Grouse shooting will be banned on sporting estates where birds of prey are being illegally killed, the Scottish Government has announced.
The rural affairs minister, Mairi Gougeon, said a licensing scheme for grouse shooting will be introduced in the next parliament after the election in May 2021. If landowners are guilty of wildlife crime, their licences will be removed, she warned.
The minister also promised controls on heather burning and new guidance on feeding grouse medicated grit. She said that the unregulated culling of thousands of mountain hares on grouse moors would end after February 2021.
The government moves have been welcomed by environmental groups as “entirely proportionate”. But the Scottish Greens are concerned that the shooting industry will be allowed to draft the licensing rules.
Landowners said that licensing was a “seriously damaging blow to fragile rural communities”. Gamekeepers were furious, saying that they had “effectively had targets painted on their backs”.
Landowners and environmentalists have been at war over over the persecution of birds of prey on grouse moors for decades. Some sporting estates have been accused of killing raptors to prevent them eating grouse so there’s more to be shot.
Gougeon told MSPs that wildlife crime was “abhorrent”. A series of increasing tough attempts to crack down on the shooting and poisoning of eagles, harriers, kites and hawks had not prevented continued killing on grouse moors, she said.
Relying on the shooting industry to regulate itself would not on its own be “enough to end the illegal killing of raptors,” she argued. “Further intervention is now required.”
She rejected a compromise recommendation from advisers that licensing should only be introduced after five years if raptor persecution persisted. “I believe the government needs to act sooner,” she said.
“A licence will be required to operate a driven grouse moor business, and if there is strong evidence of unlawful activity or serious breaches of codes of practice by that business, then their licence could be withdrawn.”
Gougeon said that work would start now to introduce a licensing scheme during the next parliament. “I recognise this is a serious sanction and we would therefore take steps to ensure that no credence is given to any vexatious or malicious claims of malpractice,” she added.
The aim was not to end all grouse shooting, she stressed. “Those businesses which comply with the law should have no problems at all with licensing.”
Gougeon also warned that heather burning to help grouse, known as muirburn, had the “potential to have a serious negative impact on wildlife”. There would be a statutory ban on burning on peatland, and burning elsewhere will only be permitted under a licence from the wildlife agency, NatureScot, she said.
Medicated grit is used to suppress worms in grouse. It will be subject to a new code of practice to be drawn up by NatureScot, the minister said.
In addition Gougeon promised greater legal protection legal for mountain hares, which are shot by gamekeepers to prevent them spreading disease to grouse. New arrangements will come into effect at the end of February 2021 at the end of the open season for killing mountain hares.
The government announcements come on the eve of the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) online annual conference from 28-30 November. The National newspaper reported on 11 November that the party leadership was facing a “grassroots rebellion” after a widely-backed motion to ban grouse shooting was left off the agenda.
The government was responding to the 2019 review of grouse moor management chaired by professor Alan Werritty from the University of Dundee. It recommended that shooting should be licensed after five years if the illegal persecution of birds of prey persisted.
The Ferret reported that a tougher proposal to begin licensing immediately was blocked by two members of the review group linked with landowners. Discussions were “contentious” and “fraught”, Werritty said at the time.
The Werritty review was prompted by a report in 2017 from NatureScot, then known as Scottish Natural Heritage. It said 40 out of 131 satellite-tracked young golden eagles had disappeared in “suspicious circumstances” between 2004 and 2016, mostly on or near to grouse moors.
According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, nearly 200 incidents in which birds of prey were illegally persecuted have been confirmed on Scotland’s grouse moors since 2010. The victims included eagles, kites, harriers and goshawks.
The Ferret reported evidence in September 2020 that a satellite tag had been deliberately removed from a golden eagle and hidden. We also reported in August that a short-eared owl was shot in front of an eight-year-old boy on the Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire.
RSPB Scotland welcomed the new measures. “Twenty one years of piecemeal changes to wildlife protection laws so far have unfortunately not been enough to halt illegal raptor persecution,” said director, Anne McCall.
“Grouse moor estates who are found to be breaking wildlife protection laws should lose their right to shoot. Only this will act as a genuine deterrent to this still-widespread criminal activity.”
She added: “We believe that what has been announced today is supported by an overwhelming weight of evidence and is entirely proportionate.”
Revive, a coalition of groups campaigning to reform grouse moor management, was encouraged by the announcements. Grouse were “effectively farmed to be shot for entertainment,” said Revive’s campaign manager, Max Wiszniewski.
“Scotland’s grouse moors are barren landscapes devoid of the majority of naturally occurring flora and fauna, surrounded by a circle of destruction intended to wipe out anything which pose a threat to red grouse.”
The Scottish Greens, however, accused ministers of dodging their wildlife responsibilities by allowing grouse moor managers to help decide how they should be regulated.
“All we have is a consultation on licensing which will be drawn up by the industry. It’s like putting arsonists in charge of a fire station,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.
“Horrifyingly, by delaying protections for mountain hares to March, they’ve given the green light for the biggest mass killing of hares in the next open season.”
Five sporting and landowning organisations issued a joint statement condemning the government’s plans.
“The Scottish Government has paved the way for a very uncertain future for many rural people by announcing that it intends to introduce a licensing scheme for grouse moors which interferes with legitimate business activities and threatens to engulf the sector in a blizzard of red tape that is unprecedented and out of all proportion,” they said.
The statement was backed by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Scottish Countryside Alliance, the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, the Scottish Association for Country Sports and Scottish Land and Estates.
They continued: “We are not reassured that moor managers have nothing to fear. The minister has herself described the potential withdrawal of a licence as a serious sanction – there are real fears this could impact perfectly law-abiding shooting businesses.
“A one-size fits all licensing scheme will serve only to play into the hands of those who are dedicated to banning shooting altogether.
“Grouse shooting plays a vital role in rural Scotland, sustaining communities and delivering substantial economic and environmental benefits.”
The Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association added that it was “angry beyond expression” at the “endless battering” their members suffered. “This decision will anger our community. It will not be easily forgotten,” said association chair, Alex Hogg.
“Our members have effectively had targets painted on their backs, today. Our responsibility now is protect them from spurious claims sure to come their way from those seeking to end grouse shooting in Scotland and to have licences taken away.”
Cover image thanks to iStock/scooperdigital.