Page last updated at 23:46 GMT, Monday, 19 April 2010 00:46 UK

Scotland's red kites under threat from illegal killing

Red kite with chick. Photo courtesy of RSPB Scotland
Red Kites are primarily scavengers and rarely take live prey

Red kites in Scotland are being severely threatened by suspected poisoning, a new RSPB study suggests.

Equal numbers of the distinctive bird of prey were reintroduced in 1989 into the Black Isle in the Highlands and The Chiltern Hills in southern England.

The birds were reintroduced having been hunted to extinction in most of the UK in the 1870s.

In southern England they have flourished but in Scotland they are struggling to establish themselves.

Since their release into the wild the behaviour and population numbers of the birds have been closely monitored.

By 2006 about 320 breeding pairs had established themselves in the Chilterns while the Scottish population had struggled with only 49 breeding pairs surviving over the same period of time.

Poisoning is an arbitrary method of killing which poses serious risks to other wildlife, and potentially people, in our countryside
Roseanna Cunningham
Environment Minister

Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland, said: "We now have a significant body of evidence to show what a major impact illegal poisoning is having on the populations of iconic birds such as the red kite.

"More widely, the reputation of Scotland as a country that values its wildlife is at stake."

Close monitoring showed that production of successfully reared and fledged red kite chicks was very similar in northern Scotland and the Chilterns, and was among the highest in Europe.

Thus, lack of food supply and poor breeding performance does not explain the poor growth rate of the Scottish Black Isle population.

Red kites are primarily scavengers and rarely take live prey, posing no significant threat to gaming interests.

The illegal killing is primarily by poisoning and this is responsible for the poor survival rates of young red kites. Many do not make it to breeding age.

Sanctions and penalties

Between 1989 and 2009, 64 of the birds have been found illegally poisoned in Scotland although the numbers actually killed are thought to be much higher.

Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham said: "Poisoning is an arbitrary method of killing which poses serious risks to other wildlife, and potentially people, in our countryside.

"The protection of Scotland's wildlife has never before occupied such a prominent position politically or in terms of the law. I hope that our continued joint action to tackle raptor persecution across Scotland will reduce this threat to red kites."

Mr Orr-Ewing added: "It is time to look again at the range of sanctions and penalties that can be deployed to tackle this damaging activity and bring the perpetrators to justice."

The study was conducted by RSPB Scotland and funded by Scottish Natural Heritage. It has been published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation.

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