Loch, stalk and smoking barrels

Hillwalkers and red-deer stalkers are clashing on the estates of the Scottish Highlands.

Two rifle shots rupture the blustery sound of a stiff breeze through dead grasses. Three hours of hunched stalking, crawling and lying flat on cold, boggy ground come to an end. Emma Paterson has bagged her first red deer of the hind season, an eight-year-old "yeld", without a calf this year, and a scrawny youngster of a few months that George, the stalker, thinks would not have lasted the winter.

It was not exactly a day of glorious sport in the imagined high Victorian tradition; more a demonstration of an all-weather rural skill, like shepherding. Mrs Paterson, 46, did not leap up exultant, though she took a quiet satisfaction in achieving two clean kills at a range of about 120 yards while having a newspaper reporter and photographer just over her shoulder.

For a few minutes after the shots we barely moved. George Coyne, 55, stalker on the 18,000-acre Auchlyne estate in Glen Dochart for the past 25 years, was anxious we keep low so the rest of the herd, only hesitantly moving away, would not associate the lethal shots with human figures on the skyline.

"If anybody says we're cruel, they don't know what they're talking about," George said, with a degree of repressed anger at what he feels is a general misunderstanding of the ways of sporting estates. "It was a wee thing and would have died a lingering death when the weather turned cold. We did it a mercy."

Bouncing back across the boggy lower slopes in the eight-wheel drive Argo - an all-terrain buggy - with the two carcasses between the seats, he gestured at the bleak hillside and asked what, besides sheep and shooting, is it good for? It is a question various interested, and often opposing groups have been turning over in recent months and one that will come into sharper focus when Scotland gets its own parliament. The fate of George Coyne, archetypal stalker in his light brown tweeds and eponymous hat, may be bound up in its answer.

The Edinburgh parliament will have several emotive rural issues high on its agenda when it begins work next summer - setting up national parks for Loch Lomond and parts of the Highlands, a right to roam over the hills, and land reform, giving communities a bigger say in how the estates which dominate their lives are managed. All the strands are linked and landowners fear they are about to be "got at". They probably are. The parliament will want to demonstrate early vigour. Striking at the preserves of aristocrats and nouveau-riche landowners sounds radical while not being much of a drain on scarce public funds. Inevitably most MSPs (Members of the Scottish Parliament) will be from urban areas, yet even urban Scots hark back to some mythical "Heilan' Hame" and regard estate owners as direct descendants of the perpetrators of the Clearances. Some are.

With reform staring them in the face, the lairds have become remarkably emollient. The Scottish Landowners' Federation has signed up to a proposal that the parliament "should introduce a right of access to land and water, exercised responsibly for informal recreation and passage". This would enshrine in law a liberty held dear by hillwalkers and climbers but occasionally disputed by landowners with a fondness for intimidatory warning notices about high-velocity rifles. National parks are no longer anathema, and landowners seem content to relinquish archaic feudal rights over tenancies.

Auchlyne estate will watch developments with interest. Bought from the Earls of Breadalbane in the 1880s by Emma's great-great-grandfather with a fortune founded on Crabbie's ginger wine, it straddles Glen Dochart, from the flanks of shapely Stob Binnein (1165m) and Ben More (1174m) on the south side, to Sgiath Chuil (919m) on the north. All three hills are significant to George Coyne, as each is over 3,000ft high and therefore a target of "Munro"-bagging hillwalkers. Emma owns the north side of the estate and acts as "ghillie" - labourer and carcass collector - when George is stalking with a client. Her mother, Judy Bowser, owns the south and runs the home farm. But cattle, sheep and modest grouse shooting and stalking cannot keep the family in the splendour to which it grew accustomed in its heyday of ginger wine and whisky receipts.

To keep things the way they are, Mr Coyne and his employers are keen to strike an accord with hillwalkers and amend the public view that estate owners have let the red deer population explode to provide easy stalking.

There are 350,000 red deer in Scotland and numbers are still rising. In its recent annual report, the Deer Commission hints at using its statutory powers to intervene directly and shoot deer if peer pressure among landowners does not boost the hind cull. To George, this language smacks of Scottish Natural Heritage, the Government's distrusted environment adviser. "SNH wants to cover the whole country in bloody trees," he grumbled.

Over-grazing by red deer has stopped natural regeneration of Scots pines on the slopes of the Cairngorms, where SNH would like to see the recreation of the ancient forest of Caledon. When the National Trust acquired the 75,000-acre Mar Lodge estate on the southern Cairngorms it began a massive five-year cull, aiming to cut the herds from 3,000 to 1,650 by the millennium. "I wouldn't say we are struggling, but we are having to work hard at it from dawn to after dusk," said Stewart Cumming, who heads a team of four stalkers. Auchlyne, like much of the west of Scotland, is in better balance, though with mild winters, enabling deer to graze high on the hills and weaker animals to survive, numbers have to be checked. Forty-seven stags were shot on the estate in the autumn and George is hoping for a total of about 70 hinds this season (21 October to 15 February). Thirty-seven have been shot so far, whenever possible with fee-paying clients. Mainly English farmers and middle-class professionals, they pay pounds 100 for a day's hind stalking.

Hillwalkers can be a curse to stalkers. The "Munroist" may be oblivious to the cluster of deer in the next hollow, and the stalk of several hours it has taken the hunters to approach them. But the instant a happy wanderer breasts the ridge, the deer take off. Uncomfortably for the landowners, there is no doubt who is more important to the Highland economy. Stalking brings in pounds 5m a year and supports 350 jobs. Venison sales are worth another pounds 5m.

In contrast, hillwalkers and mountaineers contribute about pounds 150m and help support literally thousands of jobs. Auchlyne is a leader in the "Hill Phones" scheme, providing information to walkers on where stalking is taking place. Emma is the co-ordinator for estates in Glen Dochart and Glen Lochay.

"We are not trying to stop people coming into the hills," said George, who has given up stalking in one popular corner. "But they need to realise the effect it could have on somebody's employment. Deer can be an estate's survival. If we don't have a herd, I might not have a job here."

Coexistence has become the order of the day for the lairds and their employees, though not all yet heed it. In the van, George Coyne and his friend Stewart Cumming over at Mar Lodge, are having to marry conservation and access to the hills with an attitude and way of life on the sporting estates that has barely changed since Queen Victoria roamed Balmoral with John Brown. Maybe the eyebrow-raising friendship of monarch and ghillie is a lesson; surprising accommodations are possible.

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