Gamekeepers 'poison golden eagles'

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Gamekeepers are being blamed for a series of deaths of golden eagles, in what wildlife experts believe is part of a wider campaign of persecution of birds of prey.

Gamekeepers are being blamed for a series of deaths of golden eagles, in what wildlife experts believe is part of a wider campaign of persecution of birds of prey.

Three golden eagles have been killed in Scotland in recent months. All had been poisoned and were found on or near sporting moorlands, prompting concern that gamekeepers were responsible.

Police are investigating one death, while tests are being carried out to identify the poison used on a second bird. In the third case, the bird was found poisoned on a hill in Perthshire bordering three estates,with many grouse and sheep.

Many more golden eagles are poisoned, shot or caught in crow traps, according to wildlife officers, who fear the persecution is jeopardising the bird's presence in Scotland.

The population of golden eagles in Britain is relatively stable, though small and vulnerable. It is a bird of the Celtic fringe: almost the entire British population of 420 pairs is in the Highlands of Scotland, with small numbers on Hebridean islands. The only pair south of the border is in the Lake District.

"One dead eagle here and there sounds like a drop in the ocean but it isn't," said Dave Dick, senior investigations officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland. "When you have such a limited population, every pair of golden eagles is important. This is Scotland's national bird and a handful of people are denying everyone the right to see this magnificent creature."

The RSPB believes the "hot-spots" where eagles are concentrated is proof that illegal killing by gamekeepers is widespread. "Golden eagles are much more common in western Scotland even though the food sources for them are best in the east in the Cairngorms and Caithness," said Mr Dick. "More eagles should be based in the east, so something is going on. It is no coincidence that in the east you find managed estates for grouse shooting. Golden eagles are being killed deliberately. No one traps and kills or shoots a golden eagle by accident - they're seven feet across."

The Scottish Landowners' Federation condemns the killing of any raptor but Dr Jamie Williamson, laird of the Alvie estate in the Cairngorms which specialises in grouse shooting, said the issue was complex. "Gamekeepers whose jobs depend on it, who perceive raptors are threatening the grouse population, face a tremendous incentive to take the law into their own hands. I'm afraid many keepers take this option. I hate poisoning but I sympathise with anyone whose job is on the line."

The maximum fine for killing any bird of prey is £5,000, though magistrates typically impose fines of only £2,000. Environmentalists believe the policy offers little deterrent to estates worth millions of pounds and that jail sentences should be considered.

Many grouse shooters and pigeon owners are convinced the rising numbers of birds of prey are doing significant damage to their sports. They point to a survey in 1997 of the Duke of Buccleuch's grouse moor in Dumfries and Galloway, which showed that 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.

But earlier this year the game-shooting and pigeon-racing fraternities accepted that other, non-lethal means of limiting damage could be tried. The recognition came in the form of the government-chaired Raptor Working Group, set up after complaints by landowners and pigeon enthusiasts. The group, which included such bodies as the Scottish Landowners' Federation, the Royal Pigeon Racing Association and RSPB, concluded that predation was not the only reason game birds and pigeons were lost.

Dr Williamson said: "In the long term we must either look at other ways of making a living from the land or look at the concept of licensed culling."

Though populations of some birds of prey in Britain are recovering, ravens, short-eared owls, peregrines, merlin and hen harriers have all suffered.