerland showing that statistically, each lynx in Europe kills less than one sheep per year. The Trust has offered insurance for livestock in the area, as they are confident the impact will be minimal.
As David Macdonald, a senior Oxford University ecologist, explains: “As far as I am aware there has not been any recorded case of a lynx being a danger to people.” This is confirmed by research from the International Union for Conservation of Nature who state that with a population of around 9,000 lynx in Europe, and twice that number with the inclusion of European Russia, “throughout recorded history, lynx across Europe and Asia have never attacked a human being, child or adult.”
I am not for a second suggesting that the reintroduction of lynx will solve climate change or halt the environmental destruction that our never-ending quest for economic growth has wrought; only the complete reinvention of our economic system can do that. But this is a worthwhile step to begin the process of creating ecological balance once again. As Paul O’Donoghue said, : “The lynx is a beautiful, large predator which has the power to inspire people who otherwise don’t care about conservation.” While we can’t save the planet only by bringing the lynx home, we can help to stoke environmental enthusiasm and passion, and begin to reshape our attitude towards nature.