A SCOTTISH farmer has become the first landowner in the UK to have his subsidies cut after his gamekeeper was convicted of trying to kill birds of prey.
Under legislation which came into force four years ago, James McDougal will receive 8,000 less in European agricultural grants because of an environmental crime on his estate.
The landmark punishment has been praised as a step in the right direction to support the Scottish Government's move to crack down on illegal poisoning of birds of prey.
George Aitken, 56, who works as a gamekeeper on Blythe Farm, near Lauder in Berwickshire, set traps holding live pigeons and placed dead pheasants laced with poisons on moorland close to the Southern Upland Way, a popular walkers' route.
He pleaded guilty to eight wildlife-crime offences at Selkirk Sheriff Court in June and was sentenced to 220 hours' community service.
It has now been revealed that the Scottish Government has imposed the grant cut on Aitken's employer for failing to protect local wildlife.
Yesterday, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Scotland praised the move, pointing out that landowners and shooting estates had to be penalised if their gamekeepers persecuted birds of prey or other wildlife.
Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland, said subsidy cuts – under the terms of the Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition code – should be used "firmly but fairly" in cases of wildlife crime.
"Landowners and farmers receive significant public subsidies, in return for which they are supposed to be good stewards of the environment," he said.
"Where breaches of the regulations governing these subsidies occur, we would expect the government to review the subsidy payments and apply sanctions appropriate to the case.
"We are surprised that, according to the Scottish Government, only one case so far has been dealt with in this way, but we hope that in future the determination expressed by the present administration to bring this sort of crime to an end will see these regulations enforced more rigorously and consistently."
The Scottish Government docked 7,919 from last year's single-farm payment and beef-calf payouts to Mr McDougal, who runs a large cattle and sheep-farming business near Lauder. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the maximum fine for a wildlife crime is 5,000.
Mr McDougal, one of Scotland's biggest recipients of EU agricultural subsidies, employs Aitken as a gamekeeper on a small pheasant shoot he runs for friends on his land.
Two "butterfly cage traps" were found near Mr McDougal's farm at Blythe, each baited with a live pigeon, during a joint operation in August 2006.
Pheasant carcasses dosed with carbofuran, a banned agricultural chemical, were also found beside nearby woods.
The investigation was launched after two poisoned ravens were found near the Southern Upland Way, one with "significant residues" of toxic chemicals in its stomach and liver.
Mr McDougal initially appealed against the subsidy cut, claiming it was excessive.
He said he had been unfairly singled out as, unlike grouse moors, his pheasant shoot was a small-scale, private affair.
Mr McDougal added that he had never authorised Aitken to use illegal poisons or traps and had since warned him he would be sacked for a repeat offence.
The RSPB found a record 367 cases of deliberate bird of prey persecution in the UK in 2006.
Early figures for 2007 show at least 48 confirmed and suspected cases in which birds such as eagles, hen harriers and red kites were deliberately persecuted in Scotland, and more than 100 in England and Wales.
HOW TO FIGHT KILLERS
THE Scotsman is committed to helping the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals catch those responsible for killing birds of prey and other wildlife.
Information about raptor poisonings and other incidents of wildlife crime can be passed to police via the National Wildlife Crime Unit in North Berwick on 01620 893607.