Wading birds such as the curlew are at risk of disappearing from the planet in our lifetime because Scotland's nature body is “paralysed by fear” over bad publicity and legal challenges, gamekeepers have claimed.
The accusation comes in an open letter from members of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, who have hit out Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) over the handling of a controversial experimental cull of ravens aimed at protecting eggs and chicks of declining wading birds.
The letter defends the part estate workers played in the Strathbraan Community Collaboration for Waders (SCCW) group, including plans to shoot 300 ravens - around 60 annually over a five-year period.
The cull was licenced by SNH, but later suspended following criticism from conservationists and a public outcry that saw the SNH chief receiving death threats.
Now gamekeepers claim SNH’s refusal to grant a new license to control ravens in Strathbraan could prove a critical moment for the survival of curlews, which have declined by more than 60 per cent.
The letter, distributed to MSPs, states: “Without targeted and accelerated conservation action in Scotland, the curlew - classed as the UK’s most pressing conservation priority - will become extinct, globally, in our lifetime.
“There is now a responsibility for heritage bodies and government departments to do more than pay lip service to adaptive approaches if this tragedy is not to unfold on Scotland’s soil.
“Politics and the fear of campaigners, legal challenge and adverse publicity is now disabling public agencies from delivering the type of bold actions required to fix conservation emergencies, such as those facing the world’s wading birds.”
The letter blames fear of court action, “misrepresentative” media coverage and pressure from campaigners, including popular naturalist and TV presenter Chris Packham, for “disabling” the agency in doing its job.
SNH acknowledged that urgent action was required to reverse declines but defended the decision to reject the licence application.
A spokeswoman for SNH said: “Populations of curlew and lapwing in Scotland have more than halved over the past 20 years.
“We recognise that we are reaching crisis point and we need to take action.
“Our next step is to scope out a collaborative project to aid the conservation of these birds.”
The agency confirmed SCCW had submitted an application to manage ravens as part of a study into the impacts on wader birds in the area but said the proposal failed to fulfill “wide-ranging research methods” recommended by its own Scientific Advisory Committee.
“Following this advice, the application has not been granted but we remain in contact with the SCCW on potential future collaboration projects,” the spokeswoman added.
Scientist and Raptor Persecution blogger Dr Ruth Tingay, who campaigns for controls on grouse shooting estates, began crowd-funding for a Judicial Review of the case.
She said: “SNH’s own Scientific Advisory Committee deemed the 2018 raven cull licence to be ‘completely inadequate’, ‘seriously flawed’ and said it ‘will fail to provide any meaningful scientific evidence’. It couldn't be any clearer.
“I remain wholly unconvinced that the motivation behind the Strathbraan raven cull licence applications was to protect waders; the SGA has lobbied for many years seeking permission to kill ravens to protect game birds. Its response to the failed 2019 application is predictably bitter and resentful.
“Its time could be spent more usefully cleaning up the rampant criminality within the game-shooting sector - not least in the wider Strathbraan area, which has been identified as a raptor persecution hotspot.”