New licences to kill birds of prey could be handed to landowners

NEW guidelines on the licensed killing of birds of prey are being drawn up by the Scottish Government.

Gamekeepers' groups are hoping the new advice will make it easier for the owners of hunting estates to get licences to control certain types of birds of prey such as buzzards.

They say buzzards, which are now relatively common across Scotland, take large numbers of pheasants every year, incurring costs to estates which often rear the birds in captivity and depend on them to attract sporting parties.

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However, conservation groups including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Scotland is opposed to licences being granted for any birds of prey to be killed.

Under current legislation, it is theoretically possible for licences to be issued if landowners can show that raptors are causing serious economic damage, and if there is no alternative to lethal control.

However, an application for a licence has never yet been successful in Scotland.

Now the Scottish Government has held a meeting with key organisations – including the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, RSPB Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage – to thrash out a new protocol.

Alex Hogg, chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association, who was part of the discussions, is hopeful it will soon become easier to get a licence. He has twice unsuccessfully applied for a licence to kill about 12 buzzards that were attacking pheasants on his estate.

"Anyone who rears livestock knows how traumatic it is to lose animals in their care particularly when they've done everything in their power to protect them," he said.

"Predation of pheasant poults by ever-growing numbers of buzzards has become a major problem for the shooting industry which sustains thousands of jobs and brings millions of pounds of revenue into the Scottish economy every year and the government is now well aware of our plight."

However, Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland, said he did not think there was "any justification" for licences to be granted to control birds of prey. He said buzzards were a "naturally common" species.

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A spokesman for RSPB Scotland added that evidence suggested the number of pheasants taken by buzzards was "negligible" in comparison to those killed on the roads.

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, licences can be issued "for the purposes of preventing serious damage to livestock" only if "there is no other satisfactory solution".

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: "Discussion with game industry, conservation and scientific organisations took place to determine what criteria would satisfy the conditions in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981."

She emphasised that "lethal control will continue to be considered as a last resort, used only where all alternatives have failed".

The guidelines are expected next year.