The Wildlife minister, Richard Benyon, has been accused of being "the gamekeeper's friend" by refusing to outlaw a poison used by some to kill protected birds of prey on shooting estates.
Mr Benyon, a millionaire landowner who is strongly associated with shooting interests and owns both a pheasant shoot in Berkshire and a Scottish grouse moor, has declined a request from senior MPs to make possession of the poison, carbofuran, a criminal offence – as is the case in Scotland.
The effect of his refusal is to make a substance which is particularly deadly to birds of prey, despite it being a banned chemical with no legitimate use whatsoever, still available to any gamekeepers who wish to get rid of raptors illegally when they are perceived to be predating on gamebirds.
His stance, which is only the latest controversy arising from Mr Benyon's personal involvement with game shooting policy, met with fierce criticism yesterday. "The minister's shocking refusal to outlaw the possession of a poison used only by rogue gamekeepers to illegally kill birds of prey would be inexplicable were it not for his own cosy links to the shooting lobby," said the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas.
"Instead of protecting the interests of his friends on the shooting estates and undermining the wellbeing of British wildlife, the minister should be following the ad vice of MPs and the Scottish precedent by making carbofuran possession a criminal offence."
Dr Mark Avery, former conservation director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and now a leading wildlife campaigner, said that Mr Benyon's refusal to act on carbofuran was "astounding".
"The minister responsible for protecting wildlife in England does not believe it is worth helping to stamp out the poisoning of birds of prey by making it a clear offence to possess a poison for which there is no legal use in this country," said Mr Avery. "He is certainly the gamekeeper's friend – even if he is not a friend to wildlife."
Mr Benyon's refusal is revealed in a report today on wildlife crime from the cross-party House of Commons Environment Audit Committee, which discloses that between 2002 and 2011 there were 633 confirmed bird of prey poisoning incidents in the UK, with species killed ranging from golden eagles and white-tailed eagles to peregrine falcons – and carbofuran was used in 316 cases, or 50 per cent.
The report links the persecution of raptors firmly to shooting interests. "Unfortunately, some gamekeepers persecute birds of prey," the MPs say. "One study found only five successful hen harrier nests on the 3,700 square kilometres of driven grouse moor in the UK in 2008, an area which has the potential to support 500 pairs."
They add that of the 152 people who have been convicted of offences against birds of prey under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, some 70 per cent were gamekeepers employed on shooting estates.
Focusing on carbofuran use, the MPs say: "It is extremely toxic to birds, and a single grain would kill a large bird of prey such as a golden eagle." They add: "A gamekeeper who was convicted of poisoning birds of prey in Skibo, Scotland, in 2011, was found to possess 10 kilos of carbofuran, sufficient to kill every bird of prey in the UK."
However, when members of the committee asked Mr Benyon to make possession of it illegal, he refused, saying that poisoning was an offence anyway, and that outlawing the chemical "may not be a proportionate course of action". The MPs reject Mr Benyon's arguments and call on the Government to outlaw possession of carbofuran and other similar substances in England and Wales – "to discharge its obligations under the EU Birds Directive, to demonstrate its commitment to addressing raptor persecution, and to send a clear signal that it regards poisoning birds of prey as wholly unacceptable".
The MPs also call on the Government to consider introducing an offence of "vicarious liability" in relation to birds of prey persecution – which would mean that if a gamekeeper were convicted of illegally killing a raptor on a shooting estate, say, the landowner who employed him would also be liable for prosecution.
"Given the scale of ongoing persecution of birds of prey, the current law appears to carry insufficient weight," the MPs say. The offence of vicarious liability was introduced in Scotland in 2011 and the MPs call on the Government to review its effects and to make the results of any such review public.
Martin Harper, conservation director of the RSPB, said last night: "Through their suggestion of tighter controls on the use of certain pesticides, like carbofuran, the committee has provided any easy way for the Government to protect birds of prey."
Shooting minister: Benyon's record
Since becoming Wildlife minister in 2010, Richard Benyon's keen support for shooting interests has involved him in controversy.
He came in for ferocious criticism earlier this year for sanctioning a research project into the effect of buzzard predation on young pheasants, which would have involved buzzards' nests being blasted by shotguns. The policy was dropped following intervention with Mr Benyon's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs by Downing Street – 24 hours after extensive coverage of the plan in 'The Independent', in which Mr Benyon was labelled "The Bird-Brained Minister" and David Cameron's own links to game shooting were highlighted.
Mr Benyon now faces questions about an upland shooting estate in West Yorkshire which was being prosecuted by the Government's wildlife watchdog, Natural England, for illegally damaging protected habitat, a blanket bog – until the case was suddenly and mysteriously dropped. Mr Benyon is the minister directly in charge of Natural England, but neither Defra nor Natural England itself is willing to offer any explanation of why the prosecution of the Walshaw Moor estate was abruptly dropped in March this year. Now the RSPB has attempted to open up the case by asking the European Commission to intervene.