A national heritage group is poised to use its legal power for the first time to enforce a mandatory deer cull in part of north-west Sutherland.
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) – the body responsible for the sustainable management of deer in Scotland – is set to issue a warning to members of the Assynt Peninsula Deer Management group.
But the Assynt Crofters Trust, one of 12 group members, has reacted angrily.
Trust chairman Donald MacLeod said last night: “Their aim (SNH) seems to be to cut the deer numbers right down. They want to make it the first time they use the Section 8 (the legal power vested on SNH under the Deer Scotland Act 1996).”
The row over deer culls goes back more than five years and centres on Ardvar Woodland, 680 acres of birch and native oak trees protected under European and UK legislation.
The woodland lies partly on the privately owned Ardvar Estate, John Muir Trust owned Quinag Estate and the North Assynt Estate, run by the Assynt Crofters’ Trust.
But the trust, and other landowners, feel the level of cull being called for will devastate the deer population and impact the income produced from deer stalking.
SNH want to reduce their latest estimated numbers from 7.5 deer per square km to 2.5 deer.
A SNH spokesman said: “Our role is to help local deer groups across Scotland to work together to reduce damage to the environment, reduce fencing costs and road accidents whilst also protecting local jobs.
The spokesman added that the deer management group reached an agreement last summer to reduce deer numbers but that “this was not delivered.”
Last month, the board agreed to make a final offer of a Section 7 voluntary agreement (under the Deer Scotland Act 1996) to reduce deer numbers on the estate – but this has not been agreed on.
It is understood fines of up to £40,000 can be levied on estate owners who do not comply with a Section 8 statutory order, and that SNH has the right to send in marksmen to carry out the cull.
In a statement Mr MacLeod said: “This is only the start of the dispute. We are keeping out powder dry and have a meeting of the deer management group on Thursday.
“SNH is a quango gone mad and we are certainly not going to sign any Section 7.
“We’re fencing off the woodland to keep the deer off – that is all in progress. But it’s still not good enough for SNH.”