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CROFTERS on the North Assynt Estate are at loggerheads with Scottish Natural Heritage over deer culling.

The estate was bought by the Assynt Crofters Trust in a historic £300,000 deal in the early 1990s, helped along by a donation of £20,000 from SNH. Now, however, SNH is threatening to invoke, for the first time, an order that would allow marksmen to be sent in to kill deer on the land against the estate management's wishes.

The threat arises from long-standing concerns about the ancient woodland on the remote Sutherland estate, which conservationists fear has been unable to regenerate because of extensive grazing by the wild red deer. The crofters argue, conversely, that the deer numbers are vital to generate income for the estate.

Specifically, SNH has accused the crofters of reneging on a pledge to cull 86 hinds in 2016-17, killing only 56, a number it said would not be enough to allow the officially protected woodland to recover to “favourable condition”.

Describing SNH as a “quango gone mad" the crofters are refusing to comply with its demands, stressing that they were putting their own measures in place to protect the woodland and had evidence to contradict SNH's claims about its condition.

As things now stand, the SNH board has agreed to make a final offer of a Section 7, or voluntary agreement, to reduce hind numbers on the estate – but if that ultimatum is not agreed to within a month, a Section 8 order would be invoked, allowing it to take action itself.

Assynt Crofters Trust chairman Donald MacLeod accused SNH of being heavy handed, and told The Scottish Farmer: “This is only the start of this dispute. We are keeping our powder dry and have a meeting of the deer management group which covers all the estates on Assynt this Thursday.

“SNH is a quango gone mad and we are certainly not going to sign any Section 7. We don’t have much income on this estate. The stalking creates a few jobs and people stay in the bed and breakfasts. It doesn’t make much money but an estate like this needs every penny.

“We’re fencing off the woodland to keep the deer off – that is all in progress. But it’s still not good enough for SNH. This is just the start of our fight.”

A spokesman for SNH responded: “We have a range of powers in the Deer Scotland Act to help support deer management, some of which are relatively new as a result of land reform. Our board has agreed we should deploy these powers more effectively to support local deer management as required and regulate where necessary when the voluntary system is not working.

“We will always do that in close liaison with land managers and try and secure the most appropriate mix of advice, support and regulation to ensure delivery of sustainable deer management. Our effort is now focussed on concluding the signing of a deer management plan that supports the recovery of internationally significant habitats across Assynt.”