GAMEKEEPERS have urged Scottish Natural Heritage to consign helicopter-assisted deer culling to the past, warning that any resumption of the practice would be a 'shameful day' for animal welfare.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association this week claimed that the countryside quango was once again considering deploying 'helicopter hit squads' to thin out the deer population, which is often blamed for environmental damage to upland areas.

However, SNH has responded that the helicopters mentioned are simply to transport shooting teams to remote locations, rather than as actual platforms for aerial shooting.

Using helicopters to transport marksmen in groups to surround and kill deer first hit the headlines in controversial fashion at Glenfeshie Estate in 2004, when hundreds of deer were killed outside the legal season by marksmen flown in to the area to protect forest regeneration, under licence.

The adverse publicity lead to a Government inquiry, which heard claims that stressed deer were held in one area and shot at constantly by rifles for over 90 minutes. Witnesses reported and filmed deer with significant injuries being left for long periods before being dispatched.

A report by The Royal School of Veterinary Studies at the time concluded helicopter assisted culls were amongst the worst for shooter accuracy, with flighty deer already on the move reacting to the noise of rotor blades.

Despite that damning verdict, SGA officials claimed that, speaking at Holyrood, a senior SNH official had indicated that the body was bringing back helicopter-assisted culls.

“No one is denying the need for deer management – the question is the methods to be used in Scotland today,” said SGA vice chairman Peter Fraser, a retired deer stalker of 50 years experience. “We have more qualified deer managers than ever, yet we are seeing things like 86 culled stags being left to rot on a hillside by conservation bodies and found by walkers in Knoydart.

“Now Scotland’s own heritage body is looking at using helicopters to transport shooters and carcasses – a practice causing a significant percentage of animals, after being shot, to run or walk away without collapsing due to poor accuracy.

The SGA position is that native deer should be treated as a valued resource for Scotland’s communities, creating employment and growing the venison industry: “How can this be done when the government’s own advisers want to treat deer like this, rendering them worthless?" asked Mr Fraser. "It is a shameful practice and a welfare disaster.”

SGA member Niall Rowantree, a former forest ranger who has organised helicopter culls in the Trossachs, said the method was a "backwards move, at the expense of the Scottish tax payer".

“It is not a part of sustainable deer management and flies in the face of the Government’s blueprint, 'Wild Deer: A National Approach'. I know because I did it myself," said Mr Rowntree. “I think there would have to be justification about taxes expended on a very expensive method which hasn’t worked, particularly when forest rangers’ jobs are being cut."

Asked to comment on the SGA accusations, SNH issued the following statement: "Managing wild deer in Scotland's hills is extremely challenging. A number of estates have asked us to help them use helicopters to take stalkers to remote areas.

"This help allows estates to achieve their deer management objectives and get deer numbers in balance with their environment. We make sure that those taking part are trained to the highest standards of safety and deer welfare," said SNH.