Nearly 50,000 animals licensed to be killed by NatureScot 5

Nearly 50,000 animals licensed to be killed by NatureScot

Nearly 50,000 wild animals spanning 84 species have been licensed to be killed by Scotland’s wildlife agency in recent years, The Ferret has found.

Data provided to The Ferret by NatureScot details the permissions given to “controllers” – farmers, landowners and others – to kill animals between 1 June 2019 and 15 June 2023.

At least 46,985 animals were licensed to be killed, including thousands of geese, gannets, gulls, ravens, goosanders and the iconic mountain hare – Scotland’s only native rabbit or hare species.

Buzzards, robins, herons and magpies were also targeted. In cases mostly relating to public health and safety, controllers were permitted to kill as many animals as required.

They included declining species such as oystercatchers, lapwings, starlings, curlews and rooks.

Nearly 50,000 animals licensed to be killed by NatureScot 6
Eurasian Oystercatcher. Image thanks to Michał Kucharski

Animal welfare and conservation groups said they were “appalled” by the “devastatingly high numbers”. NatureScot must employ greater transparency and a more evidence-based approach in the licensing process to improve animal welfare and conservation, they argued.

But a farmers’ union said the need to control certain species “goes hand-in-hand” with conservation to protect biodiversity, as well as agriculture, and argued the licensing process was “well-regulated and transparent”.

NatureScot stressed that licences permitted animals to be killed over five or ten-year periods, and did not reflect the number actually killed each year. Controllers reported having killed 24,429 animals, although data for 2023 was limited, meaning the toll is likely higher.

Killing was “a last resort” used in a minority of cases where licences were awarded and did not impact any animal’s conservation status. Changes to the licensing system had led to a rapid decrease in culls over the last decade and another review is due, NatureScot added.

The figures do not include numerous birds killed under general licences – which do not come with kill limits – or reflect the large number of animals allowed to be killed outwith NatureScot’s licensing system, including deer, grouse and seals.

Nearly 50,000 animals licensed to be killed by NatureScot 7
The killing of seals is outwith NatureScot’s licensing system. Photo © Thomas Nugent (cc-by-sa/2.0)

NatureScot exists to protect, champion and improve Scotland’s natural environment. But it is also responsible for issuing licences to lethally control animals, mostly for reasons like preventing damage to livestock, animal feed, crops, food, commercial forestry and fisheries.

This includes wild birds – which are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 – and other protected species.

The animals licensed to be killed

SpeciesNumber of licences issuedNumber of individuals permitted to be killedNumber of killed animals reported on licence returnLicences issued allowing unlimited kills “as required”?
Greylag Goose1569,4981,535Yes
Brown hare1966,5072,663
Mountain Hare754,9962,558
Barnacle Goose664,8092,776
Herring Gull1642,7781,247Yes
Pink-footed Goose1081,862682Yes
Lesser Black-backed Gull1021,347693Yes
Common Gull98740461Yes
Natterjack Toad26000
Great Black-backed Gull122589281Yes
Carrion crow113345500Yes
Feral pigeon63250364Yes
Canada Goose5120041Yes
Black-headed Gull58194101Yes
Red-breasted Merganser51144100
Ringed Plover111006Yes
House Sparrow19623Yes
Hooded Crow674623Yes
Marsh Fritillary3340
Common Lizard1160
Grey Heron121510Yes
Song Thrush2101
Collared Dove370
Grey Wagtail163
Allis Shad240
Chequered Skipper240
Fairy Shrimp240
Fan Mussel240
Freshwater Pearl Mussel240
Glutinous Snail240
Lagoon Sea-slug240
Lagoon Snail240
Large Heath240
Medicinal Leech240
Mountain Ringlet240
New Forest Burnet240
Pearl Bordered Fritillary240
Pied Wagtail540Yes
Small Blue240
Tadpole Shrimp240
Thyasira gouldi240
Twaite Shad240
White Letter Hairstreak240
White-clawed crayfish240
Meadow Pipit130
Northern Brown Argus120
Tree Sparrow120
Blue Tit110
All shrew species100
Stock Dove43Unlimited48Yes
Grey Partridge6Unlimited13Yes
Common Teal3Unlimited1Yes
Brent Goose5Unlimited0Yes
Common shelduck2Unlimited0Yes
Golden Plover5Unlimited0Yes
House Martin6Unlimited0Yes
Mute Swan3Unlimited0Yes
Sand Martin3Unlimited0Yes

More geese were licensed to be killed than any other animal in recent years – 16,369. This included 4,809 barnacle geese, 1,862 pink-footed geese and 220 Canada geese. Two airports were permitted to kill as many brent geese as required to secure air safety, although none were reportedly killed.

