Deer counting

Knowing how many deer use an area is important when deciding how best to manage the population. It is also useful to know the age and gender of the deer within the population, as well as to understand how they are using the area. However, because deer are highly mobile, living on extensive open hill ground and/ or in woodland, gathering this information can be challenging.

Deer populations are usually estimated from either direct observation counting or indirect counting methods. Across the uplands, deer are typically counted from the air using helicopters and from the ground by people on foot. NatureScot is currently exploring alternative methods of counting such as using drones and fixed wing aircraft equipped with sophisticated camera technology. Estimating deer numbers in woodland can be more challenging but dung counting and thermal imagery can be used. Drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras can be particularly useful.

A deer manager will get more value from a deer census if the data is used together with information on the impacts of the deer.

Direct observation counting

Direct observation counts provide a snapshot of a deer population within the count area at the time of the count.

Counts can begin to show population trends when the same method is carried out frequently and at regular intervals for the same area.

Direct counting methods include:

  • ground counting by teams on foot
  • aerial counting using helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft or drones
  • night-time ground counting using thermal imaging and night-vision equipment.

Before deciding on the most suitable method to use, consideration should be given to local conditions.

Watch our film on helicopter counting of red deer.

Helicopter deer counting explained
Click for a full description

The purpose of helicopter deer counting is to provide land managers with information on deer populations at a landscape scale.

Indirect counting

Where direct observation is difficult, deer numbers can be assessed using indirect methods such as dung counting or monitoring deer impacts. The use of camera traps also has potential.

Dung counting involves assessing how much dung has been deposited over a period of time in a specified area and using that information to estimate deer usage of the area. This method was traditionally used just in woodland areas, but specially designed versions of the method are increasingly being used over open ground.

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