Deer Management

2 May 2017

David's speech in the Scottish Parliament debate

I thank the members of the ECCLR Committee for their input into the report and debate. I also thank those members who spoke who are not members of the committee. It has been an interesting and insightful debate.

There are a number of key issues: how to manage deer; what the landowner’s responsibility is; how we measure the effect of deer on the natural environment; the role of the DMGs, local authorities and SNH; and the role of the public interest clause.

In the report, those issues have been thoroughly scrutinised, and I acknowledge the work of the environmental NGOs such as Scottish Environment LINK, the forest policy group and the John Muir Trust in giving evidence for it. All the NGOs that I mentioned have welcomed the report, which I appreciate.

Previous efforts at deer management have been largely voluntary. Although some inroads have been made, improvements have plateaued and further action is required.

Not tackling the deer issue will have a negative effect on biodiversity, climate change mitigation, peatland restoration and woodland expansion as well as adding to the public costs of coping with the issue through fencing, culling and a mixture of both.

Proper deer management should have a firm impact on environmental issues and would also help to create jobs in fragile rural communities such as those in my region, not only through efforts with the deer on the ground but, as many members have said, through the provision of more larder and abattoir services to deal with an increase in culling, allowing the meat to be processed and distributed throughout Scotland and avoiding a missed opportunity to help the food sector.

As Claudia Beamish said in her speech, evidence shows that our deer can be three times smaller than deer in Norway due to environmental conditions or competition for food. It is untenable to continue to allow this public resource to be undermanaged and, sometimes, inappropriately managed.

A number of members have referred to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 and to the fact that, due to an amendment by Claudia Beamish in the previous session of Parliament, the code of practice must be reviewed every three years by SNH.

The convener of the committee opened the debate by saying that it was important to have extensive scrutiny of SNH’s report.

There are strong views on deer management and, as the convener said, there are also strong views on SNH, and we must recognise that.

The situation with deer management groups is mixed. Some are still lacking action plans while others have clearly done an excellent piece of work.

The committee, of which I am a member, wants a short-life working group to be set up.

That is a sensible solution in order to get some action and next steps.

Graeme Dey asked about the public objectives when it comes to deer management.

He also pointed out what he felt was the inadequacy of the legislation—section 7 agreements and section 8 powers.

For example, there has been no use of section 8 by SNH. I have picked up on some fear of legal challenge, but my view as a member of this Parliament for a number of years is that if legislation is not competent, it should be reintroduced to Parliament. Is there a wider reason why SNH is not using that particular section?

I would welcome any view that the cabinet secretary might express on that issue in her winding-up speech.

The committee has suggested introducing a backstop power, which I think is a sensible way forward.

Clearly, there are issues around data gaps and it would certainly be helpful in that regard if more resources were given to SNH.

On a personal note, I felt—and a number of members agreed with me—that having a clearly external and independent expert peer appraisal would be useful, and I would welcome the cabinet secretary’s view on that issue, too.

The convener also raised the issue of assessing the expense to the public purse.

Clearly, fencing is extremely expensive.

We need to perform a cost benefit analysis of large-scale fencing versus small-scale fencing versus culling versus no action at all.

The public spends a lot of money on this issue and we need to know that we are getting good value for money.

The cabinet secretary talked about deer management groups, some of which are clearly doing a good job.

She also raised the issue of deer vehicle collisions, which a number of other members also mentioned.

However, she also made the point that the step-change that we require has not been delivered.

She made a useful point when she said that, although the Scottish Government will take steps to address concerns, there are not going to be large sums of money to hand out for this issue, particularly in a post-Brexit Scotland.

I apologise to the members I have not been able to mention.

This has been an excellent debate.

As a member of the committee, I obviously support its recommendations, but it is important to say that this is an important subject in relation to climate change, biodiversity and food miles.

We need to take action on this issue. As Claudia Beamish said, we have been sitting on our hands on this issue for many years and it is now time to take action.

I commend the report to Parliament.

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