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Anger as John Muir Trust granted out of season licence to kill deer on its north-west Sutherland estate

By Caroline McMorran

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A fresh row has erupted in north-west Sutherland between wild land conservation charity the John Muir Trust (JMT) and neighbouring landowners over the culling of deer.

The John Muir Trust has been granted permission to cull deer until the end of March and at night.
The John Muir Trust has been granted permission to cull deer until the end of March and at night.

Managers of sporting estates which border JMT land are upset that it has successfully applied to NatureScot, the advisory body for wildlife and landscape management, for a licence to cull deer out of season and at night, despite their “strenuous” objections.

JMT, which owns the 3,699-hectare Quinag Estate and 4,703 hectares of Sandwood estate, says it needs the licence because deer are impacting on protected woodland.

However, fellow landowners counter that the woodland in question could simply be fenced off and that any increased cull will have an impact on their own deer figures and sporting enterprises.

They are also critical of NatureScot for granting the licence.

Assynt Crofters' Trust states: “JMT’s target deer cull for 2022 was 32, and in fact they shot more, at 45. They now have the opportunity to kill many, many more….This gratuitous killing of deer will have a direct long-lasting and detrimental effect on all their neighbours.”

Tensions have ratcheted so high that JMT has now withdrawn from the Assynt Peninsular Sub-Group (APSG). The group comes under the West Sutherland Deer Management Group and provides a forum for those involved in deer management locally to discuss issues.

It is not the first time relations between JMT and its neighbours have soured over its deer cull - a similar situation arose in 2013 when landowners issued an open letter was issued urging JMT supporters to withhold financial backing from the group.

The latest dispute came to light after Assynt Crofters' Trust posted a lengthy statementon its website entitled "Deer lives matter".

The trust stated: “ACT disagrees completely with JMT’s means of achieving their goals. JMT are completely opposed to fencing, the logical means of preventing deer encroaching on up-and-coming growth.

“Their sole policy is reducing the deer population to a bare minimum. Deer travel long distances in search of food, and culling deer in one place simply means that others will move in from elsewhere.”

ACT points out that NatureScot's own guidelines advise that licences should be granted only when there were "no other means of control which can reasonably be adopted to prevent damage".

ACT’s statement concluded: “ACT and the neighbouring estates will continue to deal with their land as they see fit, in the hope that there will still be deer left to manage.

“Obviously the availability for ‘effective dialogue’ between the deer management group and JMT no longer exists. This is likely to only further alienate JMT from local Highland communities as well as from their own supporters."

JMT chief executive David Balharry told the Northern Times: “Reducing deer density is essential for woodland restoration at Quinag and the trust has applied for, and been granted, authorisations from NatureScot for culling deer until the end of March and at night.

David Balharry said that reducing deer density was "essential" for woodland restoration at Quinag.
David Balharry said that reducing deer density was "essential" for woodland restoration at Quinag.

"Our objective is to allow recovery of the remnant woodlands on Quinag, which continue to suffer browsing damage from deer.

"After over a decade participating in the Assynt Peninsula Sub Group and the wider West Sutherland Deer Management group, there has been little progress and these fragile woodlands at Quinag continue to suffer damage as a result.

"We feel the time is right for a different approach. We have withdrawn our voluntary membership of the APSG until such time as we can be assured it can work in a way that recognises legitimate management objectives, land-owning rights and responsibilities, and the rights of staff to work with others in a respectful environment.

"The trust will continue to share plans and actions on deer management locally and with the chairperson of the ASPG.”

A NatureScot spokeswoman 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.

“The John Muir Trust 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.

“As well as the JMT, NatureScot has been involved in discussions with the Assynt Deer Management Group and local stakeholders about these plans.

“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.”

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