What the Gamekeepers say - Nature - Environment - The Independent

What the Gamekeepers say

We interviewed a number of gamekeepers and their organisations on the issue of bird of prey persecution. Here is what they said...

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Stuart Scull, Head of Gamekeeping at the British Association for Shooting and Conservation:

"We know that there are some people involved in game management who choose to step outside the law, there's no denying that. However, they are a tiny minority and game management when done correctly is a force for good in the countryside.

You've got a predator such as a bird of prey that will impact on game birds. There are many steps that a game manager can take to minimise game losses. We know from research that you lose around one per cent of birds at release from birds of prey. The losses are quite minimal, birds of prey and game birds can live side by side but without a doubt you are looking at a major predator and at certain times of the year they can and do impact on game.

The gamekeeping profession has a tarnished image that goes back to Victorian times when they were involved in killing any bird or animal that even looked at a game bird. The countryside was a very different place then and things have changed. Now gamekeepers are managing the land with a conservation view in mind. The modern gamekeeper will target predator control in the spring, not year round as they used to.

If any of those poisoning birds of prey were members of BASC they would be expelled from the organisation subject to their right of appeal. Yes, it [members being expelled] has happened in the past. It is something that we take seriously, we expect our members to abide by the law and by the standards set by the shooting community.

The gamekeeping profession is a very proud profession. It works to high standards and these people, if they choose to step outside the law, don't have a home within the gamekeeping profession. It is as simple as that. Many of our members have good relations with the police and work closely with police wildlife crime officers.

Many of the reintroduction programmes that the RSPB have, I'm thinking of red kite, actually take place on ground looked after by gamekeepers. We do have this image from the Victorian times which we are trying very hard to shake off. Those that break the law may do it because they feel, misguidedly, that they have to remove birds of prey. It might be that they are put under pressure by an uncaring and unscrupulous employer. There might be a whole host of reasons. Game is managed now in a very different way, a very responsible way."

Alec Hogg, director of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association:

"There certainly are a few rogue gamekeepers left but we've been on the go for 10 years now and I think we've come a long way in stamping out poisoning.

The thing that confuses me is that there have been quite a few cases this past six months but it's always iconic species that have been found – a golden eagle and red kites. Where are the other birds that you'd expect to find? Why are they not showing up? It's almost like poisoning 50,000 people in London and then just Gordon Brown shows up. The chances are really remote of either catching somebody at it, whether it's a rogue keeper or somebody up to mischief

The gamekeepers in the area where the poisoned golden eagle was found [under a nest site on the Scottish borders before this year's grouse shooting season] had looked after it for 10 years or more.

Scotland is a huge success story because you've got 421 pairs of golden eagles breeding that have been stable for some years now. We've got 700 pairs of hen harriers. The numbers are going up but this never seems to get publicised.

The situation now is that raptor numbers are healthy.

Raptors can co-exist to a degree but they cannot where the balance is tipped too much in favour of them. I've applied for a license twice to help protect my game birds from buzzards but I've been refused twice. You can see there's frustration there because of the sheer number of raptors that are attacking and it's not just game birds that are suffering, it's other birds such as upland waders, ringers, skylarks and meadow pipits. These species have no protection from these raptors. I think that's why there's been the odd poisoning incident.

Here in Peebles, it is the sheer weight of buzzards. They are eating everything that moves. They have also altered their habits so you see them sitting on every post. They have the patience of a saint and they'll sit there all day waiting for their prey. The only way that I can see an end to this is to have more flexibility. If people continued to use poison then they would deserve everything they got. It needs to be managed in a balanced way. At the moment things are more in favour of the hunter than the hunted when it comes to birds of prey and game birds.

The true gamekeeper feel passionately about wildlife in general, but predators need to be controlled. Nobody is saying 'let's go out and shoot a raptor' but let's find management plans that will work for both sides."

National Gamekeepers Organisation:

"The birds of prey issue is mostly a problem on the grouse moors because there is scientific evidence that hen harriers in particular do conflict with the management of grouse – so everybody accepts that there is a degree of predation by birds of prey on grouse. With these lowland shoots there are issues with buzzards and sparrowhawks. The birds of prey are heavily protected and there are very significant penalties if you do anything to them. As an organisation we are totally against people doing anything to these birds.

Yes, individuals do get frustrated if they get birds of prey on an area of land they are looking after. You can do things about foxes but to watch things going down the throats of birds of prey is very frustrating. But there's nothing you can do about it other than try to find a solution to the problem – things like supplementary feeding are being looked at.

This continuing conflict between birds of prey and game birds needs to be sorted out. If we can find a magic solution that means we can have both our grouse and harrier populations, that would be wonderful. There have been incidents of poisoning but there are actually very few incidents and given the number of organisations actively looking to catch people out the number of incidents is low. We would say that any incident is one too many. The fact remains that the vast majority of gamekeepers are acting within the law.

As far as the RSPB's Bird Crime report goes, the numbers may seem high to you but it's all relative isn't it? I think the number of people who may or may not be involved with these sorts of offences is very low. The RSPB are inclined to point the finger at gamekeepers but there are others who might have an axe to grind – livestock farmers and hill farmers for example.

Some of these poisoning incidents will be pure accidents. It's by no means all gamekeepers. The finger always gets pointed at gamekeepers because they are an obvious and easy target.

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