Decline of hen harriers blamed on grouse moor management

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LANDOWNERS could find themselves unwittingly breaking the law if they turn a blind eye to their employees killing birds of prey on their land.

The Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Bill was passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament last week, modernising laws, some of which are almost 200 years old, and improving protection for wildlife. And one of the measures included in the new bill is making it easier to prosecute estates who kill protected birds.

Recent research indicates that the numbers of one of Scotland’s rarest birds of prey have fallen by more than a fifth, and the RSPB Scotland blames the decline in hen harriers on illegal persecution on managed grouse moors. Estate managers, however, hit back saying they were being unfairly blamed for the killing of birds of prey.

RSPB Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage research estimates hen harrier numbers, which is subject to special conservation measures under European Union and domestic conservation legislation, have dropped to 489 pairs, from 633 pairs in 2004 in Scotland.

Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland, claimed there was “systematic and illegal persecution” in areas associated with managed grouse moor management, notably in the Southern Uplands of Scotland and the central and eastern Highlands.

It is thought there are now fewer than 500 pairs of hen harriers in Scotland, while the species is close to extinction in England.

But rural and land management organisations hit back, accusing the conservation groups of scaremongering.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (Scotland), the Scottish Countryside Alliance, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, the Scottish Estates Business Group and the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association claimed the RSPB statistics were flawed.

Spokesman Tim Baynes said: “All of our organisations condemn the illegal killing of any bird of prey.

“However, the causes of hen harrier decline are many and complex and, according to the RSPB’s own figures, there has only been one recorded incident of hen harrier persecution in the past six years.”

The Wildlife Bill also includes plans to regulate the use of snares, which could see them banned.

The Bill covers a wide range of areas, including: reform of ancient game laws including the abolition of outdated game licences; new close seasons for hares; compulsory training for snare operators; snares must be tagged so they can be linked to the person who set them; updated species licensing regulations; new invasive non-native species laws including powers to take action to stop the spread of invasive non-natives; improved intervention powers for SNH where deer are not being managed and causing damage to the environment.