by Deborah Hadfield
The John Muir Trust has culled more than £100,000 worth of deer on a single highland estate. That’s the conclusion of a freedom-of-information request by local crofters
The JMT used out-of-season licences to shoot animals on its Quinag estate in Sutherland. It is a blow for the Assynt Crofters Trust, or ACT, that depends on the animals for its commercial deerstalking operation. Crofters used a freedom of information request to find out the full extent of what the trust have been doing.
Victor Clements is a woodland advisor. He says although he expected the cull numbers to be higher it is still a lot of animals.
He says: “100 stags is a lot. Those are the animals with some value. So, they’ve certainly hurt their neighbours to the west by doing that.”
He says 110 stags are worth around £100,000. He says: “The John Muir Trust effectively just reduced the value of those deer by 95%.That’s not good.”
Alan McCombes of the John Muir Trust says the cull numbers are reasonable.
He says: “The Scottish Government, all sections of society and most political parties recognise that deer numbers in Scotland are too high and they have been for a long time.”
He says deer numbers affect the trust’s ability to utilise vast areas of land that is of low agricultural productivity but has immense potential to sequester carbon and contribute to biodiversity targets.
JMT culled 110 stags, seven hinds and two calves during what is, traditionally, the hinds-only season.
Victor says the cull included far fewer hinds than 2022. He says: “I think in terms of managing the deer population that they’ve failed to target the animals, that would make a difference. If you want fewer deer, ultimately you’ve got to target the hinds.”
Alan says the trust doesn’t accept that the cull harms the local economy. He says: “Deer numbers have doubled over the past 20 years. There has been no increase in the number of jobs. There’s been no growth in economic activity associated with the deer.
“There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that reducing deer numbers in the scale we’ve reduced them will have any impact whatsoever on the local economy.”
He says there are still hundreds of stags and those numbers are higher than other parts of Scotland.
The trust claims the cull is to help protect woodland. Alan says the deer that gather in Quinag do damage, including to trees planted by local children. He says: “What we are concerned about is land that we manage. But it will have a wider impact for the deer across the peninsula as a whole. There are local community organisations who have expressed quite serious concern about deer numbers.”
He says people are concerned about Lyme disease, road collisions, damage to crops, gardens and playgrounds. He says: “There are a lot of people in agreement with us. Some people disagree, and we respect that, but they are not the only voices. A lot of people want the cull to happen and think it will benefit the wider and community as a whole.”
Victor says the trust was better served by the local man who carried the cull last year.
He says: “They would have had a much better chance of actually achieving success because he was shooting the deer that were actually doing damage in the woods. This time around. I suspect most of those deer will never have been in the woods at all, and therefore they went to waste.”
The Countryside Alliance in Scotland is concerned about the long-term impact of out -of -season culls across Scotland.
The alliance’s Scotland director Jake Swindells says the government has targets to meet for both tree planting and for culling deer. He says: “What we would ask is that any cull, particularly one of this scale, is planned in accordance with the local communities and the deer management groups in that locality. You’re not just taking the deer from one particular ground, you’ll be taking the deer that a transit over to three, four large pieces of ground.”
He says any cull should involve the local community and deer management groups.
JMT has announced the purchase of a 45-acre site at Quinag. It wants to create a community and visitor hub.
Alan says the project will open up opportunities for businesses to be created, for jobs to be created, for affordable housing to be developed and for cultural facilities to be established. He says: “We want to work with the local community. We’re going to work with every section of the local community, whatever differences they may have with the John Muir Trust.”
Victor says the site is a good place to attract traffic from the North Coast. He says: “I would imagine it’s pretty good for that. But hopefully they’ll take their time, and they’ll work out what they might be able to do with that.”
Jake says tourism is important for Scotland but development on the 45-acre site could disturb deer. He says: “There is potential for them being pushed off feeding grounds, off breeding grounds and pushed out of their natural habitat and natural areas for ranging.”
He says communities will benefit from tourism, but the proposal needs to be considered carefully.
JMT is launching a consultation to encourage local people to have their say on the future of the site. Victor says the project may be just a public relations initiative by JMT. He says the argument over the deer cull has been difficult for JMT. He says: “I expect it’s probably been quite bruising for them and they’re trying to get people back onside again. So, they’re trying to maybe shift the focus of the discussion.”
Alan says JMT is opening a community consultation and feasibility study to examine what can be achieved with the investment. He says: “We think we are going to open up tremendous opportunities for the people of Assynt in the next period.”
The latest purchase may be seen as JMT’s olive branch to help the local economy, but the battle between crofters and the conservation industry is far from over. They disagree about how they should manage the land and what crofters need in order to survive independently.