FOR three decades Stewart Cumming worked the wind-blown hills of a major Scottish estate. As the long-serving head keeper of Mar Lodge Estate, on Deeside, there was little Cumming didn't know about killing - and conserving - red deer.
But, in an embarrassing blow to the estate's owner, the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), Cumming has revealed that he has quit his job in protest at the relentless slaughter of the animals.
Cumming said he could no longer tolerate the NTS policy of culling deer simply to protect a Scots pine regeneration project they refuse to put a fence around.
His decision reflects widespread concern that huge numbers of deer are being killed throughout the Highlands in the name of an environmental policy which is undermining the financial security of many estates. Cumming claims deer numbers are falling to dangerously low levels in many areas of Scotland because of estate mismanagement.
The NTS bought the 72,000-acre Mar Lodge Estate, five miles outside Braemar, in 1995. Six years ago, it began a project to re-grow Scots pine but controversially decided to shoot deer rather than fence off the woodland.
The charity still receives 170,000 from taxpayers annually for the project, around 50,000 of which is spent on shooting deer.
Cumming, 64, has taken retirement a year early and moved away from Braemar rather than continue to oversee the project.
He said: "I felt very sad about that because Braemar was my home village for all those years of my life. I took early retirement because things are not like I used to know. I did not agree with all the culling of the deer.
"Thirty years ago I was working for a private landowner and they ran the estate for deer-stalking and grouse shooting and that is why they had a lot of clients and that helped the local community.
"When the National Trust acquired the estate it was different. Sport was not the front runner - it was all to do with the regeneration of Scots pine and public access.
"There is no question that with hard winters and heavier culling, deer numbers had fallen to where they are quite low. Deer-stalking is vital for the income and employment in the area. As there are not so many deer that means there are not the same opportunities for clients."
Concerns arose last winter when deer seeking shelter from deep snow inside forestry plantations were shot by marksmen to protect the trees. He said: "I think it was wrong to keep on shooting deer when they were seeking shelter in such a hard winter. I do not agree with that.Fencing would have done the job of protecting the trees."
Cumming revealed that, despite his concerns, the NTS is using public cash to bring in marksmen from England to carry on shooting the deer.
"It is not just a problem at Mar Lodge. It is happening on other estates. We have to hope that one day they will see sense."
Peter Fraser, vice chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association, said that deer numbers - especially stags - have fallen dangerously low in some parts of the country.
He said: "Every experienced deer manager is saying the same as Stewart. Much of the problem is man-made and the result of stupid policies. There is abuse of deer because of unfenced forests and abuse of public money. Someone should be made accountable."
"The NTS have mucked about with this for 15 years and have very little to show for it. They should admit they made a mistake and put up fences."
The NTS denies the project has been a failure, claiming that more than 80% of the saplings in parts of the "regeneration zone" show two or more years' growth, "uninterrupted by browsing damage".
A spokeswoman said: "We work with a wide range of partners to manage Mar Lodge for the nation and our approach is supported and validated by numerous experts."