The Cull is an award-winning documentary that explores the controversial topic of deer management in the Scottish Highlands, illustrating the complexity of a debate which has been going on for decades. With up to 400,000 red deer dominating the landscape, and no remaining natural predators, the area’s ecosystems are at risk – widespread overgrazing consistently stunts the regeneration of native woodland. Annual culling prevents further growth in deer numbers, acting as a fundamental land management tool. However, understandably, the practice sparks a range of contrasting views. Such opinions come to life in this beautifully shot, atmospheric film, directed by Ted Simpson and produced by Finbar O’Sullivan.

Once you have been to the Scottish Highlands, they are difficult to forget. They portray a particular kind of beauty – imposing in their vastness, almost intimidating. They are also surprisingly empty, even in the more sheltered valleys. The Highlands are, for the most part, endless stretches of emptiness. Upon first glance, this emptiness may appear as a rare example of ‘pristine wilderness’, but the complex social history accompanying the Scottish landscape reveals that it is, in fact, quite the opposite.

A basic knowledge of this history will be helpful for viewers of The Cull; the film doesn’t provide much context or background information to set the stage for the debate it depicts. Although the bigger picture does gradually become apparent through the film, nothing is spoon-fed. It requires the audience to actively engage with the conversations had on screen, to interpret them on an individual level. In other words, it is a film that demands focus – and in return, it provides a unique insight into topics of rewilding, historical power relations and belonging, within a contemporary framework of the Scottish Highlands.

Rewilding

One of the main themes the film tackles is rewilding, a topic which appears to go hand in hand with deer management. Indeed, although it may seem counterintuitive, the primary adversaries to the proliferating deer population are Scotland’s advocates for rewilding. Based on the knowledge that over 90% of the original Caledonian forest has been destroyed by human activity, rewilding campaigns aim to restore natural habitats and ecosystems, by allowing new trees to flourish. Since deer relentlessly strip woodlands of saplings, brambles and wildflowers, they present themselves as a major obstacle to these wildlife restoration projects.

Broadly speaking, there are two leading strategies to overcome this obstacle: excluding deer altogether, through the widescale enclosure of protected areas; or intensive culling, to significantly reduce their numbers and limit the scale of the damage. As the film highlights, both options spark controversy. But one of the most controversial culls to date also paved the way for Britain’s largest restoration project, based around the Glenfeshie Estate, in the Cairngorms.

In 2004, concerns over the rapidly degrading vegetation of the area led Scotland’s Deer Commission to organise a mass culling at Glenfeshie, slaughtering over 500 deer in total. The scale and ruthlessness of the intervention caused an uproar locally, triggering protests from animal rights campaigners, residents and landowners. It was a clear breach of longstanding morals and beliefs – but the transformation it enabled over the following decade is undeniable. Far from the bare, overgrazed floors that characterise most Highland glens, Glenfeshie is now covered with saplings, as the ancient woodlands are gradually being restored. This increase in tree cover has had ripple effects across the entire ecosystem, encouraging a surge in biodiversity by providing healthy habitats for rare species, from eagles to otters, black grouse and wildcats. The overall benefits of the project are clear, from an external perspective at least. As the film progresses, however, we realise that the environmental advantages of rewilding projects cannot be isolated from the complex social dynamics that shape Highland communities.

Land ownership and the Highland Clearances

Land ownership is a sensitive topic in Scotland. Understandably so, as the vast majority of the land is in the hands of an unrepresentative fraction of the population. More than half of the country is said to be owned by fewer than 500 people, many of whom spend most of their time living elsewhere. This imbalance can be traced back to a radical shift in land management, which is now referred to as the Highland Clearances. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, small communal settlement based around the crofting system was quickly replaced by a more commercially driven land use system. Clan chieftans adopted the behaviours of Highland aristocracy, eventually embodying rich landlords and imitating patterns of ownership that were already in place further south. The result was a drastic rise in rents, which were realistically unpayable, pushing Highlanders out of their settlements. At best, they were moved elsewhere – many boarded ships to North America, for instance. Brutal accounts, however, denounce instances where whole settlements were burned down and massacred. Over the course of the century, the Highlands were swept clear of their inhabitants, replaced by more profitable forms of land use, such as sheep farming or sporting estates. The resulting emptiness is what remains visible in the Highlands today. The sense of wilderness it is often associated with, particularly for the tourist gaze, is far from ‘natural’.

Centuries later, the history of dispossession still permeates collective memory in the Highlands and further afield. The remaining crofting and hill farming communities are sparse, but their presence is a powerful reminder of the region’s long-standing culture and tradition – the film uses the term ‘indigeneity’. These farming communities express a deep connection to their land, as if their very identities are entangled with the place itself, and the place cannot be separated from its history.

Another interesting dynamic the film exposes relates to the position of gamekeepers within the debate. Indeed, although historically sporting estates have imposed themselves as a threat to crofting communities, when it comes to rewilding both parties seem to be united against a common opponent, albeit for different reasons. While crofters rely on the land for their livelihood, gamekeepers rely on the deer. They understand that their numbers need to be meticulously managed, but, rather than seeing deer as a problem, they highlight the economic, cultural and environmental benefits of their presence. In the film, both crofters and gamekeepers are presented as equally sceptical towards the process of rewilding, as it seems to exclude both people and deer from the land they have lived on for centuries.

The Cull clearly warns that rewilding, within this context of division and exclusion, becomes a highly sensitive matter. Multiple parties within the documentary express the feeling that these projects reflect a contemporary reincarnation of the Clearances – by taking control of huge areas of land and limiting external access, pursuing their own agenda. Of course, the motivations that drive rewilding projects are completely different to those that fuelled the Clearances, so the comparison may seem extreme. Nevertheless, it highlights the crucial need to acknowledge and respect the voices of all those affected when it comes to land management.

Belonging

Finally, a more subtle concept revealed in the film, and perhaps one that underlies the whole complexity of the deer dilemma, is the idea of belonging. After hearing all the different stories and perspectives – for which I have only scratched the surface here – it becomes clear that the debate around deer management actually reflects a much deeper issue, relating to people’s connection to the land and conflicting feelings of belonging. The real strength of the documentary lies in its carefully maintained balance of conversations; each side of the argument is explored in a seemingly unbiased way. As a result, it emphasises that everyone involved feels passionately about their own vision of how the Highlands should be managed, because that vision ties in so strongly with their specific relationship to the land.

From a viewer’s perspective, it therefore becomes difficult to reach a solid conclusion, regarding what the best way forward might be. None of the perspectives shown in the film can be judged as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – they are all valid in their own way. In fact, the problem becomes even more problematic, because it evolves into a question of whose voice is allocated the most legitimacy. But who really has the right to make a decision of this scale?  Who does the land actually belong to? Or perhaps, more importantly, who belongs to the land?

The Cull is an ambitious attempt to shine light on the complexity of deer management, and the use of land more broadly, in the Highlands of Scotland. It skilfully illustrates the different layers of the debate, highlighting the intersections between contemporary environmental challenges and longstanding power relations within the landscape. The film does not give viewers the satisfaction of an answer – because, so far, there is none. It does, however, raise vital questions that should be central to the debate moving forwards. Above all, it acts as an important reminder than we cannot separate the landscape from the people who inhabit it, a lesson that applies as much to the Highlands as anywhere else on the planet.

The SFT’s short reviews of other recent films will be published in the next News Digest on February 19, 2021.

Photograph: James West

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