Islanders on South Uist vote against mass red deer cull

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The board of community company Stòras Uibhist held a vote on the cull petition.
The board of community company Stòras Uibhist held a vote on the cull petition.

Islanders in South Uist have overwhelmingly rejected a petition to cull all the red deer on a 93,000-acre community-owned estate.

Concerns over the spread of Lyme disease, which can be transferred to humans from infected deer tick bites, was a key driver behind the petition.

In a crunch vote over the fate of around 1,200 deers, a total of 379 people voted against the mass cull while 140 supported it.

The ballot, organised by Stòras Uibhist which manages the estate, was held during an emergency general meeting in Daliburgh.

While the board believed that eradicating all of the animals was unnecessary, around 200 members of the community company signed a petition calling for the complete cull.

The board believes that smaller culls should be used to control the deer population.

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Stòras Uibhist chief executive Darren Taylor was pleased the community backed the board's position.

"We have culled a large number of deer this winter and we will continue to reduce the size of the herd and deal with marauding animals quickly and effectively," he said.

"At the same time, we believe a well-managed deer herd is an asset to the island and we never thought eradication was the right path to take."

During the meeting, members took part in a discussion about the impact of such a drastic cull, including whether the community could afford the move.

Some members argued that it would draw finances away from other resident priorities such as affordable housing.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) previously warned that South Uist represents one of the last  ‘refugia’ for genetically pure Scottish red deer, with zoologists recognising the long-term threat to the species.

SGA chairman Alex Hogg, MBE, said: “As the body representing SGA members and their families, who would have paid the price of deer eradication with their jobs, we are relieved for them at the outcome.

“We know it has been an incredibly worrying time for them.

“The gamekeeping team have carried out a record reduction cull this winter, in difficult and uncertain circumstances. They deserve credit for that."

It is understood a total of 166 hinds, 53 calves and 97 stags were culled this winter, with plans to repeat those numbers each year.

Mr Hogg added: "It was pleasing to hear Storas Uibhist also allude to the other work professional gamekeepers carry out; work which is of benefit to the wider community but is not always reflected solely in balance sheets."

The Scottish Countryside Alliance also emphasised the importance of island red deer populations.

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While the animals are "iconic to Scotland", many herds on the mainland have been hybridised by breeding.

Jake Swindells, director of the organisation, added: "Whilst it is understandable that deer numbers need to be reduced, this must be done as part of a carefully controlled deer management plan and not by eradication."

Speaking on the native deer population, he said: "The ability of the non-native Japanese Sika deer to hybridise with our native Reds makes sanctuaries, such as our Western Isles, much more important.

"Sika and Sika/Red hybrids are now common throughout Scotland and everything should be done to protect the pure herds in places such as South Uist. It is commendable that the community recognise this."

In addition to fears over Lyme disease, the deer have also been blamed for damaging grazing land and gardens.

The islands of South Uist, North Uist and Benbecula have a far greater incidence of Lyme disease than on neighbouring islands or the mainland.

Research from the University of Glasgow showed that approximately 7 per cent of ticks on Uist carried the disease which is "somewhat higher" than the Scottish average.

Stòras Uibhist chairperson Mary Schmoller commended the large turnout for the vote with 60% of the membership taking part in the ballot.  "It was heartening to see such a huge amount of participation and engagement from our community last night," she said.

"The large number of people present at last night’s meeting and the fact that so many members of the community took the time to vote shows that true democracy is alive and well on South Uist.

"The meeting was conducted in a polite and respectful manner at all times demonstrating that whatever people’s views on deer, we are a strong community."