GAMEKEEPERS in Scotland have attacked the "heavy-handed" use of dawn raids by police investigating the poisoning of birds of prey.
In one operation last month as many as 80 police, with helicopter support, raided houses near Leadhills in Lanarkshire and took away six men for questioning.
Earlier, in a similar raid in Angus involving 25 police officers backed by government agencies, a number of gamekeepers were held for questioning in separate police stations, while in Peeblesshire, up to 30 officers were involved.
All those detained have been released, and so far there have been no serious charges of wildlife crime.
The raids follow allegations from conservation bodies that there has been widespread persecution of birds of prey, such as golden eagles, red kites, hen harriers and buzzards.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' latest report shows that last year there were 44 allegations or reports of poisoning activity. However, this figure shows a drop of more than 50% on the previous year, when 80 incidents were reported, and the number of subsequent prosecutions has dwindled to a handful.
Last night the Scottish Gamekeepers Association claimed the police tactics were out of all proportion to the alleged offences. "What is the nature of this suspected crime?" asked Bert Burnett, an SGA committee member. "Is it so great that dozens of police are justified in rousing women and children out of their beds in the early hours, or whisking gamekeepers away to spend hours of intensive questioning and being treated as common criminals?"
Strathclyde Police, responsible for the Leadhills operation, said that it was customary to use a helicopter as back-up on these occasions, but confirmed that no charges were being brought.
A spokesman for Tayside Police's wildlife unit said that inquiries were on-going following the raid at Glenogle in Angus, and that charges had not been ruled out. "We are not out to get people in the countryside," he said, "but we take wildlife crime very seriously, and roundly condemn the poisoning of birds of prey."