SCORES of gamekeepers from sporting estates across Scotland yesterday staged an extraordinary protest against the ''massacre'' of hundreds of deer on Glenfeshie estate in the Cairngorms.

They claimed the scale of the intervention by the Deer Commission would jeopardise the future of shoots, sporting estates and the jobs of gamekeepers, and likened the cull to the effects of the foot-and-mouth epidemic in 2001.

However, commission staff insisted they were carrying out the work at the specific request of the Glenfeshie estate, were complying with the law, and were acting to remedy a surplus of deer which was damaging the environment.

The demonstration took place at Innschreach, against the setting for Sir Edwin Henry Landseer's world-famous painting, Monarch of the Glen. Nearly 100 keepers from 60 different estates stood and stared at around 20 deer carcasses which had been flown off the hill by helicopter, as commission employees proceeded to carve them up.

In the past few weeks, the commission has been involved in the culling of around 540 deer in Glenfeshie and the gamekeepers claim that is on top of 400 already culled by the estate. The commission is also known to be erecting pens in Strathglass, with speculation rife that they will be used for culling there.

Last month, local people expressed outrage when the commission flew marksmen into Glenfeshie by helicopter to carry out a cull of 80 in order to protect the regeneration of the native Caledonian pine forest on the estate, which is protected by European environmental designations.

But environmental and recreational opinion supported the action, which was carried out under emergency powers. It was argued that such action was long overdue to redress the overpopulation of deer, which the sporting estates had failed to address.

Yesterday afternoon, around 40 landrovers and 4x4 vehicles gathered at Rothiemurchus, 11 miles from Glenfeshie. The demonstrators waited until a contact on the estate informed them that the helicopters were working.

On arrival, feelings among those protesting against the cull were running high. Spokesman Tony Taylor, a Ross-shire keeper whose brother is a Glenfeshie stalker, told the gathering: ''We are here today to demonstrate to the government, to our representatives in the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and to the public at large our heartfelt feelings of revulsion and frustration . . . feelings entirely generated by the nine-week massacre at Glenfeshie.

''The ongoing carnage we are witnessing goes against our way of life, our morals, our beliefs, and our professionalism and above all our respect for the deer. It is totally unacceptable and must be stopped now.

''Does the Deer Commission not realise that my brother, his colleagues, and their families are as traumatised by this bloodshed as the deer have been? Their homes and futures are uncertain. Their lives are in tatters, and they are unable to sleep in their beds at night because of the slaughter forced upon them by government agencies.

''This epidemic creeping our glens is beginning to resemble the horrors faced by the farmers with the foot-and-mouth crisis. We demand it stops now.''

David Thomson, a keeper from Daviot who is vice-chairman of the gamekeepers association, was present although the body had not organised the protest.

He told the gathering that the association was lobbying ministers and MSPs over the issue.

''We are aware of your concerns, indeed we share them. But we urge you to keep calm and trust us to sort this out on your behalf for the benefit of all who live and work in rural communities where livelihoods and homes depend on the red deer population.''

David Balharry, the deer commission's technical director, was in charge yesterday. He insisted the commission was working within the law and with the estate on a ''section seven'' agreement, which under the deer act allowed the commission to act with emergency powers if there was serious damage being done to public interest or designated sites.

Around 80 beasts had been killed using the emergency powers, but more than 450 with the commission and estate working together.

Mr Balharry said: ''If you set out to have 100 sporting stags, you need a population on the estate of 1200 animals and the problem is the estate has about 600 too many.''

No-one was available for comment at the 42,000-acre estate, bought in 2001 by Danish businessman Flemming Skoube for a reported (pounds) 8.5m.