The hunt for the marksman who slew Britain's largest wild animal – the 9ft-tall stag known to Exmoor residents as the Emperor – escalated yesterday with suspicion turning towards a handful of landowners, one of whom is suspected of co-operating with an out-of-town trophy hunter.
The stag had been protected, even by local huntsmen, because he was such an impressive specimen.
The search for the killer has turned to the bucolic north Devon village of Rackenford, eight miles from the safety of Exmoor National Park. The stag could habitually be found in the nearby Worthy Folly wood, where he and his hinds were protected by the wood's owners. The 300lb prize creature was shot after straying from the haven of the trees and on to surrounding land.
The atmosphere in Rackenford has turned sour. People there are furious that the Emperor was shot in the middle of the rutting season, preventing him from passing on the genetic bounty that allowed him to achieve such a huge stature. A good stag head fetches over £1,000, but the Emperor's would have obvious inflated trophy value.
"He went out of those woods and into someone else's land," said a local source, who would only speak on condition of anonymity. "People are facing hard times and struggling to make ends meet. When they can get thousands of pounds from this, they do."
Exmoor, a former royal hunting ground, is popular with both local hunters and wealthy outsiders, who fly in on jets or helicopters to stalk the populations of red deer. They pay landowners to hunt legally on their land.
The restaurateur and property businessman Richard Caring, who last year offered a £15,000 reward for information after two stags were killed on his 500-acre Exmoor estate, is among those who want to know how the Emperor came to be killed.
"It's diabolical," Mr Caring told The Independent yesterday. "It's a healthy animal, 9ft tall. It's a beautiful animal. A farmer will have sold the rights to someone to come on to his land and kill that animal. I would understand if it was infirm. But I don't think people should be allowed to wander around and murder such a magnificent animal in that way.
"I've made it very clear to people that they won't get permission to do that on my land."
The vice president of the Exmoor Society, Ian Liddell-Grainger, who is also the Conservative MP for the nearby constituency of Bridgwater and West Somerset, said he was "bloody furious" about the shooting and plans to try to establish the identity of the culprit. "It is inexcusable," he said. "We all knew about the Emperor stag. He's been around long enough. What is frustrating about this is that somebody has gone out for a trophy and shot the thing.
"We are proud of our herds here and they are managed beautifully. If I find out who did this, I shall be having words."
John Norris, a huntsman with the Tiverton staghounds which patrolled the area close to Rackenford, said that the hunt had chosen to protect the stag, thought to be about 12 years old, because he was such an impressive specimen. "We wouldn't have hunted him," he said. "What a farmer does on his own land, we don't have any control over."
Peter Donnelly, an Exmoor-based deer management expert, said: "It's a disgrace that this magnificent animal has been shot at this time because it could be that he didn't get a chance to rut properly this year."
Such was the concern the stag would be targeted that attempts had been made to keep its location a secret to outsiders. But, earlier this month, a deer enthusiast saw a group of people out watching stags near to where the Emperor was killed.
Two shots were heard, and a secretive witness states that the stag's carcass was bundled into a vehicle on a busy main road not far from the village.
"People do collect things like they pay a premium to have a Porsche or Lamborghini," explained an employee at North Devon Taxidermy, adding: "The Emperor's dead – long live the Emperor. It sounds to me that it was just a big old deer that was taken out."