MORE than 200,000 deer are to be culled in Scotland over the next five years, around a fifth of their population.

Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) has awarded ten major regional contracts for deer management worth between £25-31 million.

It says the cull is necessary to protect the 150 million young trees on FLS land, which are vulnerable to browsing damage from deer.

The damage caused by deer costs the government agency an estimated £3 million each year.

Ian Fergusson, head of wildlife management at FLS, said: “Scotland’s forests and timber industry are fundamental to Climate Emergency mitigation and the prevention of biodiversity loss.

“Our productive forests are additionally becoming increasingly important as a natural resource, particularly as global markets face unprecedented levels of flux and the UK is importing 80% of its annual timber requirement.

“It is vital, therefore, that we continue to limit the negative environmental impacts of deer damage on our forests and fragile habitats by helping to reduce deer numbers nationally to a sustainable population level.”

Deer numbers have doubled in the past 30 years, with experts predicting there are currently over 1 million of them in Scotland.

The FLS states that the animals are so concentrated in certain areas that they are detrimental to woodland creation and nature conservation, impacting the environment to such a degree that the long-term health of the herd may be compromised.

READ MORE: Could the Eurasian Lynx be reintroduced to Scotland after 1300 years?

Peter Cairns, executive director of rewilding charity Scotland: The Big Picture, said that while culls were necessary there were other things that could be done to control their numbers.

He said: "In the absence of natural predators, Scotland's deer populations have been increasing over decades.

“In many areas, their grazing is preventing the expansion of native woodlands and impacting on fragile peatlands, both of which lock away carbon.

“Deer are an essential part of Scotland's landscape and culture but where densities are high, culling by professional stalkers is necessary to allow habitats to recover.

“We support deer densities that are more closely aligned to the carrying capacity of the land with populations managed, in part at least, by the return of natural predators.”

Deer have no natural predators in the UK. In the past they would have been eaten by lynx, wolves and bears, which once roamed wild in Scotland.

As such, management by humans is the only way to control their numbers.

Fergusson said that the cull will have a positive economic impact on rural communities.

He added: “Awarding these contracts will have a significant positive economic impact in rural communities by supporting up to 100 jobs in the deer management sector and, through the supply of around 37,000 carcasses annually, will continue to support jobs in Scotland’s venison processing sector.

“The contracts also underline our commitment to improving and enhancing the sustainable management of Scotland’s National Forests and Land and – in line with our Climate Change Plan – helping Scotland respond to the biodiversity crisis as we reach Net Zero.”

There are also concerns about whether an increase in their numbers has coincided with an increase in cases of Lyme disease in Scotland.

Though deer do not carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, they do increase the size of local tick populations.