A CROFTERS trust has threatened to “buy out” a piece of land owned by a Scottish conservation charity because it doesn’t agree with the organisation’s management of deer on the property.

Last week, the Assynt Crofters' Trust (ACT) complained that an out-of-season deer cull by the John Muir Trust (JMT) on their property in Quinag, Sutherland was “gratuitous” and would have a “direct, long-lasting and detrimental effect” on neighbouring properties that rely on deer to make an income from stalking.

NatureScot has already granted the JMT permission to undertake the cull, which the organisation says will help protect some of the “last remaining fragments of Scotland’s Atlantic rain forest.”

The JMT recently withdrew from the Assynt Peninsula Deer Management Sub Group (APSG) because of the group’s lack of progress in protecting the area’s fragile woodlands.

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association has said that the JMT is the "mad dog" of NatureScot and claimed that there "is little to be done when the law is weighted against a section of the population." 

Now, ACT has announced that it “considering the feasibility of joining a community buyout of the mountain of Quinag from the John Muir Trust.”

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The group said they are taking legal advice in an attempt to trigger a community land reform law which would allow them to purchase the property and manage it themselves.

They cited the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, which introduced a clause into the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 allowing qualifying community bodies to buy land that is “being used or managed in a way that results in or causes harm to the environmental wellbeing of a relevant community".

However, the JMT has hit back at the suggestion and said the announcement is “nothing more than a publicity stunt dreamed up to serve a wider political agenda which is to undermine rather than support genuine land reform.”

In a statement the charity said it had not been made aware of ACT’s intentions until they were reported in the media.

“We know that this has not been discussed with members of the Assynt Crofters Trust nor with the wider community of Assynt,” they said.

“We suspect that this is the work of a few individual office bearers working with people from outside the community, pursuing their own agenda.

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“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.

“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.”

It added that while the charity respected landowners’ individual rights to manage their property as they choose, that same right should be afforded to them without the threat of a hostile takeover.

“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.

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“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.”

It is estimated that there are more than a million deer in Scotland.

The species' habit of eating saplings and damaging trees poses severe problems to the planting of native woodland with some conservationists taking a “zero tolerance” approach to the animals in key tree planting areas.

They have no natural predators in the UK at present other than humans.

Last year, Forestry and Land Scotland said that around a fifth of Scotland’s deer would be culled over the next five years to protect 150 million young trees on their land.

In response to the JMT's statement ACT said the charity was "spinning untruths" and said they will not be "bullied into submission" over the cull. 

A spokesperson for the Trust 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.

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"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."