I’LL be straight with you – we probably need to kill Bambi. And his mother. Preferably his father too. Here’s the thing – we have ourselves a wee climate emergency and although killing deer makes us have the big feelings, we are going to need to work through them.

Call them hysterical (they’ve been called worse) but the John Muir Trust (JMT) has ­described overgrazing by deer as “catastrophic”. Deer numbers in Scotland are not only damaging the landscape but also hampering the ability of lots of ­well-meaning green sorts to sequester carbon, restore ancient woodlands and save the planet.

Why is deer culling such an emotive and ­polarising issue? Well, it’s 2023 – everything is an emotive and polarising issue because apparently that’s how we ­approach stuff now. Lots of shouting and raging, ­almost no sensible discussion. So contentious is the matter of deer culling that I will now be assigned a plain-clothes police officer.

I hate to mention the “C word”, but perhaps the feeling of being told what you can and can’t do, on land you’ve worked for generations, doesn’t exactly have positive connotations. Time to take a deep breath ...

The National: We have too many deer, so some will have to die

Bambi (1942) grossed $267 million for Disney. In December 2019, the Deer Working Group (DWG) Report admitted that it’s hard to say precisely how many deer there are in Scotland – but it may well be one deer for every dollar Bambi made. I jest, but they did estimate that the numbers are approaching one million. Deer are browsing, ruminant animals and are ­terrible for native woodlands (particularly ones we’re trying to restore) as their preferred food source is ­saplings.

And we are kind of dependent on those ­infant Ents for helping us to sequester ­carbon, ­improve biodiversity and pump out oxygen (to breathe).

Zoologically speaking, there are four ­different ­flavours of Bambi massacring tree babies in ­Scotland: The native red and roe deer and the non-native sika and fallow. Culturally, deer also enjoy quite the ­poster child, lead singer spot – shortbread tins ­anyone?

At this point, we perhaps ought to jettison ­euphemisms – cull in this context means kill by shooting, best we don’t dance around this too much. We are very much talking about killing some/most/nearly all of the deer.

We used to have cool stuff like wolves and lynx but we hunted those to extinction. Oops. Direct ­predation of the sort offered by wolves and lynx would be ­awesome but unfortunately it’s frowned upon to release large carnivores in areas where ­people and livestock live.

READ MORE: DNA suggests that red deer from the Hebrides could have come from Europe, not Scotland

Deer now only have one predator and that’s ­humans. Leisure stalkers don’t shoot enough deer to impact numbers and are more interested in taking stags with massive heads – taking young hinds would better prevent baby Bambis.

Additionally, there are not presently enough ­qualified deer stalkers and being qualified is ­fairly critical. Deer are canny creatures and it takes a great deal of skill not to unintentionally shout: “Run ­Bambi, I’m hunting yooooou!”

Well-intentioned but unskilled “Cull Volunteers” (Cullunteers?) could create an animal welfare ­issue. Enthusiastic shit-shots flailing about the place with borrowed Winchesters could lead to deer taking a non-fatal hit and experiencing untold suffering. I once came across a deer that had been shot by a poacher, in the jaw. The poor mite was running about the place with half its face ­hanging off, ­waiting to succumb to its injuries. Very much not cool and humane culling needs to be an important and sincere ­consideration.

Deer stalking and culling is highly skilled work and a good long-term employment opportunity for rural communities – many of whom are still waiting to be levelled up.

Also, as culls are a rolling roadblock, rather than a total closure of the A9, we will need to keep culling deer owing to that old devil called love/the biological drive to reproduce.

Great for the rural economy, not to mention gender equality because pulling a trigger doesn’t depend on grip strength. Regrettably, there aren’t many women stalkers – which is a bit silly really. Not least because they even make guns for girls – genuinely.

I also stumbled upon The Women’s Stalking Project – no, not in the way ­certain people look for “tractors” at work. I’m probably on some sort of watch list now all the same. There is huge scope to diversify the rural workforce here – look at Bambi unknowingly being all woke.

At risk of being accused of ­Scotsplaining, let’s cast our mind back to the ­Clearances. OK, not just the ­Clearances but between them and the private ownership of shooting estates, the tag-team of sheep and deer have made Scotland’s landscape what we recognise today as “natural”.

