The chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association, Mr David Hendry, launched an outspoken attack yesterday on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for its alleged ''harassment'' of SGA members.

Mr Hendry, speaking on the eve of the Glorious Twelfth at the SGA's conference in Crieff, warned that many of the country's 1500 keepers are worried about their jobs in the current anti-hunting climate, and called for a licensed cull of birds of prey.

Mr Hendry said: ''Gamekeepers are under continual harassment from police, the RSPB, and the anti-shooting lobby. We want to end that harassment, work together to strike a proper balance in the countryside, and secure recognition for gamekeepers as the true custodian of the Scottish countryside.''

Mr Hendry announced this year's season would be only ''marginally better'' than last year's after a late frost wiped out almost half of the grouse coveys across Scotland's five million acres of grouse moor.

He added: ''Contrary to some reports, it will not be a bumper year for grouse. We have taken in reports from each of our 10 regions in Scotland and the picture is very patchy. Cold weather meant many eggs were chilled and that the insect life required to give grouse chicks a boost of protein was not around in sufficient abundance.''

Mr Hendry highlighted the threat posed by birds of prey to both game birds and songbirds and called for a joint approach to their control.

He said: ''We cannot say it often enough - we do not want to wipe out birds of prey but a balance must be struck. If they are allowed to multiply as at present, there will be devastating consequences for the songbird population in a few years.

''We want to end the conflict with the RSPB and to work together but it is very difficult when our members are being harassed.''

Mr Hendry said the SGA disputed the RSPB figure of 600 pairs of hen harriers in Scotland, suggesting the true figure was ''more than double that''.

The SGA stressed shooting and stalking employs more than 2000 people full-time in Scotland with a further 5000 full-time indirect jobs and 10,000 part-time jobs.

The value of shooting to the Scottish rural economy this year is estimated at #80m.

Mr David Cant, of the SGA business council, warned that gamekeepers and their families had a vital role to play in fragile rural communities.