Nature group learns of community buyout plan from press amid dispute

One of Scotland’s largest environmental groups said it has learned about a crofting group joining a community buyout of its land via the media, rather than from the community members themselves.

The John Muir Trust (JMT) said it believes the move has been made by “a few individual office bearers” at the Assynt Crofters’ Trust (ACT) and a “hostile” individual “who has a wider political agenda”.

The two organisations have been locked in an ongoing bitter dispute about deer culling policies in the Highland area.

The fresh quarrel was triggered by NatureScot’s recent authorisation of an out-of-season and night-time licence to JMT to cull deer on its Quinag Estate as a means of protecting woodland.

ACT, however, has labelled the “gratuitous killing of deer” as “malicious”, and claims it will have a “direct, long-lasting and detrimental effect” on the community, including local deer stalking employment.

Members also said the policy is promoting a woodland regeneration scheme for a “tiny extent of woodland on the mountain” that “barely exists”.

But the clash escalated on Wednesday when the JMT said it learned the crofting community announced it apparently has plans to join a buyout of some of the charity’s land, without having had a prior discussion.

In a statement, the JMT said: “The John Muir Trust has been informed, not directly, but via the media, that the Assynt Crofters Trust is ‘considering the feasibility of joining a community buyout of the mountain of Quinag from the John Muir Trust’.

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

“We suspect that this is the work of a few individual office bearers working with people from outside the community, pursuing their own agenda…we note the role in this dispute of an individual from outside the area who has a wider political agenda, and has long been hostile to both the John Muir Trust and the Scottish Government.”

ACT responded saying it was looking at a possible buyout of Quinag with other parties “as a potential way forward to settle the dispute regarding the deer cull and future deer management”.

A statement from the group went on to say the JMT comments had “several inaccuracies”.

It read: “Firstly, they have no idea of the local area feeling on this matter yet they state that this has not been discussed with the wider community.

“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.

“To state that this has not been discussed by the Assynt Crofters’ Trust (ACT) is simply not true.”

The statement went on to say: “If this dispute is about deer and trees then there are several points worth making: ACT has planted 900 hectares of native woodland inside enclosures.

“The woodlands, which have been monitored over the last 20 years, are now mature enough that the fencing can start to be taken down to allow the deer back in.

“How many have JMT planted? None.”

ACT members then went on to say the JMT and NatureScot, who licenced the deer cull, have “alienated most of the estates in Assynt and many further afield”.

The group’s statement concluded with: “We can only surmise that NatureScot is getting its own back for losing the last deer management issue. We will not be bullied into submission.”

The JMT’s policy on killing deer previously clashed with locals after the discovery of 86 rotting stags on a hillside in Knoydart, Lochaber, in 2016.

Last week, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) announced it was backing ACT in pushing for the suspension of the out-of-season licence “until this project, and its potential impacts, can be evaluated properly”.

NatureScot has previously said “sustainable deer management is vital to effectively tackle the nature loss and climate change crises.”

The agency said it authorised JMT to control deer out-of-season and at night on its Quinag land to “prevent damage to woodland and other habitats, including those on protected sites”.