A GROUP of crofters say they are willing to go to jail in their fight against a Scottish government agency over the issue of a deer cull.

Members of the Assynt Crofters' Trust are facing claims that they have failed to control numbers of the animals on the estate in northwest Sutherland they took over in 1993, in the first community land buyout of its kind.

Scottish Natural Heritage officials argue the deer are threatening ancient woodland and regeneration efforts and the board wants the crofters to sign a voluntary deer control agreement.

The crofters have refused so far and the SNH could order a cull, which would deny the crofters and other local landowners of valuable stalking income.

The Assynt Crofters Trust says the consequences of the course of action being pursued by Scottish Natural Heritage could be financially devastating both for the trust, which could face a fine of £40,000, and the wider community.

They also claim that SNH officials have misrepresented the position to the agency’s board.

Ray Mackay Vice Chair of the Assynt Crofters Trust (ACT), said: “We will defend our position and our freedoms here, and as our chairman Donnie MacLeod has gone on record as saying, ‘They can throw us in jail if they want to’.”

Concern focuses on the Ardvar area, which boasts some the most northerly remnants of native oak in the British Isles. It is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Wild land charity the John Muir Trust, owners of the neighbouring Quinag Estate, has already called for a deer cull to protect the trees.

But the Assynt Crofters Trust, which has already planted almost 2,500 acres of native broadleaf trees on its land, said that SNH had made two significant errors in their assessment of the risk to the environment.

Mr Mackay said that SNH had wrongly designated the woods as an oak wood, instead of a birch wood, when there are "only a mere scattering of individual trees, possibly less than 10 in total".

He said: "SNH’s own habitat survey, published only this month, identifies a grand total of three oak seedlings out of 8,800 sampled, a tiny fraction of one percent. This is what you might see in a birch wood, not an oak wood.”

Mr Mackay said that SNH officials had also refused to acknowledge that the pressure from deer is far less than they claim.

He said: “There is considerable movement of deer, particularly in bad weather, across the A894 to the lower and more sheltered ground of the Assynt peninsula.

"This is categorically denied by SNH officials, who tell their Board that the Assynt deer herd is a stable and closed entity, despite their own helicopter counts telling a different story. They refuse even to heed their own evidence.”

He insisted the trust was already doing its bit in controlling deer numbers, with 170 stags shot on the Assynt peninsula last year, including 62 by the crofters, providing a revenue of almost £9,000 after expenses.

He said this was a vital income stream for ACT, in its work to retain its population, by employing local people and offering bursaries to young people from the area.

Under SNH's plan, he said, there would be an annual cull of 25 stags.

Claiming that SNH had spent £1 million of public money on the issue, he added “We find ourselves facing the threat of a Section 8 Control Order and a £40,000 fine, not to mention having to pay for the SNH contractors who would come on to our land and kill our deer.”

A SNH spokesman said: "Our role is to help local deer groups across Scotland to work together to reduce damage to the environment, reduce fencing costs and road accidents whilst also protecting local jobs.

"On the Assynt Peninsula, after two years of negotiation, the Deer Management Group finally reached agreement on a plan to reduce deer numbers last summer. This plan was endorsed by SNH but the plan was not delivered.

"Wild deer roam freely across Assynt and the agreement of all 12 members of the group to the plan is essential and is what we will continue to encourage.

"If any members of the group refuse to sign up to the plan we will need to consider using the intervention powers given to us by Parliament."