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The Deer Stalking Controversy Raises Important Questions for Meat Eaters

Deer stalking is, and always has been, a controversial subject. Killing for the sake of killing is one thing, but for those who eat meat, the hands-on nature of hunting raises some important questions.
Photo via Flickr user Smudge 9000

It's that time of year again. Stalkers of Scotland are pulling on their camouflage, heading into the hills and cocking their rifles. A part of Scottish culture since Queen Victoria's German husband Albert brought his love of hunting to the land of whisky and haggis, stalking remains a controversial issue nearly 2,000 years since its inception.

The ethical debate swings both ways, of course. Deer stalkers argue that the deer population is managed through hunting, that it encourages a greater understanding of where meat comes from. Activists believe that the act of killing a wild animal is unforgivable.


"Deer have always been managed in Scotland," The British Association for Shooting and Conservation Scotland (BASC) Director, Colin Shedden, tells me. "Before firearms, deer were driven into big enclosures and killed with swords. We manage deer and maintain the numbers at the right density (below five deer per square km)."

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Why is it so important to cull the herd? Shedden says that, when deer are left unmanaged, they become invasive, causing damage to farm land and crops as well as heather, grasses and saplings. "Trees are grown commercially and also for conservation reasons," he says. "If you have a high destiny of deer you'll see no regeneration of young trees as roe deer eat the shoots."

Ben Williamson, a spokesperson for PETA, unequivocally disagrees. "Deer are part of Scotland's ecosystem, not separate from it," he says. "Maintaining the environment includes maintaining the animals who live in it. It's their environment, too."

In fact, Williamson argues that stalking is counterintuitive. "Hunting actually creates conditions that favour accelerated reproduction, whereas biological and environmental factors naturally self-limit growth."

PETA argue that drastic drops in deer population coupled with an increase in the availability of food, paradoxically results in an increase of the deer population. According to Williamson, the hinds of deer herds that are hunted are more likely to have twins rather than single fawns and are more likely to reproduce at a young age. He also says, with more food to go round, and a higher chance of consistent nourishment, fawns enjoy a "lower neonatal mortality."


He also believes that deer culling will never be vital for crop maintenance. "Successful population management programmes focus on habitat modification, humane exclusion and repellents. We are never going to achieve ecological harmony through the barrel of a gun."

The inflammatory issue of hunting raises important questions for meat eaters, though. Namely, if you eat meat, you must be able to be at peace with the idea of death. An animal must die—be it in the wild, in its natural habitat, or on a farm where it has been bred for the sole purpose of human consumption—for us to eat it. If we can't take the life that feeds us into our own hands, or be comfortable with someone else doing it, should we eat the bloody flesh of another warm-blooded animal at all?

The hunting process—which is very hands on for both the stalker and the tourist—is marked with utmost respect for the animal. "Even after death there is a considerable amount of respect for the quarry," says Shedden. "It isn't left or butchered on the hill," Shedden tells me. "Its intestines are removed before being taken to a location where they can get a vehicle to it."

The venison is then either eaten (every bit of it—not just the prized loin) by the stalkers or sold on to butchers in the local area or to meat wholesalers—a far cry from the typical alive-dead-plastic container-shelf-plate engagement with meat products we buy at the supermarket.


We can never look into the eyes of a beef burger and say, "Hello mate, I'm okay with you dying for my culinary enjoyment."

Hunting for the sheer thrill of killing another living thing is one thing, but hunting, killing and then eating an animal is, in an ideal world, something all meat eaters would have the opportunity to do. If you're going to end up eating it, killing an animal in the wild, where it was living as nature intended, and had no idea the shot was coming, is a world away from cows being lined up in the slaughterhouse. Of course, neither is "right" and neither is "wrong".

Meat means death. If a person—a meat-eater—can experience that death first hand, surely that's a good thing?

PETA doesn't agree. "Modern meat processing is undoubtedly cruel. Animals endure a lifetime of suffering just for a fleeting moment of taste," Williamson says. "People can easily stop eating animals if they truly care about stopping cruelty. Vegetarian and vegan diets are also far better for the environment and for human health." True. But people are never going to stop wanting to eat meat.

One part of the deer stalking industry that isn't debatable is the benefit to Scotland. A study in 2006 found that deer stalking alone is worth £105m per year to the Scottish economy (country sports in general such as fishing, shooting and stalking are worth £155 million combined) and also creates roughly 2,500 full time rural jobs in remote areas.


However, it is worth pointing out that the majority of stalking which takes place on hunting estates throughout Scotland, either for land management reasons or sport (Shedden says the two "overlap"), mostly benefits the few—namely the 0.025 percent of the population who own 67 percent of the privately-run estates and who receive between £500 and £5000 for every stag or hind shot.

An all-out ban on stalking wouldn't just affect the land barons, though. Professional stalkers would suffer, as would the rural B&Bs, local pubs, restaurants and shops that reap the benefits of shooting tourists—like these Downton Abbey fanatics from China—pouring through the towns in tweed and wellies.

Paul Wain, a contracted Forestry Commission deerstalker with over 20 years experience shooting in Dumfries and Galloway—covering both personal and business shoots—also works with local estates taking deer stalking clients from all over the world out on hunts. I emailed him to ask what a ban on stalking would mean to his livelihood. He said, unequivocally, that his "life was deer stalking", that a ban would have a "big impact" and that, financially, it would "finish" him.

PETA however, seems as unforgiving toward to the human impact a ban would have as the stalkers are towards their quarry. "We'd still have children working as chimney sweeps and in coal mines if the economic argument trumped the ethical," Williamson tells me. "The money would still be invested in Scottish tourist industries, industries that would reap the benefits from an end to cruel hunting, but wouldn't involve blasting innocent animals away with shotguns."


The image of a deer being blown to bits like a militant extra in a Sly Stallone film isn't quite the picture Shedden paints. He says professional stalkers shoot to kill in one shot. On tourist stalks, only one out of five stags shot will be a 12 point antler or Royal stag (the most prized kill). The other four will be weaker stags, working on the principle of predation and a management cull of male deer.

All tourists are tested for rifle competence before going out on a shoot, monitored throughout, and the majority of people (some 70 percent) who shoot deer in Scotland have voluntarily put themselves forward to sit the Deer Stalking Certificate, which teaches biology of deer and rifle safety. In some places, too—although less likely found in Scotland—fees can be incurred for injuring rather than killing a deer outright.

Still, looking at the souvenir photos of the dead stags with their antlers held up with pride and the polished image of a gracious stalker, professional or not, can leave a sour taste in the mouth. Shedden says the picture isn't distasteful when taken in context, though. "For someone who has spent the whole day on the hill, walking, crawling, getting himself into a position where he can shoot the stag, done a good job and been part of the management of the herd, there's no reason why a photograph shouldn't be taken."

The idea of both sides working together to ensure a more humane way of culling seems unlikely, especially considering the windfall due to any estate which houses a commercial shoot. Presently, only an enforced ban imposed by Westminster—or indeed the Scottish parliament—will lead to the end of deer stalking in Scotland.

It seems fair to say that, as long as there are deer in the wilds of Scotland, there will be stalkers shooting them.