The Quantock Staghounds said that if they were banned from carrying out their sport, the wild red deer in the Somerset hills would be wiped out by poachers and farmers fed up with their crops being eaten.
Opponents of hunting dismissed this as scaremongering - but it seems the hunt was right. At least 36 stags have been shot and sold to game dealers in the past few weeks, out of the 76 counted last month. Their heads have been piled together and photographed. They have been killed by farmers who no longer see any reason not to shoot them now that hunting is banned on trust land.
One, a hunt follower, told The Independent: ''I thought sod the National Trust, I'm going to shoot anything that comes into my fields. They didn't consult us about their ban.'' He said 36 deer had been killed and he had made pounds 10,000 selling the venison.
Since the trust intended shooting deer on its land to control numbers, it would make money from selling the carcasses. ''Why shouldn't we? It's our fields that feed them when they come off the hills.''
Nigel Hester, the trust's local deer custodian, said: ''It's very sad, but it's ... not going to change public opinion or make the trust's council reconsider its decision on hunting. We can't be held responsible for people slaughtering deer.'' The herd eats cereals and young grass but farmers had been willing to tolerate losses. Many are hunt followers, and also felt the hunt limited crop damage by killing deer and keeping them on the move.
Last April the trust's council decided to ban stag hunting on its 1,300 acres in the Quantocks after a report showed deer suffered extreme exhaustion, pain and damage in the chase. It reaffirmed its decision last month after a legal challenge was defeated. The Forestry Commission has issued no new licences for hunting on its Quantock land.
There is no law stopping farmers shooting deer on their own land. Carcasses are usually sold to a licensed venison dealer for up to pounds 300.
The slaughter came to light four days before the second reading of MP Michael Foster's Bill to ban hunting with dogs. If the killing carries on at this rate, the herd could be in danger of extinction within a few months.
A hunt spokesman said: ''We're shocked. We had always felt the herd was in danger if hunting stopped, but we did not anticipate the speed or size of that danger.''
The trust accepts that, in the absence of natural predators, the deer must be culled - but it says that shooting is far less cruel than hunting.
Hugh Warmington, who chairs the Quantocks deer management group, said: ''If we lose hunting, it's acceptable for the deer population to be reduced but ... not like this. I appeal for restraint.''Reuse content