Hunting 'critical' in conserving deer herds: A study commending the value of the hunt poses a dilemma for the National Trust

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DEER herds in the West Country cannot be sustained effectively without hunting, a study commissioned by the National Trust concluded yesterday, presenting its leaders with a dilemma as they try to avoid alienating the anti-blood sports lobby among its members.

The working party, under Robert Savage, former Professor of Geology at Bristol University, was appointed by the trust at the end of 1990 to study the deer herds on Exmoor and the Quantocks, and to consider the implications of banning hunting on National Trust land in the area.

The governing council of the trust will debate the report next week. It had hoped to defuse the potential conflict by appointing the working party, following a vote of members in favour of banning hunting on National Trust land in 1990.

In an attempt to avoid provoking open conflict, yesterday's 80-page report does not mention hunting in its recommendations, which chiefly involve 'establishing an effective deer management scheme' in the area. It has established for the first time that the red deer population is 7,000 and increasing. Some 1,000 are culled by shooting each year, and an unknown number taken by poachers or killed in accidents. Hunting kills only 130 a year. To contain populations, more females than males need to be culled. Further censuses are needed to give the full picture.

But its conclusions inescapably point to support for continued hunting on trust land because of the 'local binding force' of hunting in the community. The trust owns 10 per cent of Exmoor, and enough of the Quantocks to make hunting there impossible without its permission.

It says: 'Considered solely as a mechanism for culling, the role of the hunt is important but not vital. However, to achieve the necessary active co-operation from landowners and farmers, which is essential to the welfare of the deer, the role of the hunt is of critical importance.'

It said a ban would:

alienate the trust from other landowners, its tenant farmers and rural communities;

result in increased damage on trust farms by deer;

harm rural communities economically and socially;

hinder the trust's preservation and conservation duties.

The League Against Cruel Sports attacked the report as a 'predictable whitewash'. Its executive director, James Barrington, said: 'The working party was made up of National Trust council members who . . . were already supporters of hunting on trust land.'

(Photograph omitted)