Birds of prey reprieved by deal between hunters and conservationists

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Pigeon fanciers and grouse moor owners have agreed with conservationists that rare birds of prey cannot be killed to protect their sports.

Pigeon fanciers and grouse moor owners have agreed with conservationists that rare birds of prey cannot be killed to protect their sports.

Peregrine falcons, hen harriers and sparrowhawks must be protected, even though they kill grouse, other game birds and pigeons, the two sides concurred. They also agreed that steps must be taken to stamp out illegal killing of birds of prey by gamekeepers, which is widespread.

The consensus, after a five-year-study, at one stage looked unreachable, as many grouse shooters and pigeons owners were convinced birds of prey had increased so much recently that they were doing significant damage.

But the game-shooting and pigeon-racing fraternities have accepted that killing any British bird of prey is illegal in European law, that any attempt to seek exceptions would provoke a hostile publicreaction and that other, non-lethal means of limiting damage can be tried. "Diversionary feeding", such as leaving dead rats for nesting hen harriers, has been shown to protect grouse.

The agreement is in the report of the government-chaired Raptor Working Group, set up after complaints by landowners and pigeon enthusiasts. It brought together such bodies as the Scottish Landowners' Federation, the Royal Pigeon Racing Association and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

They concluded that predation was not the only reason gamebirds and pigeons were lost, in spite of a survey of the Duke of Buccleuch's grouse moor at Langholm in Dumfries and Galloway, which showed the damage raptors can cause. If hen harriers and peregrines were not controlled, they killed 30 per cent of adult grouse in April and May and 37 per cent of chicks. After the survey was published in 1997, licensed killing of birds of prey was very much on the agenda.

But landowning interests have now accepted that lethal control methods are out. This is because research has shown raptors are still vulnerable to decline and that other methods to keep up gamebird and pigeon numbers can be tried. The approach also reflects the European Union's Wild Birds Directive, which specifically outlaws killing birds of prey.

Whether the agreement not to kill raptors will be accepted by individual landowners remains to be seen. Illegal killing of birds of prey is still widespread, the report says.

The background to the problem is the recovery in the past 30 years of raptor populations from declines caused by gamekeeper persecution and DDT poisoning. In the 1950s peregrines and sparrowhawks were all but wiped out but, after Britain banned the offending compounds, numbers recovered until, 15 years ago, peregrine and sparrowhawk populations were back at healthy levels. Hen harriers, which at the turn of the century were found only in the Orkneys, also slowly built up their population as the great shooting estates declined.