SCOTLAND’S red deer population is reaching “crisis point” because animals too weak to escape are being mercilessly killed.
Gamekeepers in the north are blaming conservation groups for “slaughtering” the beasts which do not have the strength to run away.
In some areas, stag numbers have dropped from 1,000 to just 350 in the past decade, leading to warnings that out-of-season culling could wreck the stalking industry.
Graham Waugh, head gamekeeper at the Barisdale Estate on the shores of Loch Hourn, about 40 miles north-west of Fort William, has laid the blame at the door of conservation groups and compared winter culling to “shooting fish in a barrel”.
Herd numbers on his estate have dwindled to such a low level that just 10 stags will be tracked
during the upcoming summer season.
He said: “It’s a problem right across Scotland, not just in our little corner, and the public need to know what’s going on.
“During the season when we are stalking stags, we go out and find the right one and it’s a very controlled process.
“We are lucky if we get two a day and quite often we go out and come back with nothing if the circumstances aren’t right.
“Basically, out of season if you want to you can go out and slaughter them because they’re too weak to even run. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.”
He added that the practice of shooting in winter was unfair on the stags – and potentially damaging to Scotland’s £350m country sports industry.
“It’s putting a real strain on the estates, which don’t make a lot of money at the best of times,” he said.
“It will not be long before jobs are at risk.”
Donald Cameron, gamekeeper at neighbouring Kinloch-Hourn Estate, added: “The deer are getting scarcer and scarcer.
“The business of shooting them out of season is really not on.”
The stag shooting season runs from july to October, while hinds are normally culled over the winter.
Robbie Kernahan, head of wildlife operations for Scottish Natural Heritage, said licenses for deer culls had to be considered on a “case by case” basis” and there were often good reasons for shooting out of season.
He said: “There are legitimate reasons for land managers using authorisations to cull deer out of season to prevent damage to the natural heritage, unenclosed woodland, or public safety and SNH consider any application on a case by case basis.”
There are up to 750,000 red deer currently in Scotland, and they can mostly be found in glens and on mountains across the Highlands, Islands and Lowlands of Scotland.
The red deer is one of the largest deer species in the world. Fully-grown stags can weigh up to 240kg and their antlers can grow up to 115cm long.