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Dead or alive? Mystery over Britain's largest wild animal

Image: 'Emperor of Exmoor'
This and other photos of the "Emperor of Exmoor" were published in recent weeks, and shortly before an unconfirmed report that the giant stag was killed.Rex Features / Richard Austin
/ Source: staff and news service reports

The outrage was heard across the British empire and beyond. Why even members of parliament were calling for action after word spread earlier this week that Britain's largest wild animal, a 9-foot tall, 300-pound red stag, had been killed by a hunter for its prized antlers.

The outrage might have been premature, however, as some residents of the area near the stag's habitat say they've seen it since its reported death.

"The animal has been seen regularly after the time he was supposedly shot," Lesley Prior, a farmer in Oakford, was quoted by London's Daily Mail as saying.

"I live less than three miles from where this beast was supposedly shot two weeks ago," he said, adding that "my builder, who lives five miles away on Exmoor, was telling me a few days ago that the stag had been in his garden last week."

What is known is that no carcass or even antlers, the most prized piece of the stag, have surfaced. Neither have photographs.

Moreover, the initial report about the "Emperor of Exmoor" — so nicknamed because of its roaming grounds inside Exmoor National Park in southwest England — came from an unnamed source.

The Daily Mail suggested locals might have made up the story in order to keep hunters from actually stalking the stag after photos of it were published in recent weeks in Britain.

"Most locals are fiercely protective of this stag, knowing him very well and alerting all to any perceived threat from poachers," Prior said.

Richard Austin, the photographer who took the stag's pictures, was among the first to assume the worst.

"With a set of antlers such as this deer had, it was basically going to kill him in the end," he said.

"He was his own worst enemy, I suppose," Austin told the BBC Tuesday. "Growing that big and that huge and that magnificent, he was a definite target."

A former royal hunting ground, Exmoor is popular with local hunters and with wealthy outsiders, who jet in to stalk red deer.

They pay landowners for the right to hunt on their land and take away sets of antlers as trophies — or, for a higher fee, the whole head. If done during the hunting season, which runs from August through April, it is perfectly legal. The landowner keeps the carcass, which often ends up being sold for meat.

A sporting issue?
Hunting is a divisive issue in Britain, where the traditional practice of chasing down animals with packs of hounds was outlawed in 2004 — though with enough loopholes that hunting carries on pretty much unimpeded across the country.

Supporters say it is a vital part of the rural economy, but hunting is bitterly opposed by some animal lovers.

Douglas Batchelor of the League Against Cruel Sports said it was "morally repugnant" to shoot animals for sport.

But animal conservationists say hunting helps maintain the health of the deer herd. The animals have no natural predators, so hundreds are legally hunted every year to keep numbers in check.

Michael Yardley of the Shooting Sports Trust said killing older deer like the 12-year-old Emperor made sense.

"A deer past this age may properly be shot, and, indeed, should be shot, to allow younger, fitter beasts into the harem, and also because it may well die of starvation as its incisors deteriorate," he said.

Donnelly, no opponent of hunting, said it was wrong to shoot the Emperor during the rutting season, when the strongest stags compete to mate with the choicest female deer.

"He was still in his prime. He did not need to be culled," Donnelly said. "There's plenty of rubbish stags out there that could be shot and would do nothing but improve the quality of the herd."