BRITAIN should seek an opt-out from the European Birds Directive to allow Scottish grouse moor owners to cull the threatened hen harriers which prey on young grouse, the chairman of the Game Conservancy Trust's Scottish committee said yesterday.

Philip Astor, owner of a grouse moor in Aberdeenshire, said if there was a failure of other methods, such as experiments with supplementary feeding of hen harriers with rabbit carcasses during their breeding season, then the UK should seek a derogation from the EU law.

This would allow quotas of hen harriers, which carry the highest national and international protection but are now Britain's most persecuted raptor, to be established on grouse moors. Mr Astor suggested a figure of one pair of the birds in an area of six to eight thousand acres would be equitable.

He acknowledged the current illegal killing of the raptors by grouse moor gamekeepers was unacceptable but claimed his suggested management scheme, with the ''quota'' birds being better protected, would result in the current 500 pairs of hen harriers in Scotland actually increasing.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds Scotland said they were strongly of the view that derogation was not a possibility and Mr Astor's idea was ''a false hope''.

The Scottish Landowners' Federation said it was ''a step too far at this stage'' and distanced themselves from the concept.

Mr Astor was speaking after the signing of a historic statement of intent to conserve and manage wildlife-rich moorlands. Signatories from 24 organisations representing gamekeepers, landowners and managers, and conservation groups endorsed the work of the moorland working group chaired by SNH.

A Scottish Executive spokes-man said it deplored the continuing persecution of raptors and proposed to introduce deterrent measures, including custodial sentences, as soon as possible.