Shooting organisations have countered a public attack on keepers by the RSPB?s Dr Mark Avery after the bird charity?s outgoing director of conservation said he believed gamekeepers were ?targeting? hen harriers on grouse moors across the UK.

Dr Avery?s comments followed the publication last week of results from the 2010 hen harrier survey, which showed hen harrier numbers in the UK had fallen by 17% between 2004 and 2010, but increased by 32.5% in Wales and 9% in England.

Dr Avery said: ?Every year, hen harriers are targeted on grouse moors across the UK and this onslaught is having a signifi cant impact on their population. We believe that gamekeepers are killing them illegally under pressure from their land-owning masters.?

However, the National Gamekeepers Organisation (NGO) said the RSPB?s outburst was ?completely out of order? and that ?law-abiding gamekeepers were fed up with being smeared by Dr Avery?.

A spokesman said: ?There are way more hen harriers in the UK than there were 50 years ago and in all that time there have been only a handful of convictions of gamekeepers for killing them.

It is damaging and illogical to claim that gamekeepers today are ?systematically? killing these special birds just on the ?evidence? there aren?t many about.?

?The RSPB has next to no hen harriers on its own upland reserves ? does that mean they are killing them there too??

The NGO?s response was echoed by the Countryside Alliance, which said that Dr Avery had ?overstepped the mark?, and pointed to the lack of evidence behind his claims.

In a letter to MPs, the organisation stated: ?Unsubstantiated allegations of law-breaking against landowners and their managers in the absence of the factual evidence to support such claims are unacceptable. The RSPB has been written to, asking it to provide the evidential basis on which these claims are being made.?

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has already said it believes there is a strong commitment from the ?key sectors? to tackle the issue of the hen harrier?s decline ?both through the conflict resolution mechanisms which now exist and through the activities of the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime?.

The NGO spokesman added: ?The accusations are not only unsupported by fact, they are seriously undermining what should be good relations between gamekeepers and conservationists. Dr Avery?s attitude is corrosive and harmful, and the sooner moderates within the RSPB understand the damage being done, the better.?

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