In 1851, Sir Edwin Landseer, a favorite artist of Queen Victoria’s, painted a huge oil-on-canvas of an impossibly large stag set against the backdrop of a rocky, fog-swept Highland landscape. The beast is far bigger than any red deer you’d find in Scotland, and the wild mountains come straight out of Tolkien. The Monarch of the Glen is Scotland as imagined by a Victorian sportsman.

The painting was part of a culture that was being created around the pursuit of red-deer stags. In the early 19th century, there were only 6 hunting estates in Scotland, large areas set aside for the pursuit of grouse and deer, but by 1900 there were roughly 150, covering well over two million acres of heather, woodland, and rocky scree.

The head stalker: Peter Fraser, second from left, advises his hunt party at Invercauld Estate.

Stalking deer (the British term for hunting on foot) became an intrinsic part of Scottish culture. Today it employs thousands of local people and informs the very way the Highlands look. It’s estimated that nearly a million deer swarm the hills in huge herds, of which nearly half are the large-antlered red deer prized by hunters. But today a paradoxical battle has broken out between the hunting estates, who want to keep the numbers of red deer high for shooting, and environmentalists, who complain that the vast numbers of grazing deer harm Scotland’s natural woodlands and who want to see them culled. The battle is about conservation of the ecology versus the conservation of Scotland’s traditional hunting communities—and it’s become increasingly political.

It’s said that Glen Affric, a rough expanse of country some 25 miles west of Inverness, is the place that inspired Landseer’s painting. It’s a long way from the nearest town, and just getting to it involves a Land Rover and then an amphibious A.T.V. I was there earlier this year with Willie Fraser and Nicola Williamson, two local deer managers who had the difficult task of culling 80 hinds (female deer) in less than a month. Even with decades of experience, stalking isn’t easy and doesn’t end with pulling the trigger. When the animal is shot, the stalker then has to gralloch, or gut, the carcass and transport it to a venison dealer, who might pay as little as 28 cents a pound for it because it’s so plentiful and the meat, whose flavor can be strong and gamy, is relatively unpopular.

The land I was on is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, a conservation charity that has taken over a string of estates from landowners seeking to avoid inheritance tax or whose holdings no longer make money—farming sheep hasn’t been lucrative for some time.

It’s estimated that nearly a million deer swarm the hills in huge herds, of which nearly half are the large-antlered red deer prized by hunters.

On National Trust ground, all 188,000 acres of it, deer are only ever “managed” to stop them from destroying trees, as opposed to being shot for sport. However, on privately owned estates, stag stalking is an important revenue stream. Hunters, who come from all over the world, often pay tens of thousands of dollars for a week-long trip in the hills. But stalking as a business is itself under attack.

On one front, stag-stalking estates are at loggerheads with the left-wing Scottish government, which seems to dislike the elitism and traditionalism that stalking represents. But they are also at odds with a new breed of landowner known as “green lairds.” These tend to be either extremely rich individuals, such as the American property developer Christopher Bently, who seek to “rewild” large swaths of the Highlands, or large businesses that are looking to meet green commitments, such as going carbon-neutral, by offsetting their business’s pollution with good deeds like tree planting.

The green lairds: Camille and Christopher Bently pose by an electric Land Rover on their Kildrummy estate.

Three years ago, the beer-maker BrewDog bought the Kinrara estate, near Aviemore, which was once owned by the Duchess of Gordon. They promised that for every six cans of their Lost Lager sold, they would plant a tree to create “a lost forest,” all part of being “a carbon-negative brewer.” Within months, the six stalkers who worked at Kinrara—the men whose job it is to guide hunters—had lost their positions and the homes that came with them.

To have a viable stag-stalking operation you need a lot of deer on the ground. But those deer eat young saplings and prevent woodlands from growing. The National Trust, which has overseen some impressive woodland regeneration, aims for a density of between one and five deer per 247 acres. The Scottish government, which is in the process of seeking extra powers to send contractors onto private estates to cull deer, suggests 10 deer per 247 acres should be the upper limit. But on traditional stalking estates, such as the 95,000-acre Invercauld, as many as 50 deer is not unusual.

Clan of the carbon-negative: the 9,300-acre Kinrara estate is now owned by the beer-maker BrewDog, which seeks to reduce emissions by planting new forests.

