In the run-up to the start of the grouse-shooting season next Tuesday, research has revealed that some managers of Scotland's grouse moors are illegally poisoning protected birds of prey to maintain high numbers of red grouse, writes Natasha Gilbert.
According to a study published in the journal Biological Conservation, estate managers are controlling the populations of birds such as the golden eagle and the hen harrier in these areas with the use of pesticides and insecticides. They believe that these predators directly affect the number of red grouse available to shoot for sport.
Phil Whitfield, of Scottish Natural Heritage and lead author of the study, said: "Despite legislation banning the use of poisons, this method of control, which carries risks to public health and safety, is still being used."
The research used data on poisoning incidents in Scotland collated annually by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for the years 1981-2000.
It found that up to 54.1 per cent of poisoning incidents were associated with grouse moors managed to encourage red grouse populations.
Mr Whitfield said: "We found a specific association between incidents of illegal poisoning and the distribution of upland grouse moors."
The study states: "It seems unlikely that illegal poisoning is being carried out by parties unconnected to grouse moor management."
The research also reports an increase in the use of poisoned baits between 1981 and 1992, when 6.3 poisoning incidents a year were recorded on lands associated with grouse shooting, and 1993-2000 when 9.6 incidents a year on were reported in the same areas.
"It has never been proven that reducing the population density of birds of prey helps to maintain higher numbers of the red grouse available to shoot for sport," said David Dick, senior investigation officer for the RSPB in Scotland. "Poisoning of these protected species continues out of ignorance and tradition."