THE law should be changed to allow birds of prey to be killed by landowners when numbers grow out of control, according to a director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance.
The controversial suggestion has been made by Tim Baynes, moorlands director, who thinks numbers of some raptors, especially buzzards and goshawks, are becoming unmanageable.
He is worried protected or fragile species such as wading moorland birds and red squirrels, as well as game birds, are at risk, particularly from buzzards because their numbers are increasing so rapidly.
However, the suggestion has been met with fierce criticism from RSPB Scotland.
Mr Baynes said: "It's an increasing problem as the number of buzzards and birds of prey goes up. We won't notice it for a couple of years and by the time it's obvious, it's too late.
"It needs the will to look at it as an ecological problem and see how many of these species can we tolerate if we want to have the other birds about. Moorland is a very fragile habitat."
Although it is possible for landowners to apply for a licence to control birds of prey to protect other species, none has ever been granted.
Usually rigorous evidence spanning five years is needed before such a licence would be granted.
Mr Baynes thinks the lack of flexibility in the law is leading some landowners to feel forced to take illegal action.
"Whenever people have applied for a licence to control buzzards they have been turned down," he said.
" There might be some people who think, 'What are we going to do?' They might resort to poisoning.
"It's totally wrong, but if the law is completely inflexible that may be a reason why it's happening. No-one wants to poison things, and it's a crime with quite a big ticket but there will be some people who think they have got no option."
Mr Baynes suggests one technique for controlling the birds could be to prick the eggs so they are unable to hatch.
Douglas McAdam, chief executive of the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association, agreed that the law needs to be changed.
"No single species should have more protection than any other species," he said. "We do not condone the breaking of the law in any shape or form but we make no secret of the fact we would like to see the law changed."
But Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland, said it has taken 200 years for the buzzard population to recover from persecution during the Victorian period.
"History tells us and also the ecology of the birds tells us that allowing control of species such as raptors is not a good thing because they are quite vulnerable to increased mortality," he said.
"They are at the top of the food chain. If you remove them we know their populations are quite slow to recover."
He added that evidence shows that the main prey eaten by buzzards is rabbits, not vulnerable species.
Many hurdles before a licence to cull is granted
UNDER current laws, scrupulous evidence spanning five years is required before a licence would be granted for a cull of birds of prey on an estate owner's land.
Landowners have applied to Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Government in the past for licences to control buzzards to protect pheasants and other species – but none has ever been granted.
However, permission has been given in some cases to cull ravens that are known to be killing lambs.
Under section 16 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act a long list of criteria must be met. These include:
• Evidence must be provided to prove wild birds are being attacked by the predator.
• Proof must be given that other non-lethal methods have been tried, such as putting up scarecrows.
• Consideration must be given to whether the impacts noticed are just due to normal cyclical variations. Red grouse populations go through cycles caused by changing conditions.
• Observations over five years must be provided to show a long-term decline in the threatened species.
Scottish Natural Heritage will then take all the evidence into consideration when forming an opinion as to whether control measures need to be put in place.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The Scotsman is committed to helping the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals catch those responsible for illegally 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.