Aside from independence, let me ­remind you that Scotland is also in want of a tree line. This is the altitude at which trees no longer grow – because ­environmental conditions can’t sustain life (trees are such divas).

Now, a bit awkward, but the Scottish landscape we’re all so intoxicated by, might not be a very authentic one. In fact, quite a lot of it is caused by deer damage and management of the land for country pursuits.

Expanding native woodland would ­sequester carbon, improve ­biodiversity, stabilise temperatures and weather ­systems, prevent flooding and soil ­erosion and, weirdly, improve the ­natural environment for mammals such as deer. It might even give us a tree line – and ­serious bragging rights at the next UN summit.

When I met my now husband, I worked in a deer park. Nights off were spent surreptitiously removing ticks (Ixodes ricinus) that I’d unwittingly picked up. I don’t know if you’ve ever had Lyme ­disease, but I can vouch for the fact it isn’t much fun.

Encouraging/permitting conditions to continue where we increase the chances of (another) zoonotic infection wreaking havoc with humans/the health service/the world, following a pandemic seems foolhardy. Deer have an important part to play in a thriving and diverse ­ecosystem – but it’s very much a bit part and not a starring role.

My one-sided case notwithstanding, some people are opposed to culling. The JMT has experienced “fierce opposition from a vocal minority demanding the ­status quo for sports shooting estates”.

Hmmm, this doesn’t sound like the ­status quo we all know and love … ah, yes it does, and boy do they not like what we (ecologists) are proposing.

Shooting estates have a vested interest in keeping deer numbers high and ­owners bleat very loudly when they fear a dent in the value of their holding. They are also rather well-connected because, you know, Westminster.

Desire for profits must not be allowed to dictate terms on environmental policy in Scotland – even if that industry wasn’t owned by a band of wealthy bellends.

Yes, I’m understating the enormous ­social, historical and emotional ­heritage of stalking in Scotland. Yes, mostly to serve my argument.

But also, on ­balance, who are the “winners” on shooting ­estates? Clue, it’s not the poor buggers out in all weathers, being human buffets for midges and ticks and then ­gralloching in the rain after the client has their ­picture taken.

To maintain an entire landscape, in a way that is far from optimal, in order to serve the sporting interests of a privileged few seems a touch self-indulgent – even for rich people who have a ­disproportionately high carbon footprint at the best of times. Just saying.

Depending on your personal ­circumstances and background, you might feel sympathetic or apathetic ­towards shooting estate owners.

What I think most people can agree on is that an activity that one can reasonably expect to cost £600 for a single day, is not exactly an everyman’s pursuit. Is this ancient and culturally ­significant pursuit really providing ­reliable and ­gainful employment in rural ­communities or is this just a line used by the ­landowners seeking to leave their business model unaltered at the expense of the Scottish landscape and the wider global ecosystem?

It is easy to position this in a way that isn’t helpful and I am not trying to start a class war here, but it’s really ­important we hold the right people to account ­(landowners) while respecting, ­supporting and having meaningful input from those whose livelihoods may be ­affected (the workers).

Aside from the fears around traditional pursuits and rural job security, some scientists and animal rights activists are opposed to culling because it seems a bit contradictory/mental that you have to kill stuff to save stuff.

So, is there anything else worth ­considering?

We could, of course, do nothing but that’s an entire Bambi Universe ­franchise. Also, current levels of culling have had embarrassingly mixed results – ­successful in some areas, kept numbers static in others but in some places, deer numbers have continued to increase, ­despite shooting a bunch of them.

Some scientists have suggested putting the girls on the pill. In the real world, ­giving every hind (because ­contraceptive responsibility obviously falls to the ­female) a packet of pills and a little talk would be tricky.

Not to mention, ­administering contraceptives on that scale would result in, as yet unlicensed chemicals making their way into other animals, the water table and oceans.

Fencing is an option – in theory – but it’s bloody expensive (everything’s ­expensive these days) and breaking up arbitrarily divided pockets of land along property lines stymies the natural ­ecosystem. Moreover, it’s an awful lot of work (money) to keep it hole-free.

As Henry Dobson, The Woodland Trust’s site manager for Loch Arkaig says: “I don’t think there are any ­alternatives – and I base this on over a decade of being responsible for over 50,000 hectares.”

I’m only responsible for a spider plant – I feel we ought to listen to him.

