ANIMAL rights campaigners yesterday attempted to disrupt a controversial cull of red deer at a north Lancashire nature reserve by trying to put themselves in the line of fire.

Protestors gathered at Leighton Moss before first light in a bid to halt the shooting.

But they were blocked from going to Jackson Hide by reserve staff and heard two shots ring out.

Campaigner Marianne Birkby said: “It was still pitch black – it was about 7.10am when the first shot was fired.


“I tried to push past them - I was shining my torch above the reeds and shouting at them to stop shooting, but they were blocking the way.”

The RSPB says it plans to cull between eight and 10 of the deer before the end of March in order to control the rising population.

Site manager Robin Horner said the shooting is necessary to protect the reed bed - a habitat for birds such as bitterns - from further damage by deer.

But Ms Birkby has called the planned shootings ‘a scandal’.

There are now believed to be 70 red deer in the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where Leighton Moss is situated.

The majestic creatures were one of the stars of the reserve’s recent TV appearance on BBC Autumnwatch.

Ms Birkby is urging locals to oppose the cull, saying: "This will be the first time any healthy native species have been culled in this area since it became a reserve.

“We believe that there is no necessity at all for a cull - if ten are culled a year, then ten more will move in to replace them, especially as their habitat is shrinking elsewhere in the AONB with aggressive management and removal of scrub and woodland.

“The only guarantee is that it would alienate and upset many RSPB supporters.

“If deer numbers do need to be managed there must be another way of doing it.”

Ms Birkby went on to say: “Having looked at the aerial photos I don’t think the deer are having as detrimental an effect as the RSPB are saying.

“The trails in the reeds can be seen from 2000."

Katherine Green, founder of the Respect for Wildlife campaign group, has also condemned the cull, saying that numbers could be kept under control using oral contraception.

“I don’t think an organisation that’s supposed to protect wildlife should take the option of lethal control – it’s not an ethical solution.

“In their promotional material Leighton Moss ask people to come and see red deer, but they can’t have it both ways – they want to use them as a tourist attraction but we don’t believe the general public would agree with the cull.

“They say they’re not hiding it but they’re certainly not publicising it, and when we have informed people they have been furious.”

But reserve manager Robin Horner said the charity “don’t consult on everything we do when it is part of general reserve management.”

He explained: “Deer management is normal practice in the area - historically we haven't been involved in that, so the deer are concentrating in this area and using it as a safe refuge.

“We are not eradicating the deer – it’s about trying to balance the numbers,

"They have no natural predators any more so they will just keep breeding.

“We have been assessing the numbers and damage for several years, and in order to get the deer population down to its historical level, which is about 40-50 in this area, we will need to cull between eight and 10.”

Mr Horner said the deer are killing the reeds as they walk backwards and forwards across the reed bed.

“It changes the habitat from reed beds into grassland, and grassland doesn’t support birds like bitterns, bearded tits and marsh harriers.

“If we don’t do anything the reed bed will disappear and as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) we have a legal responsibility to manage it.”

Mr Horner said that the cull was a ‘pre-emptive measure’ for some bird species, but that deer were believed to be one of the reasons for bittern numbers being at an ‘all-time low’.

“I love red deer but sometimes you have to make difficult decisions – it would be irresponsible of us not to take on the responsibility for managing the numbers.”

A statement from the RSPB said: “The decision to control deer has not been taken lightly.

“The RSPB considered all non-lethal alternatives before determining this was the only remaining option to restore the quality of the habitat."

The culling of red deer is one of five key measures to protect bitterns identified in a ‘Site Improvement Plan’ for Leighton Moss, published in October by Natural England.

It estimates the cost of reducing the deer population between 2014 and 2016 will be £20,000.

A Natural England spokesperson said: "The impact of deer on important habitats and species within the Arnside and Silverdale AONB has been increasing in recent years.

"Deer management at Leighton Moss is part of a co-ordinated approach between organisations including the RSPB, The Deer Initiative, Forestry Commission and the AONB to maintain deer populations at a sustainable level in South Cumbria and North Lancashire."

David Harpley, conservation manager at Cumbria Wildlife Trust, said: “All local landowners control deer, and that is nearly always by culling.

“Really, the only way of controlling numbers of deer without shooting them would be to re-introduce their predators."