COMMUNITIES ON the Assynt peninsula in north-west Scotland are at loggerheads with conservation giant the John Muir Trust over deer numbers in the area.

The area has seen four community buy-outs of land in recent years, with the 'little folk' now in charge rather than big sporting estates - but deer stalking remains a key source of income, and Assynt crofters have a keen interest in there being adequate deer on the hills.

Unfortunately, Assynt's other occupant, the John Muir Trust, has an equally keen interest in seeing less deer, concerned as it is to protect and expand the remnant of ancient native woodlands it holds on the Quinag Estate.

This week, that tension boiled over as Assynt residents accused the JMT of undermining the co-operative deer management plan in the area to manoeuvre the Scottish Government into accepting its demand for statutory deer control. While stopping short of an outright accusation, the residents' statement also hinted heavily that the JMT has had a hand in the recent dramatic decline in recorded deer numbers.

SNH helicopter counts between Spring 2013 and November 2014 revealed a total of 538 deer unaccounted for - with 881 deer left compared to 1419 eighteen months before - and members of the deer group believe such losses are "bleeding community interests dry" while weakening the resilience of the dwindling herd.

"Assynt is being used as a political hot potato," said Mary Reid of the Assynt Peninsula Sub-Group."Normally, in these circumstances, the public dismiss 'sporting' views and side with conservation groups because the perception is that it is all about rich landowners. We have had four community buy-outs here. There's no big money, this is about little folk.

"The people being affected from having less and poorer quality deer are the crofters and all the small local estates. The Assynt Crofters' Trust run their estate as a business by taking stalking parties out. The money supports many local families and trades.

"The crofters' records from 2012 show that, from 20 stags, they brought £42,000 income into the area, with 229 bed nights. That is business you can't lose in an area like this."

Included in the deer group are representatives of the Assynt Crofters' Trust, the body which purchased the 13 townships of North Lochinver Estate in a community buy-out in 1993. A spokesperson for the group said: "John Muir Trust has a policy that they want deer management to be statutory so, all along, they have pushed and tested the co-operative system in operation here so that, in the end, they can say it's broken and demand Scottish Government do away with these arrangements in Scotland altogether.

"They are putting two fingers up while everyone else suffers because of the one unruly child in the class with no interest in playing ball."

Responding, JMT chief executive Stuart Brooks said it made no secret of the fact that it supported "stronger regulation" of the deer industry.

"The Scottish Government itself recognises the need for this in its land reform policy memorandum, which recognises that deer are causing damage to designated sites, agricultural crops and forestry, as well being a road safety hazard," said Mr Brooks.

"Nonetheless, we have engaged all along with the voluntary process, and have repeatedly signalled our willingness to do so. One of our key concerns in Assynt is to protect and expand one of the last remaining fragments of ancient native woodlands in the north west Highlands. That cannot be achieved simply by building a fence around bits of it at the cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds to the taxpayer. Instead, land managers need to manage deer at levels compatible with the natural environment, for the benefit of all," he explained.

"We also reject the implication from the unnamed spokesman that the John Muir Trust is responsible for the disappearance of 538 deer on the land we manage in Assynt. Our actual cull during the period between the two helicopter counts - in spring 2013 and autumn 2014 - was in fact around 140. A more plausible explanation for the discrepancy is that the counts took place at different times of year when deer were in different areas," he added.