Deer count from the air

Jamie Hammond is a Deer Management Officer for Scottish Natural Heritage. One of the more dramatic tasks he works on is helicopter-based census work. It’s a tried and trusted way to accurately count deer, and here he reveals a little of what is involved in a deer count exercise.

In early March 2015, ten staff and contractors from the Wildlife Operations unit carried out a helicopter count of deer in the Breadalbane area. This was part of our ongoing support to the Deer Management Group, and our aim was to provide high quality data on the local deer population which will subsequently inform management of deer in the area.

Three helicopters were used for two-and-a-half-days to cover the 90,000 hectares and a total of 9,330 red deer were counted.

Red deer stag

Red deer stag (Cervus elaphus)
©Peter Cairns/2020VISION

A huge amount of work goes into preparing for these counts. We work closely with the Deer Management Group and estate owners and staff to identify the area, fence lines, and boundaries over the area we will survey and who will participate. This then needs to match up with a suitable weather window – ideally with low winds, good visibility and snow cover and crucially helicopter availability.

Often this has to happen at short notice so all the planning needs to be in place well in advance. Crews need to be identified, accommodation booked, landing sites for the aircraft organised and fuel located on site.

To add a further challenge this time around BBC Scotland’s Landward crew also wanted to film us in operation, as part of a story on deer counting for the new Landward series. We were delighted to help them out so in this instance this was another element to factor in.

On the morning of Tuesday March 10 it was all systems go and over the next two days the count team worked hard to cover the area, photographing groups of deer, grid referencing them and recording information and cross checking. All the individuals involved were highly experience in this type of work and used to the somewhat challenging conditions in the helicopter due to the wind (it’s not easy counting whilst battling motion sickness!), tricky weather conditions and suitable light for taking photographs . We also had to ensure it was completed within budget in the short time window we had.

Red deer Hind and young calf   © Danny Green/2020VISION

Red deer Hind and young calf © Danny Green/2020VISION

On completion of the day itself there followed several weeks of data processing, quality control and assistance from our Geographic Information Group colleagues to create count maps. The field team then collate all the information together into a count report that is then shared with everyone in the Deer Management Group.

Why do we survey and what do we do with the information?  Well, the data is quite simply used to influence management decisions, allow estates to balance their sporting objectives whilst maintaining deer densities at levels where negative impacts to designated features are minimised.

So all in all it’s a big effort from a large team of people to ensure the job is well done and we get valuable information to inform future deer management issues.




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