According to Peter Fraser, who was head stalker at Invercauld Estate for 43 years, reducing the numbers to 10 deer per 247 acres would mean the end of a way of life that he has enjoyed for decades. There simply wouldn’t be enough stags to make a stag-stalking business viable. He says that many of those who seek to reduce the number of deer have political motivations. “To be quite honest, with this government we have now, it’s about class. They just don’t want sporting estates, and that’s been their agenda from day one.”

It’s odd, Fraser points out, that the Scottish government banned the shooting of mountain hares when their diets are very similar to the diets of deer—they both nibble away at saplings. Similarly, Kyle Stewart, a young deer stalker at Invercauld, makes the point that the government has supported the re-introduction of beavers, which are renowned for their timber-destroying teeth.

Some, including Ben Goldsmith, the son of the late financier Sir James Goldsmith and an enthusiastic rewilder, suggest that the key to bringing deer numbers down is re-introducing wolves, the last of which was supposedly killed by Sir Ewen Cameron in Perthshire in 1680. However, this is thought to be an unlikely solution. Wolves do hunt deer, but it would take a huge number of them to have any impact on Scotland’s situation, and sheep farmers are understandably nervous about the idea.

In Fraser’s mind, it’s never really been about trees and deer but rather about stalking culture being something that progressive Scotland—which until very recently was governed by a coalition of the Scottish National Party and Scottish Greens—is keen to break free from. Unfortunately, their attempts to bring down deer numbers have often been extremely heavy-handed.

In 2004, the Scottish government sent marksmen in helicopters over Glenfeshie Estate, in the Cairngorm Mountains, where they corralled and shot hundreds of deer. The incident became known as the “Glenfeshie Massacre” and led to scores of landowners and gamekeepers protesting.

Last October, they went further and ended the traditional stag-stalking season—which ran from July through October—and allowed stags to be shot year-round. This was seen as a further attack on the deer-stalking life.

The Scottish government sent marksmen in helicopters onto Glenfeshie Estate, in the Cairngorm Mountains, where they corralled and shot hundreds of deer.

Lorna Slater, a Scottish Greens member of the Scottish Parliament (M.S.P.) and the government’s biodiversity minister, claims that the year-round hunting season helps to reduce overall deer numbers, but most of those on the stalking estates think the amendment is pointless.

Sir Edward Mountain, a landowner and Conservative M.S.P., told me he’s satellite-tagged stags to track their movement, and found that they will wander more than 30 miles to find hinds, and can have a harem of more than 40 of them. In other words, unless you kill every single stag in the glen, you’re still going to end up with a lot of pregnant hinds.

In a debate in the Scottish Parliament last September, Slater suggested that the only reason stags hadn’t been shot year-round up until now was because sporting estates wanted the males to grow up and develop magnificent antlers that would make for better trophies. Mountain retorted that the shortened hunting season wasn’t about trophies but about respect for the animal. It would be morally wrong, he said, to shoot young stags as soon as they were born.

A young King Charles sits astride a sculpture of a deer during a family gathering at Balmoral Castle in 1951.

Over on the West Coast, on his 8,000-acre estate, the Honorable Rupert Soames, one of Winston Churchill’s grandsons, is feeling relatively optimistic. As he sees it, there’s room for woodlands and deer. By his reckoning, the best way to get trees to grow is to fence an area in, cull the deer in that area, and then, after 20 years, once the saplings have grown, take the fences down and start over in another area. It would be almost impossible, he says, to get deer numbers down across the country completely. Soames also thinks that being paid to indiscriminately slaughter such beautiful creatures is “hateful work.”

Many stalkers have decided to quit before the land they work on is sold to a green laird, such as the Danish fast-fashion magnate Anders Povlsen—currently Scotland’s largest private landowner. Povlsen, who is worth $12.5 billion, has vowed to restore the Highlands after centuries of damage from sheep and deer. His replacing of trees and peatland will also generate millions in carbon credits that can then be sold to climate sinners. Goldsmith, who traveled to meet with Povlsen last year, believes he is somebody to whom Scotland owes “an immense debt of gratitude.”

Last December, I drove north to visit my uncle in the West Highlands, where he was a deerstalker in his younger years. He explained to me that while the area is thick with campers in July and August, come winter the pubs—places that were once full of stalkers, gamekeepers, and shepherds—close their doors. My cousins were some of the last children at the local primary school before it shut. When stalkers lose their jobs, they leave the glens and take their families with them. BrewDog and Povlsen talk of lost forest, but the stalkers talk of lost communities.

Patrick Galbraith is a London-based writer. His first book, In Search of One Last Song: Britain’s Disappearing Birds and the People Trying to Save Them, is published by HarperCollins