SCOTTISH LAND and Estates and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association have accused the RSPB of timing its latest hen harrier appeal to influence political opinion ahead of the imminent review of grouse shooting.

This week, RSPB issued a statement calling for information on a hen harrier that was found dead in June, and also alluded to ‘suspicious circumstances’ surrounding the disappearances of two young satellite tagged birds, which they claim were last tracked on separate grouse moors in September and October, respectively.

The timing of this appeal has come under scrutiny given the sensitivity of an upcoming review led by Professor Werrity and the Grouse Moor Management Group, which has spent the last two years examining the environmental impact of grouse moor management practices on behalf of the Scottish Government.

Newly appointed chief executive of SLE, Sarah Jane Laing, called out the RSPB’s appeal as a ‘blatant attempt to put pressure on government’ ahead of the forthcoming review.

She said: “It cannot be stated with certainty that each time a tag fails a crime has been committed. There is evidence to the contrary where birds have reappeared or in one case where one bird of prey was killed by another.

“What is happening – and is deeply regrettable – is that information is being manipulated to inflict as much damage on grouse shooting as possible, rather than being timed to gather the greatest level of information about what has happened,” she suggested.

“The disappearance or illegal killing of any satellite-tagged bird of prey is a matter of concern and we consistently support appeals for information. In the case of the hen harrier found shot near Wanlockhead, our organisation publicised this case in July of this year and raised it with the partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime at that time,” she explained. “The bird was found on an estate which has hosted several successful harrier nests and Police Scotland conducted an investigation.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Gamekeepers Association took the opportunity to highlight its ‘unequivocal stance on wildlife crime’ – referring to the removal of eight members in the last seven years for wildlife crimes: “The lack of evidence in the RSPB press release suggests to us that this is an attempt to influence government over Professor Werritty’s imminent review of grouse shooting.

“Young hen harriers are scientifically proven to have very high natural mortality and more and more high-profile cases of satellite tag failures are coming to light all the time. Beyond the orchestrated campaign, there is no actual evidence to link these two losses of tag transmission to persecution or persecution on grouse moors.”

Head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland, Duncan Orr-Ewing, insisted that the birds have been a victim of crime: “The project satellite tags don’t stop transmitting if a bird dies of natural causes. To have them go offline suddenly and without warning strongly suggests the hen harriers have been the victims of crime, as in the case of the shot bird.

“Scotland is leading the way in the UK in terms of legislation to tackle bird of prey persecution, but continuing incidents such as this show that existing measures are not enough. There needs to be robust regulation of driven grouse shooting if crimes against some of this country’s incredible wildlife are to be brought to an end,” he concluded.