A Scottish Government agency has sanctioned a policy which could lead to young deer starving to death, gamekeepers have claimed.

Deer management contractors have contacted the Scottish Gamekeepers Association to report that, from the start of this month, Forestry and Land Scotland has asked them to begin shooting female red and roe deer in the nation’s forests, well ahead of the legal season beginning October 21.

The SGA pointed out that the open season for females was established in law for animal welfare reasons in order to protect youngsters dependent on their mothers for survival – and warned that this new policy will lead to mothers being killed under authorisation, with their orphaned youngsters dying through starvation, unless they are also shot.

The SGA has taken up the contractors’ cause, as they are reportedly fearful of losing income if they 'whistle-blow'. 

“What is happening here is a national disgrace,” said West Highlands head stalker, Lea MacNally, from the SGA Deer Group. “Those who approached us are conflicted. They are working people. They need money, like all of us, but they respect deer and believe this is wrong.

“Spotted calves, whose mothers are shot, will die slowly from starvation, unless they are also culled. There won’t even be a use for the carcass because the calves are so small. They are not viable. We really hope the Greens and the animal rights parties take this on."

Responding, a spokesperson for Forestry and Land Scotland, said: “We recognise that deer control arouses strong differences of view. Our approach to deer management is fully compliant legally, is recognised as best practice and is backed by data on increasing deer populations and impacts derived both from our own extensive surveys and the recent independent deer working group report that cited an imminent total deer population in Scotland of one million.

“Additional culling is therefore required to protect young trees and halt losses in biodiversity - at any one time on Scotland’s national forests and land, there are between 75 and 100 million trees vulnerable to damage from deer representing millions of pounds of investment in public forests.

“We have authorisation from NatureScot for the culling of female deer during close season on unenclosed land under the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 (as amended) and also operate under the general licence for enclosed land," added FLS the spokesperson.

“This authorisation is widely used by other forest managers to prevent damage by deer and we have discussed our use of it with stakeholders, including the Association of Deer Management Groups (ADMG) which accepts our position. In 2018/19 NatureScot issued 254 section 5(6) out of season authorisations of which 11 related to FLS. A further 7 ‘female over one year old only’ authorisations under section 5(6) to cover the period 1st April to 31st August were issued by NatureScot and of this figure none were related to FLS.

“All FLS rangers and contractors are registered with NatureScot as fit and competent to undertake this activity and are fully aware of the process they must follow. We also monitor our culling operations to reinforce best practice and ensure deer welfare.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson added: “ As Forestry and Land Scotland has made clear, its approach to deer management is fully compliant legally and is consistent with recognised best practice. This is not a new policy or new development. Out-of-season authorisations are a regular and necessary part of deer management for many landowners throughout Scotland.

“Managing deer is needed to reduce their impact on the wider environment and in particular to protect young trees and saplings and on peatland. This is particularly important when we need to take urgent action to help mitigate carbon emissions and we welcome the support of key environmental organisations for our approach to deer management. 

“We are absolutely committed to the highest standards of welfare for all animals, including deer."