Deer illegally killed near Scottish estate may be 'rewilding' victims

Deer illegally killed near Scottish estate may be 'rewilding' victims

Are these the latest victims of the trendy ‘rewilding’ craze? These shocking pictures revealed the plight of deer – including one in calf – killed illegally near a Scottish estate. But as GUY ADAMS reveals, they may also be evidence in a criminal inquiry

  • WARNING – Graphic content below 
  • Detectives are trying to establish whether seven deer (maybe more) were shot illegally to prevent them damaging small trees to be planted near Loch Suardal 
  • Deaths are now subject of fierce debate, with several theories doing the rounds 
  • Killing female deer after April is illegal in Scotland unless given a special licence

Shortly after 2pm on Tuesday, May 11, a 35-year-old man from Dunvegan, on the north-west coast of Skye, was driving to the next-door village of Claigan when he spotted something grisly by the side of the road.

About 20 yards away, in the heather above Loch Suardal, was the decomposing carcass of a heavily pregnant female deer.

She was lying on her side, eyes wide open and neck twisted backwards, with what looked like a bullet wound in her belly.

‘It stank to high heaven and had probably been there a few days because the stomach and belly had been eaten out by birds and foxes,’ the man tells me.

‘I tried to turn her over to see whether there was an exit wound from the bullet — but when I went to pull the back legs, the body of her calf came slipping out.’

A few hundred yards up the hill, also lying on its side, was the carcass of a second hind (female deer). She also appeared to have been shot, in the shoulder.

Elsewhere on the heather, over the ensuing few days, the man found the decomposing remains of five more deer.

WARNING GRAPHIC IMAGE – In the heather above Loch Suardal, was the decomposing carcass of a heavily pregnant female deer. A few hundred yards up the hill, also lying on its side, was the carcass of a second hind

‘It’s more than a month after the end of the stalking season, when hinds are likely to be carrying young and it’s illegal to kill them,’ he says. 

‘So I was outraged that someone would shoot so many, and do it so incompetently that they missed vital organs and left the animals to run off and suffer a long, painful death.

‘I was also disgusted that, having done this, the people responsible left the carcasses to rot, rather than removing them from the hill so they could end up in the food chain. 

‘It’s completely wrong and unethical — and I say that as someone who stalks myself.’

The man took photographs. Later that day, he uploaded ten of them to Facebook, with an angry caption.

Fast-forward a couple of weeks and those graphic pictures have been circulated far and wide, generating thousands of ‘shares’ and furious comments on social media platforms.

They are also causing ructions in this remote community and are now the subject of a police investigation.

The criminal inquiry revolves around claims the deer were killed as part of an experiment in a trendy, but at times controversial, form of land management known as ‘rewilding’.

Detectives are trying to establish whether the seven deer (maybe more) were shot illegally to prevent them damaging small trees due to be planted near Loch Suardal as part of a taxpayer-funded ‘native woodland creation project’.

Killing any female deer after April 1 is illegal in Scotland unless a special licence has been secured from NatureScot, the country’s environment agency, under rules designed to ensure that dependent young are not left orphaned. No such licence was issued on Skye this year.

At the centre of the probe into what happened and who may be responsible is the well-connected owner of the hill where this massacre seems to have taken place.

He is Hugh Magnus MacLeod, 30th hereditary chief of the MacLeod clan and one of Scotland’s highest-ranking toffs, who owns 42,000 acres around 13th-century Dunvegan Castle, which is both his family seat and a popular tourist attraction.

Police are interviewing locals to discover who was responsible for shooting the deer in the photographs. 

The clan chief will neither confirm nor deny responsibility for their deaths, a spokesman insisting only that he has not authorised an illegal ‘mass cull’ in recent weeks.

Behind the scenes is a simmering row with political overtones.

It began last December, when MacLeod, a 47-year-old divorcé and former TV director who divides his time between London and Skye, secured a £1 million grant from the Scottish Government to plant 371,875 trees on farmland near the castle that was previously used for grazing sheep.

The scheme, covering 600 acres, was publicised as a pioneering exercise in ‘rewilding’, in which agricultural land is taken out of production and allowed to return to its ‘natural’ state.

At the time, MacLeod said in an interview that he had come across the modish concept a couple of years ago at a ‘rewilding salon’ hosted by Lisbet Rausing, heir to the Tetra Pak fortune.

His initial tree-planting was, he said, to be the first phase in a gradual plan to transform the moorland landscape into a forest that would support such threatened species as pine martens, red squirrels and beavers. 

‘Nature needs a little bit of a helping hand,’ he said. ‘If you start planting native woodlands that belong in a place, they start to self-seed and natural regeneration kicks off.’

High-profile proponents of rewilding rushed to endorse him. Ben Goldsmith, a Tory donor and director of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), declared: ‘Hugh MacLeod’s groundbreaking nature restoration project at the historic Dunvegan Castle is one of the most exciting rewilding stories in Britain today.’

The criminal inquiry revolves around claims the deer were killed as part of an experiment in a trendy, but at times controversial, form of land management known as ‘rewilding’

Like most rewilding supporters, who are often well-meaning, Goldsmith believes the process brings myriad benefits to plants, animals, insects and birds, may assist in alleviating climate change and will help to reverse the decline of species threatened by modern intensive agriculture.

His brother Zac, who also backs rewilding and is a close ally of Boris Johnson’s wife Carrie, was appointed a junior Defra minister by Johnson after the 2019 election.

 And, thanks in part to his efforts, large amounts of government money are expected to be diverted from traditional farming into rewilding the countryside via schemes such as the Skye project.

Yet in practice, such endeavours often end in bitter controversy.

Opponents point out that taking farmland out of production means the UK needs either to cultivate its remaining land more intensively or import more food, neither of which helps the environment.

