A disagreement over cull numbers at the John Muir Trust’s Quinag estate in Sutherland has flared up after five estate owners sent an open letter urging the trust’s supporters to question its actions on culling.

In the letter, the estate owners argue that grazing pressure is too high and that some habitat on Quinag might need protection, but they believed the John Muir Trust preferred to cull rather than fence it off.

The letter states: “Temporary fencing is a recognised method of assisting regeneration and has no long-term adverse effect on the habitat. The John Muir Trust would prefer to cull deer indiscriminately in order to assist regeneration. This policy of culling deer without regard to age or numbers brings the trust into conflict with the neighbours and also the wider community.”

The letter – sent by Jim Payne of Ardvar estate; George Vestey of Inchnadamph estate; Andy Hibbert of Loch Assynt Lodge estate; the Assynt Crofters Trust; and David Walker-Smith of Middle Inver estate – also states that the trust is advocating statutory control over deer numbers. The authors say this will bring the trust into further conflict with neighbours, a situation that is not helped by the John Muir Trust declining to attend deer management meetings in Assynt or to reveal its deer cull numbers.

The trust’s chief executive officer, Stuart Brooke, responded by saying: “It’s disappointing that your [the estate owners’] focus has moved to attacking and threatening the John Muir Trust.”

Denis Mollison, who helped found the trust, added: “The dissension you are trying to stir up in the local community has the potential to do much more damage to the fragile local economy than any land management mistakes that either you or the John Muir Trust are likely to make.”

The disagreement between the John Muir Trust and its neighbouring estates started in 2012, when Scottish Natural Heritage recommended that 20 stags be taken from Quinag, but the trust stated that it intended to more than quadruple the figure.

At an emergency meeting, the John Muir Trust agreed not to determine cull numbers until a count had been done. It then applied for an out-of-season licence to cull more deer, which was refused by Scottish Natural Heritage. The John Muir Trust has not disclosed its stag cull numbers for the 2013 season.

Mr Hibbert, one of the signatories to the open letter, told Shooting Times: “We heard that by early August, 20 stags had been shot on Quinag. We’ve heard that would appear to be daily shooting from there, and yesterday I heard nine shots fired. In the six years that I’ve been here, the hill has never been this empty. I haven’t seen my feeder stags for two months, which is highly unusual.

“It is a very real concern that overculling in Scotland in recent years is putting red deer under threat. There seems to be no selection when they are culling on Quinag and no-one in the community is happy with how the trust has handled this. It is damaging the local economy by damaging stalking in the area.”

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