Bird-poisoning landowners to be penalised
LANDOWNERS and farmers implicated in poisoning birds of prey face losing tens of thousands of pounds in state aid after the Scottish Executive pledged to step up its efforts to stamp out wildlife crime.
Minister for Environment Michael Russell yesterday said he would make full use of existing legal penalties, including the cutting of thousands of pounds in subsidies to farmers who are found to blame for the poisoning of birds.
Speaking while shadowing two of Scotland's dedicated wildlife crime officers in the Borders, he said that the Executive was committed to stamping out "this shameful and barbaric practice".
"Birds of prey are magnificent creatures and wonderful assets for Scotland's biodiversity and tourism industry," he said. "Their welfare is the responsibility of all of us.
"Like everyone else in Scotland I was absolutely appalled by the recent spate of poisonings, especially that of the golden eagle in Peebleshire last week."
Mr Russell said that while much good work was being done to counter wildlife crime, stronger sanctions were needed: "That may include exploring the automatic loss of a firearms licence for anyone who has poisoned an animal.
"Another sanction which I would like looked at is cutting the Single Farm Payment (SFP) for estates implicated in bird poisonings. The Scottish government will not hesitate to use this measure if appropriate.
"People should be under no doubt these regulations exist. We are making sure this is something that's considered on every occasion."
The average SFP is worth 20,000, and the powers currently exist that if a landowner or farmer is found to be implicated in wildlife crime through negligence, his payments can be reduced by up to five per cent. But if the action or omission was intentional the penalty can be up to 100 per cent.
Four cases have been tried under this law, resulting in the reduction of subsidy, though as yet no one has lost all of it.
Mr Russell also said that he would examine, with the Justice Secretary, how best to use the new offence of knowingly causing or permitting the unlawful killing or injuring of a bird.
Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management at the RSPB, said he "very much welcomed" Mr Russell's announcement. "I think there is public disgust at what's happening. It is a persistent problem - this year we have got seven red kites poisoned, we had a golden eagle recently and there were two golden eagles last year," he said.
The Scottish Countryside Alliance welcomed the Scottish Executive's move, but said that cases should be tried in a criminal court: "If a bird of prey had been found poisoned on your ground and it had come from somewhere else, we would be facing a reduction in the SFP, which is basically your livelihood. The only grounds for that would be a guilty verdict in a criminal court. I just don't see this would wash. We'll have to get on to the Executive.
"There's potential for stitch-ups... or there's certainly the potential for those who would look to cause mischief to be able to do so."
Labour's environment spokeswoman, Sarah Boyack, MSP, was equally cautious: "We back calls for greater use of financial penalties against landowners; however we would caution against targeting gamekeepers.
"Responsibility and accountability should lie with the estate, not individual workers."
John Scott, Scottish Conservative spokesman for rural affairs and the environment, said that while they welcomed the tightening up of measures, they did not support the cutting of farm subsidies.
STOP THEM NOW
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.
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