Currently, there are more than 100,000 deer shot annually (DWG Report) equating to about 3000 tonnes of venison. That’s an incredible amount of nutritious food – so why aren’t more people eating venison?

The National: Enjoy roast loin of venison at Chapter One

Venison has more protein than any other red meat and more iron than beef. I should confess that I don’t eat beef and actually, I eat mostly plants. There are lots of reasons for this but I do eat venison and, despite risking the wrath of certain quarters of the environmental movement, at time of writing I have a venison ragu in the slow cooker.

It’s pretty simple to my (simple) mind – deer have to be culled. I don’t like waste. The end.

Oh, and venison is extremely delicious.

Also, ecologically speaking, if you are culling the deer, it’s better to eat them. Whilst this sounds like ­fantastical, ­self-justifying nonsense, I had it ­verified by a proper scientist, but to show my ­working, if you leave a carcass to ­decompose, it will release methane. If you eat said carcass, carbon dioxide will be released when you “expel” it. Now, I know we’re meant to be aiming for net zero by 2045 but in this instance, ­methane is worse than carbon dioxide as it heats the planet up faster. I digress.

Now, “isms” of any kind have, ­thankfully, become deeply ­unfashionable of late, so it is with considerable ­personal risk of being cancelled that I’m ­“going there” with rich twats. Call me ­classist but no matter how deep I dig, I really struggle to feel compassion for ­ludicrously privileged people and the sport they like as part of a rotating menu of hobbies and holidays.

Deer stalking is inaccessible for most of the population and is also an ­overwhelmingly male pursuit.

I also ­dislike huge, monied corporate interests, using gamekeepers, workers on the land and locals as an emotive human shield – pretty shady using someone else’s ­cultural heritage to let you do what you like on your Highland playground. Let’s call it out.

Once, heavily pregnant, I dragged an injured fallow deer (Dama dama) off the road. It had a broken leg and bleated in pain, but I felt it was kinder than having more cars drive over it. It clearly needed to be euthanised and I still feel bad that I couldn’t help it.

The thing is, I rather like animals, deer included. I also have a rather high regard for life – all life – not just the bits of it that are useful to humans. But precisely ­because we so spectacularly messed things up, it’s now imperative we put our Big Girl Pants on and do the right thing.

We aren’t able to “let nature take its course” because we broke nature and built flyovers and housing and footy ­stadia.

Opposing ecologically critical ­actions because they make us feel sad is ­self-indulgent. We should feel sad – it’s no less than we deserve. It’s also OK to feel sad about the necessary changes to ­traditional pursuits, and recognise who those deserving of our sympathy are.

There are brilliant initiatives ­happening all over Scotland but one of note is ­Finding the Common Ground on Upland Deer Management: a project bringing ­together diverse deer management groups – ie: people who might have had beef (venison?) with one another previously, and applies civic mediation tactics so that sensible discussions can take place.

Because, regrettably, what the ­climate emergency really needs is ­sensible ­discussions. What rural economic ­inequality and poverty need are sensible discussions.

We must not screw up, on this issue and also more widely across the climate ­emergency, a just and fair transition when it comes to mitigation strategies (and maybe less name-calling; I hereby ­retract my use of “bellend”), you know, just like when they closed the mines.

Central and local government have form when it comes to edicts that shaft people (mining pun) but ­appalling ­historic ­examples demonstrate how ­critical it is we get ecological initiatives right. The ­really good news is it’s not that hard. You basically just have to talk to people.

HERE’S the thing – the way Scotland’s landscape is managed needs to change and will do so. The price of living in the most beautiful country on earth is the responsibility of its stewardship.

Historically, rich people have done a pretty cruddy job of this – something those who work for them should not be made to feel responsible for. ­Stewardship is hard because it involves huge ­emotional investment and having eco wankers ­wading in is like having people turning up in your front room and telling you how to raise your fawns.

Equally, you cannot take umbrage with something because it has been legislated for. Sometimes we all need rules.

Remember when we made seat belts compulsory and some people really kicked off about having their right to die via ejection through a windscreen ­impinged upon? Exactly.

It’s possible to protect the livelihoods of those who work in Scotland’s proud stalking tradition. It’s also possible to undo some of the harms inflicted on the landscape and, more broadly, the world.

We can do both; we have to do both.