A bitter row has erupted over the staging of a major event celebrating wild birds at the stately home of a lord who owns an estate with one of the worst records for illegally persecuting birds of prey.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Scotland has come under fierce fire for hosting its popular Scottish Birdfair next month at Hopetoun House, the palatial pile peopled by Lord Hopetoun and his family on the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh.
Lord Hopetoun is owner of the 11,000-acre Leadhills grouse-shooting estate in South Lanarkshire, which has been repeatedly linked to wildlife crime incidents. Estate gamekeepers have been convicted for laying poisoned bait and shooting an owl, and last October a golden eagle was found shot close to the estate’s border, and has since died.
In the past Hopetoun has denied that he is responsible for the management of his estate, which is on long-term lease to a sporting company registered in Delaware, USA. But this is questioned by a land campaigner who has studied the lease.
Ronnie Graham, an expert on birds of prey and a veteran member of the Scottish Raptor Study Groups, is calling for a boycott of the RSPB birdfair. “I’m just furious at the RSPB’s blatant disregard for their members’ and general public opinion,” he told the Sunday Herald.
“They are riding rough shod over the good work that many Scottish raptor workers do every year under the dark shadow of persecution. Leadhills is an absolute black hole for birds of prey and this has been well documented over the years.”
Graham, who runs a gourmet meat and fish business in Dumfriesshire, thinks that potential visitors to the fair on 11-12 May should make an “informed decision” about whether to go. “It seems quite amazing that the RSPB which campaigns seemingly tirelessly to end the poisoning, shooting and trapping of our birds of prey has chosen this location to have this event,” he said.
Hopetoun House, east of South Queensferry, has been the ancestral home of the Hopetoun family for more than 300 years. It describes itself as “Scotland's finest stately home”.
It is owned by a charitable trust, of which Lord Hopetoun is a member. Formerly Andrew Hopetoun and an executive with the former defence electronics company GEC Marconi in London, he now lives in the house and runs the estate where his father, the Marquess of Linlithgow, also lives in a cottage.
Last year, a spokesman for Lord Hopetoun was quoted as saying that Hopetoun estate had “no role whatsoever” in the management of Leadhills estate. But the 20-year lease to the US Atlantic Sporting company allows Hopetoun to carry out limited “estate management activities”, to share gamekeepers and to take shooting parties to Leadhills.
According to the land reform campaigner and author, Andy Wightman, Hopetoun also has the power to end the lease if the law is broken. “He has the right to terminate the lease where shooting is not carried out ‘in accordance with normal practice on a driven grouse moor’,” said Wightman. “That would include any instances of illegal persecution of wildlife.”
Last week Lord Hopetoun’s spokeswoman was unable to comment, deferring to a statement from the RSPB. The RSPB reaffirmed its strong opposition to crimes against birds of prey, but said it would not “take issue” with managing land for grouse shooting as long as it was legal and sustainable.
“We are aware that Leadhills estate is in the same family ownership as the privately owned Hopetoun Estate, and have not sought to hide this widely known connection,” said RSPB spokesman, James Reynolds.
“We have met with the Earl of Hopetoun to discuss bird of prey protection at Leadhills, and sought clarification of the ownership arrangements that are in place. We understand that there is a clear separation between land managed in hand by Hopetoun Estate in West Lothian, and the Leadhills estate, which is let on a long sporting lease.”
He added: “It is the sporting tenant on Leadhills who employs and manages the land and the employees at this site, and who is therefore ultimately responsible with ensuring that the land and wildlife are managed within the law by its employees and that birds of prey are protected on this land. We accept that Hopetoun estate do not condone any illegal practices on their land.”
This story was mentioned by Raptor Persecution Scotland.