A constitutional review by Lord Oliver decided this year that the council had the right to overrule members, and that the ethical considerations were not one of the trust's aims as a charity.
The council has maintained a policy of formal neutrality on the ethics of hunting, and its chairman, Lord Chorley, reiterated that yesterday. But he told a press conference that all but one of the 52-strong council had accepted the report of a working party that the conservation of deer in the West Country was impossible without hunting.
Lord Chorley said that fewer than 0.4 per cent of the membership had resigned over hunting: 'While it is important to listen to the members the council must make up its mind on the grounds of the welfare of the deer.' Without hunting there would increased poaching; farmers would kill deer less discriminatingly.
The council appointed a working party in 1990 under Robert Savage, former professor of geology at Bristol University, to study the deer herds on Exmoor and the Quantocks, and to consider the implications of banning hunting on trust land there.
Its report, completed last week, does not mention hunting in the recommendations, which chiefly involved 'establishing an effective deer management scheme'.
It established that the red deer population is 7,000, and probably increasing. About 1,000 are culled by shooting each year, and an unknown number killed by poachers or in accidents. Hunting accounts for only 130 a year, mostly stags. To contain a population, more males than females need to be culled.
The conclusions pointed inescapably to support for hunting because of its 'local binding force' in the community. That support was 'crucial' for land conservation and management of the deer population. The trust owns 10 per cent of Exmoor, and enough of the Quantocks, including most woodland, to make hunting impossible without its permission.
The report said a ban would alienate other landowners, its tenant farmers and rural communities. It would increase damage to farms by deer, harm rural communities economically and socially, and hinder preservation and conservation policies.
Opponents of hunting plan to submit further resolutions to this year's annual meeting.