In what would be an unprecedented move landowners in north-west Scotland could soon face a “hefty fine” and see deer on their land culled, to protect some of our most important oak woodlands.

The Assynt Crofters Trust, pioneers of the modern community land movement, are amongst the landowners who would be affected, but insist that they are already doing all Scotland’s environmental guardian is seeking.

But the board of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) tomorrow will decide whether to ask Scottish Ministers to impose formal regulation, for the first time, under Section Eight of the Deer (Scotland) Act.

This would require landowners to shoot more deer, failing that they would be fined and SNH would organise a cull.

At issue are the internationally important woodlands on the Assynt peninsula which SNH says are being seriously damaged by high numbers of grazing red deer.

The agency says “Over several years now our attempts to get the key landowners to agree a plan to manage the deer voluntarily have been unsuccessful,” but it says “time is now against us.”

Ardvar Woodlands Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) lies about six miles northeast of Lochinver, between the villages of Drumbeg and Unapool. Although mainly birch-dominated, oak is also present and the site is designated as part of the internationally important Ardvar and Loch a’ Mhuilinn Special Area of Conservation.

These designated sites form the most northern remnants of native oak woodland in the British Isles and are relics of the north-western forests which are now very restricted this far north.

SNH continues: “It is in the public interest to ensure that we protect the woodlands and allow them to regenerate for future generations, but their designations mean we are also required to look after them under national and European legislation.”

SNH had asked landowners to sign a voluntary agreement under Section Seven of the act. However some have refused in principle, because it can give SNH emergency powers if serious damage is being done to public interest or designated sites.

A short period for all parties to develop another proposal was then agreed, but what was put forward is uncertain to satisfy SNH.

Ray MacKay, Vice-Chairman of the Assynt Crofters Trust, which controls 21,000 acres, said it had refused to sign a Section Seven agreement

“But we are more than willing to fulfil SNH’s cull targets and allow them access to monitor them. We have agreed a fencing deal with SNH. So we are not against the content of the Section Seven agreement they proposed, it is the principle of the compulsion clause if things go wrong.”

Wild land charity the John Muir Trust manages the 9140-acre Quinag Estate. It was unavailable. However while it has been known to support culling in the past, it is opposed to deer fences.

Meanwhile Douglas McAdam, chief executive of the private landowners organisation Scottish Land & Estates, said he knew Ardvar well.:

"The landscapes, woodlands and biodiversity are highly valued by the local estates which have looked after them for decades – well before the requirements of EU legislation."

Deer stalking was also highly valued by the local estates.

"The specific situation has been complicated by adjacent neighbours, a combination of private, NGO and community owned estates, having different management objectives and ethos"

He said the private estates would continue to work constructively whatever decision SNH Board make. "Either way this situation needs brought to a conclusion, ideally through good local collaborative management,”he said.

In 2004 the Deer Commission for Scotland, now subsumed into SNH, carried out an emergency cull of 79 animals to help the regeneration of native Caledonian pine trees on the Glen Feshie Estate in the shadow of the Cairngorms. It later helped the estate owner to cull another 460.

This was carried out under a Section Seven agreement. It attracted public criticism and was opposed by 100 gamekeepers from other estates who staged a demonstration.