Conservationists are demanding landowners face jail terms of up to six months if illegally killed birds of prey are found on their property.
The calls come ahead of a hastily scheduled debate in the Scottish Parliament to address a recent spate of raptor poisonings in Ross-shire, where 22 birds of prey have been found dead.
Nature charities RSPB Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) are pressing for police and the Crown Office to make use of existing laws to impose prison terms for crimes against the nation’s protected species.
They are advocating a “zero tolerance” approach to persecution of wild animals and say tougher sentencing will discourage unlawful activity.
Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management for RSPB Scotland, said: “Existing laws should be implemented – both jail sentences, which we think would send out a strong deterrent, but also the ‘vicarious liability’ measure.”
Vicarious liability is the legal term for landowners being held responsible for the actions of their employees.
The bodies of 16 red kites, which have the highest level of protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, and six buzzards, were discovered near Muir of Ord in March and April. The killings came shortly after the suspicious death of a peregrine falcon in Stirlingshire, the disappearance of a white-tailed eagle in east Scotland and the poisoning of a tagged golden eagle in Angus.
“The shocking spate of raptor poisonings which have killed some of Scotland’s most rare and threatened species highlights the fact that some individuals remain determined to flout the law,” said SWT head of policy Dr Maggie Keegan.
“More worryingly, the recent deaths may only be the tip of the iceberg as such crimes often occur in very remote areas.”
Other proposals include a licensing scheme for sporting estates which would include powers to revoke permits if conditions are broken, as well as extending the powers of the country’s leading animal cruelty charity to tackle wildlife crimes – under current terms, SSPCA workers can only intervene where animal welfare is an issue.
Punishments for wildlife crime should be “substantial enough” to act as a deterrent, according to the organisations, which are due to brief Scottish ministers tomorrow.
They are also calling for long-term funding for the National Wildlife Crime Unit and continued support for a pesticide disposal scheme designed to rid the country of deadly chemicals used to kill birds of prey.
Environment and climate change minister Paul Wheelhouse is chairman of the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime Scotland (PAWS), a group that includes the police, land managers, conservationists and the Scottish Government. He said: “Raptor persecution is totally unacceptable and risks staining our nation’s reputation while also threatening the conservation status of some of our most loved bird species that are already having to adapt to mankind’s impact on the climate and natural environment.” The minister this week unveiled a forensics guide to help police investigate wildlife crimes using the latest DNA and toxicology testing techniques.
“It is frustrating that the very selfish action of a few is totally at odds with the Scottish public’s passion for wildlife and raptors – the golden eagle was recently voted Scotland’s favourite species,” Dr Keegan added. “We need a robust implementation of legislation, including the use of the vicarious liability provision, and an adequately resourced wildlife crime unit.”