IN 1998, then Scotland secretary Donald Dewar pledged that the yet-to-be-reconvened Scottish Parliament would take “all possible steps” to end the illegal persecution of birds of prey in Scotland.

Yet it wasn’t until earlier this week, more than a quarter of a century since Dewar’s comments, that MSPs passed legislation which aimed to fulfil that promise.

The Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill, which received the backing of MSPs on Thursday afternoon, is set to introduce a licencing scheme for grouse moors.

It means that grouse shooting estates will now have to apply for a licence to operate and risk losing it if they are found to have committed a relevant crime, such as illegally killing a bird of prey.

The trapping, poisoning and shooting of protected birds of prey on Scotland’s grouse moors has occurred consistently at least since the RSPB first began gathering data on the issue more than 20 years ago.

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On the very same day Holyrood voted to pass the legislation, the RSPB announced the “sudden, suspicious” disappearance of a satellite-tagged hen harrier in the Angus Glens in February.

Investigators were unable to find the bird - named Shalimar - in the area the tag last transmitted, although noted that it was a region with numerous grouse shooting estates in operation.

It is just one of hundreds of such cases recorded by Ruth Tingay on her Raptor Persecution blog over the past 14 years.

Since 2010, Tingay has documented the deaths and disappearances of various species of raptors on or near grouse moors, including often fragile populations of red kites, golden eagles, sea eagles, and hen harriers.

Her blog - which she ran entirely unfunded for the first seven years of its existence - likely remains the most exhaustive central hub detailing the killing of raptors in Scotland and the wider UK.

“I get a bit of funding now but it’s certainly not a fully funded post,” she said.

The National: Shalimar, a satellite-tagged hen harrier, went missing in the Angus Glens in FebruaryShalimar, a satellite-tagged hen harrier, went missing in the Angus Glens in February (Image: RSPB)

“The vast majority of it is still done in my spare time.”

Her work has helped inform ministers, MSPs and the general public about the scale of the problem and put beyond doubt the fact that the grouse-shooting industry was culpable.

However, the efforts of campaigners like Tingay have been mirrored by attempts from gamekeeping and shooting organisations to maintain the status quo.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation continues to describe the bill as “unworkable” and claims it would have a “ruinous” impact on the rural economy and “species that gamekeepers work to protect”.

“I think it’s a really fair and proportionate piece of legislation,” said Tingay.

“We know that it’s not all gamekeepers killing birds of prey but I think it’s very clear that a lot of them are.

“And I have to say that I was surprised that the shooting industry didn’t welcome this legislation because it could root out those who are still breaking the law.

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“I know of some estates that are very enthusiastic about raptors and conservation in general.

“Those good people have nothing to fear from this bill. Yet it seems so many in the sector have reacted negatively, claiming it’s being forced on them.

“But, to be honest, they’ve had decades to self-regulate and get their act together and they just haven’t done it.

“Birds keep disappearing, year after year.”

Ian Thomson, the head of investigations at RSPB Scotland, has been working to protect raptors from illegal persecution for the past 17 years.

While his colleagues worked to improve habitat or increase populations, he attempted to seek justice for birds found poisoned or shot.

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“The problem that we’ve faced is that although birds of prey are protected in law, actually securing convictions and meaningful penalties has been very difficult,” he said.

“These crimes tend to take place in rural areas, where witnesses are either absent or few and far between.

“It makes it very easy for perpetrators to conceal evidence.”

While the advent of satellite-tagging birds in the early 2000s has helped secure some convictions, the vast majority of deaths and disappearances go unsolved and unprosecuted.

The RSPB estimates that across the UK, people who commit crimes against birds of prey face a less than 4% prosecution rate.

It’s for this reason, said Thomson, that additional legislation was necessary.

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While these crimes may still be difficult to prosecute, it’s hoped the risk to gamekeepers’ businesses adds further incentive to comply with the law.

Thomson added: “Raptor persecution is a symptom of wider concerns about intensive management of our uplands, which has been entirely focused on producing unsustainably high numbers of grouse for the purpose of shooting them.

“While nobody questions that in some areas the grouse-shooting industry plays an important part in local economies, that has to be balanced against both the environmental impacts and illegal activities taking place.

“As a result of this bill, we hope to see the grouse shooting industry move from a 19th-century business model to one that’s fit for the 21st century.

"Where it takes much more notice of its environmental responsibilities and stays within the law”.

The National: The use of snares will no longer be permitted in ScotlandThe use of snares will no longer be permitted in Scotland (Image: League Against Cruel Sports)

As well as licencing both grouse shooting and the use of muirburn, the bill also completely bans the use of snares and glue traps in Scotland.

It’s a move that has faced fierce opposition from some land managers, who regularly use snares to despatch animals such as foxes.

“I can’t quite believe it’s going to happen,” said Bob Elliot, the director of animal welfare charity OneKind.

“Scotland had already gone a long way with regulations regarding the types of traps you could use.

“But to get to a place where politicians acknowledge that you can’t make snares any less cruel and that the only solution is to ban them, it’s quite remarkable.”

Elliot, who previously worked for the RSPB, said the legislation would not have become law without the efforts of campaigners.

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“We stand on the shoulders of giants,” he said.

“There are people who have spent their entire careers working on this, as well as countless volunteers and campaigners who have poured so much of their free time into it.

“So, to see it go through, I was both ecstatic and emotional.”

Agriculture Minister Jim Fairlie said there would be "no victory parade" in the wake of the bill's passing. 

Yet, while that may be true in the corridors of Holyrood, campaigners are celebrating with cautious optimism. 

Of course, Scotland’s natural world still faces enormous problems.

But the passing of this bill makes clear that, with enough effort and organisation, grassroots activists can have an outsized impact.

It shows that individuals like Ruth Tingay, armed with nothing but a laptop and determination, can change the way the country values wild animals in law.

“We did it,” said Tingay. “What a relief!”