They also argue that the concept usually involves wealthy metropolitan types seeking to interfere with — and in some cases destroy — the way of life of farming communities, causing ugly disputes in the process.

Last year, Ben Goldsmith was at the centre of one such dispute when he decided to release more than 30 red deer on his 250-acre estate in Somerset, which he is rewilding. 

He failed to fence them in, so the animals promptly left his land and caused widespread damage on adjacent farms. He then told a series of lies to his neighbours and fabricated several photographs to try to show he had rounded them up.

But the hoo-ha on Skye appears possibly to revolve around efforts to eliminate, rather than reintroduce, red deer on the site of his fellow eco-toff’s rewilding project.

At the heart of the story is a simple truth: that deer love eating small trees, especially their leaves. Indeed, a small herd will, in a few weeks, more or less destroy a juvenile woodland of the sort taxpayers are handing MacLeod £1 million to create.

With this in mind, contractors from Scottish Woodlands Ltd, a firm that will plant the small saplings in the coming months, spent the winter erecting a deer-proof fence around the 600-acre site. 

Hugh Magnus MacLeod, 30th hereditary chief of the MacLeod clan and one of Scotland’s highest-ranking toffs, who owns 42,000 acres around 13th-century Dunvegan Castle

However, as the fence neared completion, it became apparent that a large number of deer had become enclosed inside it.

Before April 1, MacLeod and his employees did their best to reduce the population.

Indeed, as a condition of their Scottish Government grant, they are required to shoot 45 each year (but only during the legally defined season) to help keep the overall population of deer on Skye in check. Similar deer eradication projects are under way in other corners of Scotland.

Unfortunately, efforts to remove deer from inside MacLeod’s fence were not enough, and dozens remained once the legal season had ended.

A stalker employed by the Dunvegan Estate, Davie Urquart, made efforts to herd the deer out of a gap that remained in the fence. 

‘What a day for moving deer,’ he declared on Facebook on April 26, posting a picture of his dog sitting in bright sunshine on a hillock by Loch Suardal. ‘A shame, but a better option than culling them out.’

It is unclear how many deer were persuaded to leave. But they are wild animals which, unlike sheep, are not known for their ability to follow the instructions of one man and his dog.

About a fortnight later, the first two illegally shot deer were photographed near by. Both had died inside the fence, within yards of it.

Their deaths are now the subject of fierce debate, with several theories doing the rounds. Some observers have speculated that they may have been shot by poachers, who often target deer close to main roads.

‘This is the Wild West of Skye and the fact that they have been so poorly shot makes me wonder if it was a botched job by a poacher, maybe working after dark using car headlights,’ says a stalker with connections to a nearby estate. 

‘That said, poachers want to sell the carcass and make money, and that obviously didn’t happen here.’

Others wonder if the deer may instead have been killed by disgruntled crofters as part of an attempt to create ugly headlines for the clan chief.

There is certainly ill-feeling between MacLeod and the community over the rewilding scheme, as there seems to be with so many such initiatives. 

This dates back to an interview MacLeod gave to The Times newspaper, in which he said he wanted to ‘restore Skye’s unnatural “wet desert” landscape, which is a legacy of centuries of depredation caused by over-grazing’.

The remarks prompted a furious riposte from Hebridean farmers upset at being lectured by, as one put it, ‘a rich aristocrat who divides his time between Scotland and Chelsea’.

There is certainly ill-feeling between MacLeod and the community over the rewilding scheme, as there seems to be with so many such initiatives

Iain Beaton, a nearby crofter, told reporters: ‘The language used to describe the land on Skye — “unnatural wet desert” and a “lunarscape” — is deeply offensive to local farmers and crofters who make a living from the land.’ 

The Scottish Crofting Federation said the scheme was ‘pandering to green tokenism with public money that could be better spent’.

Yet informed locals are also sceptical that upset crofters would have either the time or the inclination to kill the deer illegally as part of a counter-offensive. 

‘People are angry with the estate, right enough, but the idea that a crofter would pull this sort of stunt is not to my mind credible,’ a local councillor tells me. 

‘Aside from anything else, it’s lambing time and they are way too busy for that.’

The Dunvegan Estate is also keen to play down that suggestion.

A source with knowledge of its affairs said they were at this stage not in a position to say definitively whether the deer whose images went viral on Facebook had, or had not, been shot by MacLeod or one of his employees. But they thought it unlikely that crofters or poachers were to blame.

In a statement, MacLeod’s spokesman said he was ‘aware of the images that have been in circulation on social media and the estate is still looking into the incident in detail.

‘While that is ongoing, the estate does not intend to fuel some of the speculation and rumour that has been circulating on social media.

‘The estate takes its commitments under deer management regulation and legislation very seriously and we can confirm that no mass culling has taken place out of season.’

Crucially, the statement failed to deny responsibility for the deaths of the deer in the photos, and it is fair to say that killing a few animals does not constitute a ‘mass cull’.

Why carcasses would be left to rot rather than taken away so their meat could enter the human food chain is also a mystery. 

However, selling venison out of season can be problematic, and some proponents of rewilding do endorse such practices because they believe the venison can provide food for birds of prey and other species.

Mr Urquart, the estate’s stalker, said he had written a full report on the whole thing, which has been sent to the estate office. 

However, he denied being personally responsible for shooting the deer, saying: ‘I do not and will not shoot hinds out of season. Folks that know me know where I stand on this.’

Some believe Mr Urquart’s report will identify the real culprit.

Doubtless the police will be anxious to get their hands on a copy — and work out whether the pregnant deer shot and left to die slowly on a Hebridean hill does, or does not, represent a vivid example of rewilding in action. 

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