SCOTLAND’S big landowners have backed an SNP MSP’s call for all sides to work together to end persecution of hen harriers.

Species champion Mairi Gougeon spoke out after Police Scotland launched a probe this week into the death of a hen harrier found with “unexplained injuries” near Dunoon in Argyll.

The Angus North and Mearns MSP urged all sides of the debate on raptor persecution to come together to find a long-term way to help the hen harrier flourish.

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The death of the satellite-tagged bird, named Kathy, is one of a number of high-profile cases involving hen harrier.

Earlier this year a bird was reportedly shot in Leadhills, while satellite-tagged Calluna went missing near Braemar, Aberdeenshire, and a four-year court case over the alleged shooting of a harrier on Cabrach Estate in Moray was dismissed.

A recent survey showed a 27 per cent fall in Scotland’s hen harrier population – down to 460 pairs – since 2004. Illegal persecution of the bird is thought to be a major factor in its decline. It has been suggested some estate staff kill the birds to protect game-bird species such as grouse.

Heads Up for Harriers is an initiative from the Scottish Government’s Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime to get land managers to protect harriers.

More than 20 of Scotland’s estates have signed up for the project. It reported its highest number of fledged young hen harriers, 37, in 2017, and Gougeon is keen to do more to bridge the gap between estates and conservationists.

Gougeon said: “I’m under no illusions about how contentious this issue is. I know it won’t be resolved overnight but I take my role as a species champion very seriously.

“One of the main reasons why the hen harrier population hasn’t flourished is the fact there has been illegal persecution of this species over a long period.

“Almost half of Scotland is capable of supporting a hen harrier population. There are a number of ongoing projects – including Heads Up for Harriers – geared towards trying to sustain and grow the population in the future.

“Heads Up for Harriers is not without its critics and may not be an immediate panacea but it is a promising step in the right direction.

“More estates need to sign up to the project before we can assess whether or not it is successful.

“We also need to look at other potential solutions such as diversionary feeding.

“We need to take every available measure to crack down on the serious crime committed against raptors and to tackle the illegal persecution that takes place.

“At the same time we cannot tar all estates with the same brush. We must acknowledge the positive steps some estates and gamekeepers are taking to promote the species.

“We need conservation groups and shooting interests to set aside their natural distrust and to try to work together.

“Species Champion” MSPs agree to provide political support for Scotland’s wildlife, under a scheme organised by environment groups.

Tim Baynes of landowners’ group Scottish Land and Estates said: “We are committed to playing our part in helping to restore this iconic species.

“We support Mairi Gougeon’s call for greater co-operation and collaboration and look forward to working with other organisations with the same objective at heart.

“We are concerned about the fate of the hen harrier found near Dunoon.

“This bird has been found in area which is heavily afforested and a long way from any grouse moor. We echo the police appeal for information.”