FORMER England cricketer Sir Ian Botham has claimed gamekeepers should be put in charge of bird charity RSPB's reserves to protect highly-endangered hen harriers from the risk of extinction.

The pro-shooting campaigner said the RSPB approach to predator control on its reserves is affecting the birds’ survival rates, leaving them easy prey to the likes of foxes.

And he claimed that gamekeepers – often held up to be partly responsible for falling numbers of hen harriers because of intense moorland management – would do a better job at helping support the birds’ future survival.

His campaign organisation also claimed hen harriers are consistently less successful at breeding on land controlled by the RSPB, with a 35 per cent success rate compared to 52 per cent on land not connected to the charity.

“Gamekeepers are proud that they create some of Britain’s best bird reserves,” he said. “The RSPB’s publicity suggests that hen harriers are its highest priority species. If it really wants to help these birds, I recommend that it experiments with putting gamekeepers in charge of its reserves.”

The RSPB in Scotland has dismissed Sir Ian's comments as “nonsense” and instead claimed that intensive moor management is a factor in low breeding numbers of hen harriers across the UK.

James Reynolds, spokesman for the RSPB in Scotland, said: “This is a very tired and hollow argument from the same old apologists of the damaging driven grouse shooting industry.

“The low breeding numbers of this spectacular bird show precisely the threats it faces from the continuation of this intensive land use. There should be 300 breeding pairs in England alone. That there are in fact more hen harriers which breed on a single RSPB nature reserve – Loch Gruinart in Islay – than in the whole of England shows exactly how baseless this attack is.

“If this industry focussed on eradicating illegal killing of birds of prey within its ranks, it would do a lot more to help ensure more people can enjoy seeing these magnificent birds right across the UK.”

The hen harrier is one of the UK’s rarest raptors, recognisable for its owl-like features and engaging ‘sky dance’ of spins, twists and rolls.

One of its key prey is red grouse chicks which, despite its protected status, it is claimed make them a target for wildlife crime.

A survey of hen harrier numbers in 2016 showed Scotland holds 80 per cent of the UK harriers, with 460 breeding pairs – a fall of nine per cent since the previous national survey in 2010.

Only Orkney and the Hebrides have not seen a decline in numbers over the last six years.

In England, the birds are said to be on the brink of extinction, with just four known pairs last year.

However, Sir Ian's 'You Forgot The Birds' campaign, which represents the views of grouse moors estate owners, said the RSPB’s own figures suggest hen harriers are choosing against nesting on its land, with a drop from 48 nests per year between 2008 to 2011 to 41 over the following five years.

It added: “Gamekeepers suspect that the RSPB is not effective at stopping predators like foxes from attacking ground nesting hen harriers.”

Mr Reynolds said: “Predator control for RSPB and Scotland is absolutely the last resort, only after we have exhausted every other option, examined the impact and trailed different aspects of management and where it is necessary.”

Two tagged hen harriers went missing in Scotland in the space of a few months last year. On August 12, the start of the grouse shooting season, a hen harrier raised as part of a conservation programme went missing in Cairngorms National Park.

Land managers in the area rejected suggestions that the bird’s disappearance was linked to grouse moor management.

And, in December, a dead hen harrier was found on an estate near Dunoon. Police said later her injuries suggested she had been unlawfully killed.