Reforesting Scottish Woodlands, Deer and the Challenge of Ecological Balance

The history of long deforestation and the overpopulation of deers in the Scottish Highlands has left the Scottish woodland in a vulnerable situation. This article outlines the controversy in the debate surrounding forest conservation and deer culling (1).


Jordi Albacete y Sara Rayo

[cml_media_alt id='3005']Paint-Box-Section-landseermonarch-e1290798165547[/cml_media_alt]Romantic poet Robert Burns (1759-1796), wrote: “My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,/ My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer-/A-chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;/My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.” Many people who live in cities have similar romantic images about wilderness to Robert Burns. In these images we allow our imagination to recreate emotional landscapes and often we associate symbols and ideas such as freedom, tenacity, adaptation capability or loneliness to wild animals, plants, trees or mountains.

Perhaps, the deer in the Scottish Highlands brings magnificence and freedom as an animal that grazes free and harmoniously in the picturesque altitudes in hostile weather. Nevertheless the history of deer in these environments is far from being harmonious. To a large extent due to human impact, there is an overpopulation of deer that makes reforestation of this territory difficult. Options to control this overpopulation are not exempt from controversy.

Sara used to live in Manchester when she visited the Scottish Highlands for the first time. Still she remembers  when she crossed The Borders. The landscape became more abrupt, the hills, covered with brownish heather (2) and sprinkled (3)with the bright yellow of the spiky gorse bushes, came up defiant to her eyesight. Looking at this landscape yielded contradictory feelings in Sara. On the one hand, she was seduced by the absence of human footprint and the sublime altitude. At the same time, not understanding why, she was captivated by a melancholic emotion, something in the air made her feel that the strength of this landscape lied in its past fragility.

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Glencoe photo“While o’er their heads the hazels hing (4)

The little birdies bythly sing,

Or lightly flit on wanton wing

In the birks (5) of Aberfeldie”

(From The Birks of Aberfeldie, Robert Burns)


Scottish Woodlands

The history of the Scottish woodlands is the one of a steady decline. In the Roman epoch, 82 A.D., there was evidence that only 50% of the native woodland remained, owing to agriculture. Birch was the dominant tree, followed by hazel, pine and oak. In the XVIII and XIX centuries, due to timber and miner industries, this woodland was reduced down to 4% at the beginning of the 1900s.

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Currently, only 1% of this Scottish native woodland remains, according to a report conducted by the Scottish National Heritage (SNH), due mostly to exploitation of forests throughout 400 years by big landowners who traded the wood. As a result of tree felling (6), there has been a severe loss of habitat and environmental degradation, which has impacted on predators such as lynx or bear, and birds such as coal or crested tits or the capercaillie.

The forestry strategy of the Scottish Government is to increase the woodland surface from 17 to 25 % by the second half of this century and to produce over 8.5 million of cubic metres of wood.  Conservationist organisations and local communities have lobbied the authorities and achieved the inclusion of other criteria such as landscape, biodiversity, leisure, rural development into the decision-making  process alongside economic reasons. With this new reforestation plan driven by the Forestry Commission, and increase from 10 to 15 thousand of new forest every year is expected in addition to 4.500 hectares of native woodland to help develop new habitats.

Red Deer and Reforestation

The fell of trees has not been the only reason for deforestation in Scotland. Overpopulation of deer has had also a big impact. The presence of this herbivore has make it difficult in the last years to help growing the Caledonian pine, native to this land. Since 2008 the Government has been promoting the Wild Deer National Approach (WDNA),  culling deer to balance the ecosystem.

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Red deer in Scotland.
Deer culling is one of the topics in conservationism with most controversy in the UK. With a deer population that reached over 1,500,000 nationwide, a group of researchers from East Anglia university suggested in 2013 that this population should be reduced by 50-60%.

Not all conservationist groups share the same view in how to reduce deer overpopulation. Currently the “stalker” (7) is responsible for culling the deer with a clear gunshot. Groups of experts like British Deer Society are proponents of this practice, whereas the Wildlife Trust also support it but not as a unique method: “Culling and fencing are acceptable options, although shooting should not be the first option (…) deer do not have a natural predator”. Particularly, in Scotland due to a low population density there has been an intense debate in the introduction of wolf as a natural predator.




