A CONTROVERSIAL project to cull deer near the Queen's Scottish residence has been branded a failure.
The conservation project, which has cost almost 800,000 so far, was designed to protect Caledonian pine trees on the Mar Lodge estate from red deer. But documents have revealed that the measures have not resulted in the amount of tree regeneration officials had hoped for.
It has also been claimed that the cull is having a negative effect on tourism to Royal Deeside, where Balmoral is located.
The National Trust for Scotland (NTS), which has run the 72,000-acre estate since buying it from American billionaire John Kluge in 1995, is now to receive a fine for its role in the fiasco.
Experts had advised the NTS to protect the area with a fence, but the charity opted to order the mass cull instead.
The trust has admitted that deer numbers have been reduced to around 1,700 from a high of 3,350 in 1995, aided by 796,258 of money given to NTS by government body Scottish Natural Heritage. The creatures were targeted at night using spotlights and helicopters.
But a SNH document revealed that as NTS had not met agreed targets they would be fined. The document states: "SNH's financial support is provided in response to meeting agreed outcomes and outputs.
"Over the past five years, while some positive progress was made on the achievement of tree regeneration targets arising from the control of deer, this was less than required. Accordingly SNH will impose a financial penalty."
Peter Fraser of the Scottish Gamekeeper's Association, said: "The NTS should have carried out a cull, then put up a fence to keep out deer, rabbits and hares. If they keep killing deer at the current rate there will be none left. The lack of them in and around Braemar is already having a terrible effect on tourism."
Libby Anderson, of animal advocacy charity OneKind, said: "We must get away from the simplistic notion that culling animals is the cure to all landscape ills."
However, the NTS defended its policy. A spokesman said: "It is universally accepted that the culling of deer is an essential activity for both habitat management and for deer welfare.
"Overgrazing denudes the landscape and means there is less food for deer in winter. We have provided evidence to show we are achieving our long term goals."
SNH added: "Large scale fencing at Mar Lodge would not work. Then you would have a woodland that regenerates without grazing, which isn't good either."Last December the estate's head gamekeeper, Stewart Cumming, quit his position on the estate after working at the site for 30 years.
The trust is in the process of reassessing its management plan and recently appointed a new management team for the estate.
Mr Cumming said he could no longer support the "needless" culling of deer to protect woodland instead of protecting the trees with a fence.
He added: "Thirty years ago they ran the estate for deer-stalking and grouse shooting and that helped the local community. When the National Trust acquired the estate it was all to do with the regeneration of Scots pine and public access."