Row over raptor persecution claim
Landowners have reacted angrily to claims the persecution of birds of prey on Scotland's grouse moors has returned to levels last seen in the Victorian era.
The allegation was made by Duncan Orr Ewing, one of the most senior figures at RSPB Scotland.
The landowners' organisation, Scottish Land and Estates, said the RSPB was increasingly resorting to "wild and misleading accusations".
Mr Orr Ewing has defended his claims.
Douglas McAdam, the chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates, told BBC Scotland News: "For Mr Orr Ewing to suggest that wildlife crime is returning to Victorian levels is both irresponsible and untrue. He ought to know better.
"Official statistics in recent years have seen, overall, a downward trend in raptor persecution - even at some points demonstrating record low levels of poisoning incidents.
"It is very disappointing that the RSPB, with whom we would like to work constructively, stoop to making such wild and misleading accusations."
Mr Orr Ewing is head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland.
Responding to the criticism, he said: "We have seen major intensification of management practices on many grouse moors in the central and eastern Highlands and Southern Uplands of Scotland.
"This moorland management places emphasis on increasing the numbers of gamekeepers, to undertake high levels of predator control, more frequent and extensive heather burning, veterinary medication of red grouse, and the killing of mountain hares and deer, ostensibly to prevent tick-borne grouse diseases.
"It would be far more appropriate to describe this activity as 'grouse farming', with monocultures of heather habitat producing unnaturally high grouse shooting bags.
"Indeed, we do not believe that is possible, whilst continuing to operate within the bounds of the law."
Dr Adam Smith, director of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust in Scotland, has also questioned the RSPB's claims.
He said: "In the early Victorian period there were very few birds of prey left in Scotland and that is certainly not the situation today.
"For example, the data we do have from the Victorian era suggests very clearly that the hen harrier had been driven back to Orkney and the Outer Hebrides. It was not found anywhere on estates in the Scottish mainland up to at least the 1930s.
"Today, we are pleased there are more than 400 breeding pairs in Scotland.
"For a variety of reasons they may not be distributed right across the habitats which are suitable for them, but their national recovery is clear, so I find the RSPB's suggestion very difficult to sustain.
"Neither do the numbers of grouse being shot stand up to scrutiny as being at Victorian levels.
"Our records going back to the 1900s show how the numbers of birds shot per unit area have fallen by over half, never fully recovering from the sharp decline during the second war."
Prof Des Thompson, principal adviser on biodiversity at Scottish Natural Heritage, said: "We understand Duncan Orr-Ewing's concerns; however, we feel changes need to be supported by hard evidence.
"There is now much more forest cover for predators such as crows and foxes, which means that levels of predator control are very high on some moors managed for grouse.
"These and related matters will be examined by a newly-formed SNH group. We will use the evidence gathered by the group to inform the Scottish government's Land Use Strategy and the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy, and as a contribution to the work of the Moorland Forum.
"If people suspect any illegal persecution of raptors or other wildlife associated with any moorland management, we urge them to contact Police Scotland. We must do our best to stamp out wildlife crime."