TWO sporting estates are taking the Government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), to court after it said that birds of prey had been illegally killed or trapped on their land.

Last week, SNH named Raeshaw estate, southeast of Edinburgh, and Burnfoot estate, west of Stirling, as sites where raptors protected under law such as peregrines, red kites and buzzards had been persecuted.

Based on evidence from Police Scotland, SNH rejected appeals from the two estates, and took the unprecedented step of imposing legal restrictions on the management of their grouse moors.

The Sunday Herald has learnt, however, that the estates are now launching a judicial review of SNH’s move. They deny any wrongdoing, and are challenging whether SNH has acted lawfully within its powers.

The fierce legal battle is the latest twist in the long and bitter war over birds of prey on sporting estates. The birds are known to prey on grouse, which some landowners fear could reduce the numbers available to be shot for the lucrative sport market.

In a bid to combat the illegal persecution of raptors, the Scottish Government asked SNH in 2013 to consider how it could restrict the general licences it issued to estates. These allow gamekeepers to control crows, which take grouse eggs and chicks.

Last November SNH tried to impose licence restrictions on four properties, but the move was immediately appealed and the restrictions withdrawn. On February 1, however, SNH rejected the appeal and reinstated the restrictions, which cover 5,800 hectares and last for three years.

SNH named the four properties involved as Raeshaw estate and neighbouring Corsehope Farm near Heriot on the edge of the Moorfoot Hills in Scottish Borders, and Burnfoot estate and neighbouring Todhalls Farm near Kippen in the Gargunnock Hills in Stirlingshire.

“Evidence of either illegal killing of raptors or attempts to kill raptors illegally was found on the land in question,” SNH told the Sunday Herald. At Raeshaw and Corsehope “illegal traps had been set”, and at Burnfoot and Todhalls there had been “a poisoned red kite, a poisoned peregrine, and a red kite found injured in an illegal trap which had to be subsequently euthanised.”

The incidents had all occurred since the start of 2014, and had been investigated by the police. “While it is very clear that offences have been committed, as is often the case with these types of crime, it hasn’t been possible to gather the evidence to identify the person responsible,” SNH said.

SNH’s policy director, Andrew Bachell, stressed that the police evidence was “strong” and that SNH had followed its published framework. General licences had been suspended where “there may be a risk of more wildlife crimes taking place”, he said.

“Land managers in these areas may still apply for individual licences. This will help to protect wild birds in these areas and still allow the land to be managed effectively, but with increased scrutiny of estate activities. We consider this is a fair and proportionate response to prevent further wildlife crime.”

SNH’s chairman, Ian Ross, added: “We’re committed to taking action whenever there is evidence of wildlife crime, and we believe this new measure will make it much tougher for those committing offences.

“Because of the remote locations where most wildlife crime takes place, it’s often difficult to prove. So we need every tool we can to fight against those who persecute raptors in Scotland.”

SNH was backed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland. “We welcome the restriction of the use of general licences on land holdings where there is clear evidence of crimes against protected species,” said the society’s head of investigations, Ian Thomson.

But Raeshaw and Burnfoot estates strongly dispute SNH’s findings, insisting they have not done anything wrong and pointing out they have not been prosecuted. “We have been instructed to seek a judicial review of the SNH decision and we have started preparing papers for court,” said David McKie from Levy and McRae solicitors, which represents both privately owned estates.

“Responsible game management practices are at the heart of what Raeshaw and its employees do. My clients are disappointed by this ruling,” he added.

“Burnfoot consider the decision of SNH to be unjustified and unfair. They note that the decision notice states that the restriction does not infer responsibility for the commission of crimes on any individuals.”

Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners, expressed “concerns” about the quality of the evidence. “There does remain a need to ensure that evidence presented by police is sufficiently robust in cases such as these where there does not appear to be sufficient proof to support a criminal conviction,” said a spokesman.

According to the Scottish environment minister Dr Aileen McLeod, it was “entirely appropriate” for SNH to impose licence restrictions where there was good evidence of wildlife crime. “Tackling wildlife crime is a key priority for the Scottish Government,” she said.

“We have the strongest wildlife legislation in the UK and restrictions on general licences is another tool in the box to prevent and deter wildlife crime. I would like to thank SNH and Police Scotland for their work in developing this new technique.”