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Wolf introduction in Scottish woodland has been debated to control deer population.
Deer overpopulation has also created a parallel economy for hunting (named by some as sport hunting). In Scotland, in order to preserve wild deer for hunting, proponents like the Deer Management Groups Association oppose the culling arguing that the hunting  benefits their local economy. They say that deer hunting is worth £170 million and employs 2,500 people full time. However, there is significant criticism from local communities who claim that this economic profits do not have a strong impact on the local economy and deer meat ends up in exclusive butcheries far from the local stores.


Solutions seem complex for a problem that requires intervention in the ecosystem. Deer overpopulation and human responsibility might have altered biodiversity in a new scenario where there are still many questions to be answered. For example: Is it acceptable to cull the red deer when its overpopulation is caused by human responsibility? How do we face alternative solutions to culling to preserve biodiversity? Ultimately, should we give up our pastoral (8) and romantic vision of wild places in order to introduce predators such as lynx, wolves, and bears? It may well be that by answering these questions honestly we might tackle conservationism challenges in natural parks.

Use of English for Spanish Speakers

(1) Culling.

  • Definition: to reduce the size of (a herd or flock) by killing a proportion of its members.
  • Example: “This article outlines the controversy in the debate surrounding forest conservation and deer culling”. (“Este artículo trata la controversia en el debate sobre la conservación de los bosques y el sacrificio de los ciervos.“)
  • Translation: sacrificio (de animales).
  • Comment: in English for herds or flocks cull is the appropriate verb (not sacrifice). Remember that there is the phrasal verb “to put down an animal”, “They put down their dog” “Sacrificaron a su perro“.

(2) Heather.

  • Definition:a heath plant having small pinkish purple flowers..
  • Example: “The landscape became more abrupt, the hills, covered with brownish heather”. (“El paisaje se hizo más abrupto, las colinas, cubiertas de un brezo pardo […] “).
  • Translation: brezo.
  • Comment: useful name of plant to know in the British and Irish countryside.

(3) Sprinkle.

  • Definition: to distribute over (something): the field was sprinkled with flowers.
  • Example: ” […] sprinkled with the bright yellow of the spiky gorse bushes”. (“Salpicados con el amarillo brillante de los arbustos espinosos de tojo“).
  • Translation: salpicados, espolvoreados,
  • Comment: quite useful verb for literary register.

(4) Hing.

  • Definition: to hang (Scots).
  • Example: While o’er their heads the hazels hing“. (“Mientras que colgaban en las cabezas de los avellanos “).
  • Translation:colgar. 
  • Comment: Old Scots, this term might appear in old Scottish literature.

(5) Birks.

  • Definition: birch.
  • Example: “In the birks of Aberfeldie””. (“En los abedules de Aberfeldie“).
  • Translation: abedul.
  • Comment: Old Scotts.

(6) Tree felling.

  • Definition: to cut down trees.
  • Example: “As a result of tree felling there has been a severe loss of habitat and environmental degradation”. (“Como consecuencia de la tala de árboles ha habido una pérdida severa de habitat y de degradación medioambiental“).
  • Translation: tala de árboles.

(7) Stalker.

  • Definition: to pursue persistently and, sometimes, attack (a person with whom one is obsessed, often a celebrity)
  • Example: “Currently the “stalker” is responsible for culling the deer with a clear gunshot.”. (“Actualmente el acechador es responsable del sacrificio de los ciervos con un tiro limpio“).
  • Translation:acechador (in this context).
  • Comment: In this context the “stalker” literally spends time trying to spot and chasing the deer. Therefore this name.

(9) Pastoral. 

  • Definition: having the simplicity, peacefulness, etc., associated with rural areas.
  • Example: “And ultimately, should we give up our pastoral and romantic vision of wild places”. (“Y en última instancia, deberíamos acabar con nuestra visión idealizada y romántica de los espacios naturales“).
  • Translation: in common use idealizada.


Photo by mike138Jonathan Combe

Autor: Sara Rayo

I am a young professional with a strong passion for International Affairs, with a particular interest in Communication and Media. I hold a Degree in Journalism, a Degree in Politic Science and a MA in International Relations. These studies are complemented by my experience in both the private and public sector, in the areas of communication and policy-making. I am a team player with excellent organisation and communication skills. Twitter @srayocorrales or Linkedin.

Soy una periodista joven con un gran interés en las relaciones internacionales, en especial en comunicación y media. Estoy licenciada en periodismo y en ciencias políticas con un máster en relaciones internacionales. He complementado estos estudios con experiencia laboral en el sector público y privado, en las áreas de comunicación y política. Me encanta trabajar en equipo y tengo una gran experiencia en comunicación. Twitter @srayocorrales o Linkedin.

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