After 12 summers, the sun has finally set on the Exmoor Emperor, the magnificent red stag whose epic proportions were his making – and also, it seems, his downfall.
Although the creature’s reign as Britain’s biggest wild beast ended with a gunshot close to the busy Tiverton to Barnstaple road just over a fortnight ago, news of his demise only filtered out today.
To make matters worse, the Emperor was killed in the middle of the annual rut, so denying him the chance this year to pass on the genetic riches that had enabled him to reach the weight of more than 135kg (300lb) and to stand 2.75 metres (9ft) tall to the tip of his antlers.
The rumour on Exmoor is that the stag, who was given his nickname by the photographer Richard Austin, may have fallen prey to the growing number of trophy hunters who have begun to congregate in the area.
One deer enthusiast, who did not want to be named, said a group of people had been out watching stags earlier this month near to where the Emperor was killed. A shot had been heard very close to the road where the stag’s body was found.
The man said deer lovers were becoming increasingly worried about the number of rich sportspeople coming to Exmoor to shoot its finest stags as trophies – a view echoed by Peter Donnelly, a retired deer forest and estate manager from Dulverton, Somerset, who saw the Emperor last year.
Donnelly said: “I’ve heard that a lot of stags have been shot this year, by whom I don’t know, but there’s always somebody who wants a trophy and will pay for the privilege of having it. There are people who will pay £1,000, and more, to get a particular trophy if their aim in life is to have a wall full of the biggest bloody trophies they can find in individual species, as opposed to conservation of a very lovely, attractive, resource.”
Donnelly , who was planning to tuck into venison for lunch, said that harvesting older animals was one thing but shooting them before their time quite another. “If they’re in their prime, then I’m not happy. I think that is bad.”
And that, he added, appeared to be the case with the Emperor.
“There is a moment when [a stag] becomes too old and you can tell that by his antlers. We call that when they ‘go back’; all the points get shorter and blunter and he clearly is deteriorating – which certainly doesn’t apply with this deer.”
The fact that the Emperor was “a fine, impressive stag still in his prime” made the situation still sadder. Although it is difficult to determine the age of a deer without looking at its teeth, Donnelly said he would put the Emperor’s lifespan at 12. “He should have been left alone and allowed to rut and spread his genes for at least another year, if not longer. The poor things should be left alone during the rut, not harried from pillar to post.”
If people cared about deer, added Donnelly, “we should maintain a standard and stop all persecution during this important time of the year”.
Clare O’Connor, a press officer at the Exmoor National Park Authority, was also trying to find out what had happened to Exmoor’s most famous resident. “It took everyone on Exmoor by surprise,” she said. “We didn’t know it had happened, either. There’s great regret here because it’s the rut and he should be passing on his genes to the next generation. It’s very sad.”
A spokesman for the British Deer Society, which promotes deer welfare, game meat, stalking and deer management, said no laws would have been broken if the stalker was the landowner or had the landowner’s permission and had used a legal firearm. He added: “If the reports are accurate, then it does seem to me a shame that an animal in its prime was culled before the rut.”
Douglas Batchelor, the chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “The levels to which some people will sink in terms of cruelty for entertainment never cease to amaze. The selfishness the person who shot this beautiful creature has shown to the public is reprehensible.”
The only consolation came from Donnelly who said that although the Exmoor Emperor had gone, he had faith in the empire of the son – or sons. “I have seen one or two very nice, very big stags who could well be his or another good stag’s son,” he said. “If we leave them alone to get on and do what they’re designed for, then we’ll keep up the quality of deer on Exmoor.”