A row has erupted over the right to enter estates to monitor protected birds following an incident in Sutherland which led to a raptor nest being disturbed.
The incident, which occurred on May 18 on a deer stalking estate in Sutherland, has led to the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) seeking clarity from the Scottish Government on bird monitoring.
The lockdown disturbance was spotted by a gamekeeper.
The gamekeeper, who wishes to remain anonymous, approached the individual who spooked the Merlin.
The man claimed to be taking his daily exercise before saying that he was licensed to visit the nest by the Scottish Raptor Study Group.
The man, who is not believed to be local, was spotted in the area three times prior to the incident.
The gamekeeper said he contacted the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) for clarity on whether bird monitoring was still active during lockdown.
He also contacted the police.
“If a gamekeeper had been spotted disturbing a raptor nest, even accidentally, it would be criminal proceedings, police raids, media attention and possible loss of employment,” he said.
“Monitors, though, are able to come onto estates, without permission, even during lockdown it seems, and carry out activity which could lead to a nest failing.”
Merlins are protected as an amber listed schedule one bird with disturbance at breeding time deemed to be a criminal offence unless the person has a licence to monitor nests.
Criminal penalties are set to rise for nest disturbance under the Animals and Welfare Bill which is currently being passed through parliament, with the potential punishment of 12 months jail time, a £40,000 fine – or even both.
The SGA has called for permission to be sought from monitors entering estates to avoid liability being landed at the feet of estate owners.
Alex Hogg, SGA chairman, says the current licencing is “too vague and open to abuse”.
He said: “Our members are not going to want monitors on their ground if their activity at nests could lead to criminal liability or jail sentences coming the other way.”
An SNH spokeswoman said they were not aware of the incident.
She said: “SNH issue schedule one bird disturbance licences to suitably trained individuals for the purposes of education and research.
“It remains the responsibility of the individual to ensure that they adhere to all of the terms and conditions of the licence, as well as to any other measures that are in place with respect to travel during Coronavirus restrictions.
“We routinely provide assistance to Police Scotland in their investigation of any serious licence breaches.”
A BTO spokesman confirmed fieldwork has been suspended bar on land owned by a licenced individual due to the coronavirus pandemic.
He said guidance is given to volunteers who undertake monitoring to adhere to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code when seeking to gain access as well as promoting good practice to avoid “negatively affecting breeding attempts”.