GAMEKEEPERS have taken issue with some of the conclusions drawn from the recent Native Woodland Survey of Scotland undertaken by Forestry Commission Scotland, pointing out that the emphasis on damage done by deer was not, despite the headlines, the chief reason that 54% of the country's woodlands were classed as 'unsatisfactory'.

Instead, a new analysis of the figures underpinning the report has highlighted that incursions by non-native tree species were actually the single biggest reason for areas of woodland to miss their biodiversity targets, leading the gamekeepers to decry the "tunnel vision" of Scottish Natural Heritage's subsequent attack on deer managers.

The multi million pound survey was hailed as Scotland’s most authoritative stock-take of its native forests, and on publication, the claim that ‘excessive browsing and grazing', mainly by deer, was negatively impacting 33% of the total, led to environmental groups rounding on sporting estates for keeping deer numbers high for deerstalking, prompting Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham to consider tougher laws to force deer managers to meet strict cull plans.

However, new analysis of the figures, published in the Scottish Forestry journal, claims that thousands of hectares of ancient woodlands, classed unsatisfactory due to exotic tree planting, were omitted from the survey, despite being assessed.

According to Victor Clements, executive member of the Association of Deer Management Groups, 39,000 hectares of Planted Ancient Woodland Sites been included in the final draft, the percentage of woods impacted by non-native trees would have outnumbered those damaged by deer and livestock.

“An initial draft revealed an important sub-set of our native woodlands were not actually included in the main report though available for mapping purposes," said Mr Clements. "When the PAWS area is added, it becomes apparent the greatest threat (to native woodlands) in terms of area, is actually non-native tree species, not herbivore impacts, although the order of magnitude is broadly the same. This means the narrative surrounding the launch of the report is not actually correct."

Scottish Gamekeepers Association chairman Alex Hogg commented: “Even without the omitted 39,000 hectares, non-native trees impact 77,000 hectares of native woodland in Scotland. This won’t go away because it is one of the key criteria determining whether woodlands are satisfactory or not.

“If native woodlands are to meet 2020 Biodiversity targets, focusing on one issue, deer, won’t work in isolation. Something has to be done about the amount of exotic species such as Sitka Spruce and other conifers on these sites. At some point, a wider view has to be taken addressing all issues in the round.”