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Scotland's wildlife caught in deadly snare

Fencing to control red deer in Scotland is taking a dramatic toll on other species  
ENN



Exactly how many thousands of miles of deer-fencing landowners in Scotland have erected is unknown. Not even Britain's state-owned Forestry Commission, which subsidized them to the tune of millions of dollars, has the answer.

"That's just not a statistic we keep," a commission official said.

What is certain is that the unsightly wire fences that crisscross nearly a fifth of the country are taking a heavy toll of wildlife.

One casualty is the capercaillie, the world's largest grouse and "the soul of the forest" in Gaelic mythology. The capercaillie has already disappeared from the rest of Britain, and in Scotland its population has crashed from 20,000 in the 1970s to around 1,000, leading to predictions of extinction within 10 years.

The 7-foot-high fencing, erected to stop deer from destroying young trees, is a major killer. Black grouse, another Scottish bird in serious trouble, are also suffering heavy losses from the fencing.

The fences are controversial. A grant application for more fencing around Queen's of England's Balmoral estate, a capercaillie stronghold in Scotland's highlands, is now on hold, and estate manager Peter Ord said it could be cancelled altogether. "If people don't want it to go ahead, then it won't," he said.

Balmoral has 1,300 acres of ancient Caledonian pine that support some 36 capercaillies. In 1992, the Forestry Commission helped fund the erection of 4.5 miles of fencing on the estate with a $410,000 grant. But the fences proved a particular hazard to young hen birds; 16 were killed in the first year alone.

Robert Moss, who spent 25 years studying grouse and capercaillie at the government's Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, said fences are the "main single cause of death" of capercaillie, and has appealed to the Queen to order their removal.

The forestry commission is alarmed by the impact of fences, and has begun to remove them from its own 1,900 square miles of Scottish forests. Having helped pay for new fences more than 40 years, the commission's new policy is: "Don't fence unless you have to."

What that edict amounts to will soon be put to the test. Klaus Helmersen, a Danish multimillionaire who owns the huge 42,000-acre Glen Feshie estate in the Cairngorm mountains, is seeking commission grants to the tune of about $900,000. The money would help pay for woodland regeneration and fund four miles of deer fencing. But it would also be an intrusion into wild, remote countryside made special by being farther from a public road than anywhere else in Britain.

Glen Feshie, known as the crown jewel of Scotland's Cairngorm Mountains, was made famous by the 19th century painter Sir Edwin Landseer, who chose it as the setting for the "Monarch of the Glen." It boasts golden eagles and one of the last surviving fragments of Caledonian pine, a mix of rowan, aspen, holly, birch and Scots pine found nowhere else in the world.

A grant application for more fencing around the Queen of England's Balmoral estate, a capercaillie stronghold in Scotland's highlands, is on hold  

Although more than half of the estate has maximum legal protection under European and Scottish law, Glen Feshie is a mess. It has suffered terribly from overgrazing and erosion from the red deer that proliferate throughout the highlands. Few of its magnificent old granny pines are less than 100 years old. The woods are dying.

In February, a survey counted 2,200 deer, double last year's population. Conservationists say the answer is simple. They want deer culled and fences removed on a massive scale.

At its Abernethy reserve, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a leading UK environment charity, has done just that, clearing 25 miles of fencing and reducing deer numbers by 60 percent. The result over the past eight years is a stable capercaillie population.

Fencing is more than just a problem for wildlife. At Balmoral, where miles of fences are covered with bright orange plastic to discourage capercaillie, Ord allowed that the hills "resemble a motorway construction site."

But deer-hunting is big business for Scotland's powerful landowners, who charge millions of pounds for shooting rights. Whether the forestry commission is prepared to take them on and seriously reduce deer numbers remains to be seen.

Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved




RELATED STORIES:
No roads where the deer roam, federal judge rules
January 11, 2000
Landowners enticed to aid at-risk species
June 28, 1999

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RELATED SITES:
Trees For Life
  • capercaillie
Britain's Forestry Commission
Black grouse
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Balmoral Castle

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