A CHARITY has defended itself against claims that it is “gratuitously” killing deer on its property to the detriment of neighbouring landowners.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) has alleged that environmental charity the John Muir Trust (JMT) are implementing a “malicious” out of season deer cull and that a reduction in deer numbers will put local deer stalker jobs at risk.

It comes after the Scottish Government granted permission for the JMT to shoot deer in the woodlands on their property in Quinag, Sutherland.

Last week, the JMT announced that it had withdrawn from its voluntary membership of the Assynt Peninsula Deer Management Sub Group (APSG) because “there has been little progress against targets agreed by the entirety of APSG, and these fragile woodlands at Quinag continue to suffer damage as a result.”

The APSG is made up of local stakeholders with an interest in deer management, including stalkers, gamekeepers, and landowners.

The JMT has said it will keep its decision to withdraw from the group under review.

In the meantime the charity states that is working to reduce deer numbers in order to “ensure the survival” of the woodland habitat under its stewardship.

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John Muir Trust’s Chief Executive, David Balharry, told The National: “The trees we look after across Quinag are among last remaining fragments of Scotland’s Atlantic rain forest. Because of severe grazing pressure from high deer numbers, young trees are failing to regenerate, and the woodland is now in an ‘unfavourable and declining’ condition.

“To ensure the survival of this internationally important habitat, we have been granted authorisations by the Scottish Government agency NatureScot that will allow us to reduce deer numbers to a sustainable level.

“In time, we expect to see a flourishing woodland across this part of the Atlantic coast for centuries to come, which will deliver multiple benefits for climate, wildlife, the local community and visitors to the area.

“The Trust has always refrained from attacking individual landowners, even where we believe that their narrow focus on sport shooting is environmentally damaging. Instead, we focus on supporting the Sottish Government’s efforts to bring about a step change nationally, so that our land can recover from centuries of ecological destruction inflicted for the benefit of a narrow elite.”

However, the SGA has called for the out of season licence granted to the JMT to be suspended due to concerns it could “seriously imperil employment” in the area.

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The Assynt Crofters Trust (ACT), who own the 21,000 acre North Assynt Estate, have said the granting of the licence amounts to a “gratuitous killing of deer” and will have a “direct, long lasting and detrimental effect” on the charity’s neighbouring properties.

Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s Deer Group representative Lea MacNally said: “The SGA backs the suspension of the out-of-season licence until this project, and its potential impacts, can be evaluated properly.

“The community are not against tree regeneration, as has been demonstrated on their own ground, but this scheme has the potential to seriously imperil employment and cut off much needed income streams with scant justification for any real environmental gain.”

The SGA claim that the extent of the woodland on Quinag upon which JMT has justified its deer cull amounts to 12-15 trees covering roughly 20m by 10m.

They also state that if natural regeneration is to be achieved all deer on the site will have to be killed.

A so-called “zero tolerance” approach to deer numbers in certain areas has previously proved effective in allowing natural regeneration of woodlands, such as on the Mar Lodge estate in Aberdeenshire.

Since the approach was adopted in October 2009, the estate has seen a drop in deer numbers coincide with successful pine and broadleaf regeneration.

In 2022, Forestry and Land Scotland said that more than 200,000 deer across Scotland would be culled over the next five years in order to protect 150 million young trees on FLS land.

It estimated that there are currently more than a million deer in Scotland.

A spokesperson for NatureScot said: “Deer are an iconic species but their high numbers and lack of natural predators mean that they can have a negative impact on woodland and biodiversity. Sustainable deer management is vital to effectively tackle the nature loss and climate change crises.

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“The John Muir Trust (JMT) submitted an application to us seeking authorisation to control deer out-of-season and at night on their Quinag land, to prevent damage to woodland and other habitats, including those on protected sites. We have issued an authorisation on that basis. These authorisations are legitimate tools for preventing damage and delivering effective deer management.

“While we are disappointed that the collaborative approach has broken down in this area, this has no bearing on our authorisation process, which is about NatureScot satisfying itself that damage is occurring or likely to occur, and that no other reasonable means of control can be adopted to prevent damage.”