The National Trust yesterday claimed the pro-hunting movement had scored a spectacular own goal with the shooting of most of the Quantock stags after the trust banned the pursuit of deer with horse and hounds on its land.
"It's an appalling thing, killing deer just to make a point," said the trust's chief spokesman Warren Davis. "I think this action is the death knell for deer hunting."
The Quantock Staghounds did not condone the killing but said it could understand what motivated the farmers, one of whom has told The Independent they will no longer tolerate the deer damaging their crops.
The Countryside Alliance, the nationwide field sports lobby group currently battling against Labour MP Michael Foster's anti-hunting Bill - which has its crucial second reading in the House of Commons on Friday, and it would outlaw both fox and stag hunting with dogs - also had some sympathy for the farmers.
"They are understandably angry, because hunting worked in terms of controlling the deer and it was supported by the locals," spokeswoman Janet George said. "The National Trust marched in with hobnailed boots, with no consultation, and banned hunting on its land on the basis of one scientist's report."
The full photograph of the severed stag heads, obtained by The Independent, shows 36. But it is thought that at least a dozen more have been shot along with several dozen hinds. The carcasses have been sold for game.
Arminel Scott, one of a group of Quantock residents campaigning against the stag hunt, who lives in Williton, said: "Killing these animals, then gathering all the heads together for a photograph, was a monstrous, spiteful act. The farmers have behaved like delinquent children smashing up toys."
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, part of a coalition of animal welfare groups campaigning for the anti-hunting Bill, attacked the slaughter as "unnecessary and vindictive".
Shooting wild red deer in the West Country has been routine for decades, and kills considerably more than the region's three stag hunts. The NT, an important landowner in the Quantocks and on Exmoor, takes part because the deer population has to be kept down. Landowners, the hunt and the trust have collaborated to set cull quotas.
But what has happened in the past few weeks is an uncontrolled upsurge of shooting by farmers, who can legally kill deer entering their fields. If it continues, it could soon wipe out the herd. There is no evidence that the same thing is happening on Exmoor, but there are fears that it might.Reuse content