The Emperor is dead – long live The Emperor… That's been the clarion cry among deer lovers on Exmoor in the past few days since it emerged that one of the largest stags ever seen in the West has been shot.
Named the Exmoor Emperor by photographer Richard Austin who first photographed him, the giant stag of Southern Exmoor was killed close to a busy main road in the middle of the annual rut.
This has enraged deer experts and wildlife enthusiasts who believe wild red stags should be protected during the mating season.
Peter Donnelly, a Dulverton- based deer management expert, said: "It's a disgrace that this magnificent animal has been shot at this time because it could be that he didn't get a chance to rut properly this year – therefore his genes have not been passed on this time round.
"The poor things should be left alone during the rut – not harried from pillar to post," Mr Donnelly added.
"If we care about deer we should maintain a standard and stop all persecution during this important time of the year."
The WesternDaily Press was contacted by a deer enthusiast who said earlier this month a group of people were out watching stags close to the spot where The Emperor was killed.
The man, who asked not to be named for professional reasons, said two shots had been heard very close to the main Tiverton to Barnstaple road. He added that there was no question over the legality of the shooting.
But the man who contacted the Daily Press was angry that rich sportsmen from other parts of the country and abroad were paying big money to come and shoot Exmoor's best stags as trophies.
He admitted he did not know if The Emperor had been shot as a trophy head, but said the trend was causing increasing concern among deer lovers because it would lead to the best blood stock disappearing.
"There are people who are prepared to spend quite ridiculous sums of money to have a trophy on their wall," said Mr Donnelly. "People talk about £1,000 for a good head, but I've heard there are those who will pay a lot more."
He also explained that older stags do need to be culled when they are "going back" because they find it increasingly difficult to survive in a healthy state after a certain age.
"It is kindest to kill them in older age because a deer's incisors get worn down and they can't eat properly," said Mr Donnelly. "They can only hoover up food and that won't be good enough so they are going to die a slow death of starvation in the winter – there are no longer natural predators around to kill them quickly.
"Yes, The Emperor was starting to get past his best, but he was definitely not at that stage yet," concluded Mr Donnelly.
But there may be light on the horizon as Mr Donnelly reported he'd seen a very large young stag in the past few days – a magnificent specimen that may well be the result of The Emperor's activities during a previous rutting season.