Megan Rowland | What it takes to be a Deer Manager in Scotland?
Anyone with a passion for wildlife and the land probably looks at the bounty of the Scottish Highlands in awe, I know I do. As a deer lover, I specifically wanted to find out more about a deer management career, so spoke with Land and Deer Manager (and blogger), Megan Rowland (Wayfaring Hind), about her work and life in Highlands. Megan’s role revolves around delivering a Habitat Management Plan incorporating deer, forestry, peatland, and farm management elements, among others.
NOTE: Before I get into the interview I just wanted to briefly set the scene behind deer management in the UK. Deer species are often considered keystone species and “habitat engineers” because of their impact on the ecosystem, and in the absence of non-human apex predators overabundance can occur with detrimental overgrazing consequences. For this reason, among others, land managers aim to limit deer numbers through culling schemes and exclusion fences. Deer welfare is also considered, as overstocking can result in starvation and disease. Reasons for, and routines of, deer management vary regionally, but regardless it plays an important part in maintaining the countryside. So, with that in mind let’s find out about Megan and her life as a Land and Deer Manager in the Highlands…
How did you become a Land and Deer Manager?
I took a pretty circuitous route into my current role as a Deer Manager that evolved as I did. Believe it or not, I was a vegetarian for 18 years and strongly anti-hunting; however, over the years I realised the world was more nuanced than “good” and “bad”. My parents began keeping rare breed sheep, so I was able to see the whole process from lamb to table; and, when I looked at that leg of lamb (reared on our croft 50 metres away) and again at my Quorn sausage (I’m not knocking Quorn), I felt my viewpoint was a bit skewed. I thought there must be a way to eat meat ethically, by supporting small scale, local producers or eating wild meat (e.g. venison, pigeon or rabbit).
Around the same time as this, I started studying BSc Environmental Science, but when I stopped enjoying it I dropped out in favour of getting a job and volunteering with RSPB Scotland and later GWCT. I reasoned I could learn by experience as opposed to qualifications, I met a lot of people in the industry (farmers, crofters, deer stalkers, and gamekeepers) and I put my boots to the ground by carrying out flora and fauna surveys throughout Caithness and Sutherland. I went out for my first day’s hunting and by the end had culled my first deer.
I realised I wanted to learn more about the world of deer – their ecology, physiology, and management, so undertook the nationally recognised BDS Deer Management Qualifications. I now hold Levels 1 and 2 and am one of three women in the UK to be an Approved Witness. This allows me to train, mentor, and assess others to achieve their levels. I came back to traditional qualifications and studied Gamekeeping and later combined it with Wildlife Management at the University of the Highlands and Islands, and soon I’m going to study a Masters in Countryside Management with the SRUC. That’s how I became a Deer Manager!
What are the highlights?
Every day out on the hills and in the woods, I get to shape the landscape and be surprised by wildlife over and over again. I particularly love watching the deer as they are the most charismatic animals – both resilient and intelligent. It is immensely satisfying building a skillset that could take me anywhere in the world, and I enjoy meeting like-minded people from all over. Allowing knowledge exchange about history, ecology, and wildlife.
What are the challenges?
Initially the challenge of being a Deer Manager was physical – I had to get stronger and fitter to deal with the workload and terrain – but with training, access to machinery and a bit of logical thinking, there’s not a lot that can’t be done! Sadly, another challenge is the attitude of some people toward me or my role; those whose lives are bound by traditional gender roles and can’t understand why I’d want to do this type of work – something faced by many women who choose to work outdoors with wildlife of in STEM careers, and those (commonly male clients) who act inappropriately (ask for massages, ignore instructions, tell me how to stalk deer, and criticise my work).
Having spoken to other women in my line of work, I know this is nothing new, but it requires constant justification of my ability, my motivations, and my worth. That said, the majority of people are decent and are really interested in my work and want to learn more.
What do you enjoy outside of work?
Most of my interests tie back to my work. I helped establish the Scottish Crofting Federation’s Young Crofters group, to help and support folks under 40 who have their own croft (small tenanted farm, in Scotland, with some arable land and rights to a common grazing area for livestock) and to advocate for better support and services in rural areas. I also attend conferences when I can. I sat on the Oxford Farming Conference debating panel at the 2018 Royal Highland Show, I will be on the panel at The Birdfair 2018 taking part in the Youth Debate, and I will also be speaking to the Highland Environmental Forum about wildlife management best practice.
Which is your favourite deer species?
Difficult question! I work with red deer most often, but I am very fond of Roe Deer – they’ve got such elfin faces, they’re lovely.
Which is your favourite bird species?
That’s even tougher! I’ll go for Whooper Swans, as I adore hearing them flying overhead in winter and spring, the sound they make is so gentle.
What advice would you give to people starting out?
- You never stop learning
- You don’t have to choose a “side” – so many of the problems in land management are due to lack of communication or willingness to compromise. It is vital that we are united to move forward as the new generation of conservationists, deer stalkers, scientists, land agents, foresters, researchers, gamekeepers, ecologists, land owners, farmers, and the public!
Lastly, what’s the story behind your blog – the Wayfaring Hind?
The name came about after a day out deer stalking with a friend; we were making our way down the edge of a burn (stream) when a hind and her calf appeared in front of us. We froze, but she kept coming closer, trying to work out what we were and doing all sorts of funny things to try and get us to move. It was quite an unusual encounter, especially seeing a hind on her own away from the herd. I love deer and I love travelling, wayfaring, so I thought this would pay homage to both.
If you want to find out more about life in the Highlands or deer management, Megan has united her love of deer, travel and writing in her blog “Wayfaring Hind” (www.wayfaringhind.wordpress.com) and is also active on Twitter (@wayfaringhind).