AGAMEKEEPER who faced a possible fine of more than GBP500,000 after killing two birds with a poisoned egg and taking 118 gulls' eggs from their nests escaped with an GBP850 fine yesterday.

The sentence was condemned by the RSPB who said it would be no deterrent and could put everything from pet dogs to golden eagles as well as humans at risk.

Hector McNeil, head gamekeeper on the 7500-acre North Glenbuchat Estate on Strathdon, Aberdeenshire, had admitted the charges at a previous hearing and claimed he was trying to protect grouse stock.

McNeil, 56, a gamekeeper for 30 years, had pled guilty at Aberdeen Sheriff Court to killing a raven - of which there are only two breeding pairs in Grampian - and a common gull using the pesticide aldicarb.

He also pleaded guilty to illegally possessing 118 gulls eggs at his home and illegally possessing Cymag, a banned substance which contains sodium cyanide.

The offences came to light when council rangers carrying out a routine risk assessment for a public walk discovered the two carcasses and a broken egg nearby. Tests revealed they contained the poison.

Sheriff Alexander Jessop fined McNeil, a first offender, GBP350 for killing the birds with a poisoned egg, GBP400 for possession of the eggs - he could have been fined up to GBP5000 for each one - and GBP100 for possessing the poison.

The sheriff said he appreciated it was difficult to balance the preservation of the estate and the employment it provided with the preservation of rare species of birds.

"It must be a difficult line to have to draw and clearly in this case you crossed the line, " he said.

The court had previously heard McNeil intended to kill crows but instead killed a raven and a common gull.

Defence agent Ewan Campbell said that his client did not know it was illegal to possess common gull eggs. It was claimed McNeil intended to eat some of the eggs and feed the rest to his dog.

Elsie Ashworth, of the RSPB investigations unit which was involved in the inquiry, said they were very disappointed with the sentence.

"This man has taken a gull egg, laced it with deadly poison and placed it on an open hillside by a Landrover track. I really think the public should be able to walk in the countryside without being at risk from poison. Aldicarb is extremely hazardous."

She said it was a nerve poison and in sufficient quantity it could be fatal. Ravens, she added, were very rare in the north-east, possibly because this sort of poisoning was widespread.

"The RSPB does receive an average of 25 reports of this type of poisoning in Scotland every year and I believe quite firmly that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The main reason ravens have struggled to breed in this area for many decades is because of persecution."

She said they were "extremely disappointed" that he had been fined only GBP350 for poisoning the birds.

"To fine someone only that for placing a poisoned egg casually and indiscriminately on a hillside like that is really unlikely to act as a deterrent, " she said.

The RSPB was disappointed too that the gamekeeper had not been charged with possession of aldicarb, which was found during the police search.

"We need to stop it otherwise everything from pet dogs to golden eagles are going to be at risk in the countryside, " she added.