Science could help tackle the deadlock between grouse shooting and conservationists seeking to protect hen harriers on UK moorlands, according to a new study.
As the grouse shooting season begins today, ecologists said a model could be developed to explore a possible compromise solution.
The hen harrier is a natural predator of the red grouse but the study suggests that under certain conditions a solution could be achieved where the birds could co-exist with profitable grouse shooting.
Led by Professor Steve Redpath of the University of Aberdeen, the study, involving grouse managers, conservationists and ecologists, used science as a way to try and find a solution.
Together they agreed key questions they wanted the research to answer, with ecologists then developing a model to explore a possible compromise.
The model showed that at certain population densities, harriers can co-exist with profitable grouse shooting. This could be achieved using a simple approach, where when harriers breed at levels that have a significant economic impact on grouse shoots, the excess chicks would be removed from the grouse moors, reared in captivity and then released into the wild elsewhere, the study said.
The next step is for grouse managers and conservationists to use the results of the model to agree on an acceptable number of harriers and then test the idea in a field trial, according to the research published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology.
"The model suggested that across the grouse moors of England there was room for 70 pairs of hen harriers at relatively low cost for grouse shooting," Prof Redpath said.
"Any decision about how to use this model depends as much on politics as on science. However, if both sides are interested in pursuing the idea, this model provides a framework for this dialogue to take place.
"Ecology has a vital role to play in understanding and tackling these conflicts by providing impartial evidence and exploring various technical solutions. However, this must be done with those involved in the conflict so that science addresses the issues people are most concerned about, and that they therefore have ownership of the results."
A spokesman for the Scottish Gamekeepers Association said: "This study identifies and cements what was found during the Joint Raptor Study at Langholm Moor in the Scottish Borders where a build-up of protected raptors, including hen harrier, made grouse shooting commercially unviable and led to the loss of gamekeepers' jobs.
"The paper's central premise is likely to be supported by those within our industry because we all seek workable resolutions to conflicts which will benefit both rural businesses and all wildlife, including hen harriers.
"Such models have been successful in other European countries, particularly France and Spain, and the starting premise is not dissimilar to the approach being advocated with Defra's Hen Harrier Action Plan in England which includes a brood management scheme."
He added that the solutions identified in the paper would take "those on the conservation side to come round to attempting new ways of conservation thinking".
An RSPB spokeswoman said the study could play a major role in resolving the "hen harrier-grouse conflict".
"A brood management scheme may merit experimental investigation in the future, but only once hen harrier numbers have recovered to a pre?agreed level and less interventionist approaches, particularly diversionary feeding, have been widely attempted.
"The authors suggest that there is room on English grouse moors to support 70 pairs of hen harriers with only minimal costs to landowners. We want to work together with the shooting community to resolve the conflict by using tried-and-tested methods such as diversionary feeding, until the apparent impact of that then requires an alternative approach."