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Row over deer cull erupts as charity hit back at complaints to regulator


The John Muir Trust and government agency NatureScot have responded after complaints about their action in Sutherland. 

A Scottish conversation charity is facing complaints and the potential of a “hostile takeover” by a local trust in the north of Scotland. 

Earlier this week, the Assynt Crofter’s Trust confirmed that it had lodged complaints against the John Muir Trust (JMT) after it carried out “out of season” deer culling overnight on its Quinag Estate. 

Local news coverage claims the move was “bitterly opposed” by those in the area, including landowners - such as the Assynt Crofter’s Trust. 

Quinag. Copyright Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association has backed a call for the licence - granted by government agency NatureScot - to be suspended. 

The Crofter’s Trust confirmed this week that it has lodged complaints with both the charity and environmental regulators in Scotland. 

In a statement, they said: “Assnyt Crofters Trust has made a complaint to the Environmental Standards Authority and OSCR (Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator) about the recent actions by NatureScot and JMT in Assynt."

Posting on social media, the trust’s sport and game committee added: “Whatever their motivation, they have given the John Muir Trust licence to kill deer 24 hours per day until the end of March. There is little to be done when the law is weighted against a section of the population.”

The granted licence gives JMT permission to shoot deer until the end of March and at night. Scotland’s regular stag shooting season does not begin until July 1 and runs until October 20. A further hind shooting season runs from October 21 until February 15. 

JMT has now withdrawn from the Assynt Peninsular Sub-Group – a forum for discussion about deer management in the area.

Reports now suggest that the Assynt Crofters’ Trust is taking legal advice regarding a takeover of the 3,699-hectare Quinag Estate - currently run by the JMT, with representatives from the charity they only learned about the move in the media.

The Northern Times claims the crofters are exploring the possibility of triggering a clause in land reform legislation - specifically section 3A of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, introduced in 2015,which allows qualifying community bodies to buy land which is “being used or managed in a way that results in or causes harm to the environmental wellbeing of a relevant community".

In a statement published on Wednesday, the JMT hit back at the trust, claiming that the row has been whipped up by a small number of individuals both within and outwith the area. 

They wrote: “The John Muir Trust has been informed, not directly, but via the media, that the Assynt Crofters Trust  is “considering the feasibility of joining a community buyout of the mountain of Quinag from the John Muir Trust”.

“We know that this has not been discussed with members of the Assynt Crofters Trust nor with the wider community of Assynt.  We suspect that this is the work of a few individual office bearers working with people from outside the community, pursuing their own agenda.  

“Moreover, our understanding is that the Assynt Crofters Trust is a collection of individuals managing the land privately with a strong focus on sports shooting, which is a model more akin to private rather than community land ownership.

“We note the role in this dispute of an individual from outside the area who has a wider political agenda, and has long been hostile to both the John Muir Trust  and the Scottish Government.

“The track record of the John Muir Trust, locally and nationally, speaks for itself. We supported and helped fund the historic Assynt Crofters Trust buy-out in 1992 before current land reform legislation helped develop the concept of community ownership and management. We have since supported and contributed to the funding of a number of other community land buy-outs, most recently in Langholm, where we helped raise hundreds of thousands of pounds.

“We have a strong working relationship with Community Land Scotland, and with a number of community landowners across Scotland. We have staunchly supported the Scottish Government’s initiatives to drive forward diversification of landownership and ensure that large estates are managed for the public rather than private interests, including in our recent consultation response to the new Land Reform Bill.

They continued: “The John Muir Trust is proud of its record, and the efforts we make to deliver for people and nature. The idea of a community buy-out of Quinag seems to us nothing more than a publicity stunt dreamed up to serve a wider political agenda which is to undermine rather than support genuine land reform.

“Those who want to corral deer onto their land for sport shooting are welcome to enclose their properties  with rings of steel and manage their deer as private herds. We believe fencing is an expensive solution that soaks up public funds at a time when budgets everywhere are tight and fails to deal with the root problem of high deer densities, which damage peatland and prevent the regeneration of native woodland  – both crucial to Scotland’s climate and biodiversity targets.

“We recognise, nonetheless, that different landowners locally have different priorities. We have never sought to dictate to our neighbours in Assynt or elsewhere  how they manage their land. We remain steadfast in delivering our charity mission to protect and restore wild places for people, nature and climate.”

ACT hit back, telling the National that the JMT was “spinning untruths” around the cull. 

They said: “They [the JMT] have no idea of the local area feeling on this matter yet they state that this has not been discussed with the wider community.

"There has not been any formal discussion as yet but there is mounting anecdotal evidence that the community is far from satisfied with the slaughter taking place.

"JMT is now trying to claim that ACT is a private sporting estate run solely for sporting interests. This again is not true.

"We run the estate for the benefit of the crofters who live and work on the estate. An example of this is that we offer bursaries to students attending further / higher education.

"Part of the funding for this does come from stalking which also subsidises the wages we pay our staff and stalkers. It is obvious JMT knows nothing of the way we run our estate else they would not try to spin such untruths." 

They added: "JMT and nature Scotland (NS), who authorised the slaughter, have now alienated most of the estates in Assynt and many further afield.

"We the ACT can only surmise that NS (that used to be SNH) is getting its own back for losing the last deer management issue. We will not be bullied into submission."

NatureScot told the Northern Times: “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.

“As well as the JMT, NatureScot has been involved in discussions with the Assynt Peninsula sub-group of the West Sutherland 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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