THE Scottish Gamekeepers' Association greeted the publication yesterday of the long-awaited Langholm Report into ''Birds of Prey and Red Grouse'' with a demand to be allowed to kill certain protected birds of prey under licence.

The five-year study, which centred on Langholm Moor on the Duke of Buccleugh's estate in the Borders, found that the main cause of the decline in the Langholm grouse bags was predation from hen harriers which increased considerably in number when protected from persecution.

SGA chairman Mr David Hendry said: ''This report merely confirms what gamekeepers know from sad experience - namely that the soaring numbers of birds of prey are having a devastating impact on grouse and songbird numbers.''

He added: ''We need to get away from the simple knee-jerk response of those conservationists who would allow raptors to flourish at the expense of other species.

''We need a policy that creates a proper balance in the countryside and promotes the interests of all species while protecting the shooting industry.''

The report, which was backed by various Government agencies, the Game Conservancy Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, also found that the high numbers of hen harriers and peregrine falcons had been attracted to Langholm because it carried high numbers of prey species such as voles, meadow pipits and skylarks. They in turn were on the estate because of its high mix of grassland and heather - a result of high sheep numbers over the years.

The report found: ''When the grouse densities were relatively low, the predation by individual raptors had a large impact on population. The implication of this is that in the absence of illegal control, the impact of raptors is likely to be greatest on grouse populations at low densities on grassy moors with high alternative prey densities to attract many raptors.''

The RSPB's Director in Scotland, Mr Stuart Housden, warned that unofficial estimates of harrier numbers suggested they were currently 20% lower than at the last count in 1988/89 when there were 690 pairs in the UK and 570 pairs in Scotland.

Conservation agencies are likely to resist all attempts to introduce licensed control of birds of prey or moving them to other parts of the country, particularly with illegal persecution still rampant .

They are arguing instead for a shift in sheep subsidies towards agri-environmental grants that would increase rural employment and a change in management practices on grouse-driven estates.

Falling Prey Page 15

Elizabeth Buie

Environment Correspondent