Nearly 50,000 animals licensed to be killed by NatureScot 8
220 Canada geese were licenced to be killed. Image credit: Jeff S. PhotoArt.

Geese are frequently killed because of the damage they do to crops, particularly when their populations swell. Scotland’s National Goose Forum was established in 2000 “to help balance agricultural and conservation interests” and minimise the economic impact of geese on farmers and crofters.

Local goose management groups also exist in Kintyre in Argyll, the Solway coast in Dumfriesshire, South Walls in Orkney and the Hebridean islands of Islay, Uist, Coll and Tiree.

The culling of Barnacle geese on Islay was previously caught on film, prompting accusations of inhumane shooting practices – an accusation refuted by NatureScot. Mass culls are allegedly founded on “poor science”, according to one 2018 study.

Some 11,503 brown hares and mountain hares were killed. They are frequently targeted due to the damage they can cause to crops and trees.

Many thousands of mountain hares have previously been legally shot without a licence to prevent them spreading diseases to grouse shot for sport.

However, NatureScot now prohibits this and will not grant a licence to kill the animals to prevent tick-borne disease due to a lack of “sufficiently robust” evidence.

Nearly 50,000 animals licensed to be killed by NatureScot 9
The mountain hare is Scotland’s only native rabbit or hare species.
Photo © Dr Richard Murray (cc-by-sa/2.0)

In June 2019 we reported concerns that baby brown hares were left to starve to death after their parents were killed.

The publicly-owned Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) said it culled 78 brown hares in the last four years, and had only done so in the open season, in which a licence is not required.

The animals are “an infrequent problem on a small number of forestry sites” but can “cause significant damage to young trees by grazing”, said a spokesperson. Brown hares were only culled as “a last resort” and shot under official guidelines.

However, Scotland’s rampant deer population is “far the greater threat to young trees”, alongside other herbivores, they added.

Up to 2,000 gannet chicks, known as guga, are permitted to be hunted for food under a single licence every summer on the uninhabited island of Sula Sgeir, 40 miles north of Lewis. NatureScot said no licence was given to take gannet chicks in 2022 or 2023, however.

Nearly 50,000 animals licensed to be killed by NatureScot 10
Gannet and guga. Photo © Mike Pennington (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Gulls are often considered pests in urban areas due to taking food from residents, causing a mess by ransacking bins, and aggressive behaviour. Some 5,648 gulls – including 2,323 chicks – were licensed to be killed. NatureScot said it only issues licences to kill gulls where they pose a risk to public health or safety.

Ravens are blamed for attacking and killing lambs, while fish-eating birds including goosanders, cormorants, red-breasted mergansers and herons can be targeted by anglers.

Other birds on the hit list, largely for reasons of health and safety, included buzzards, mute swans, robins, herons, collared doves and magpies. Declining bird species such as oystercatchers, lapwings, golden plovers, starlings, curlews, dunlins, rooks and swifts, were also on the list. 

Licences were awarded to kill hundreds of natterjack toads – one of Scotland’s rarest amphibians, found only at a handful of sites in Dumfriesshire.

No toads, swans, doves, swifts, golden plovers or dunlins were actually reported as killed, however. Other species licensed to be killed included fish, crustaceans and insects.

The licences covered a total of 84 animal species, 56 of which were birds. 

In some cases, licences with unrestricted kill limits were awarded to controllers to remove nests and eggs, and kill chicks where they risked health and safety. This could involve removing a birds’ nest that is obstructing electrical gear, or causing carbon monoxide buildup by blocking a chimney.

But applicants were required to evidence “that they have tried all other suitable alternatives to licensable activities, including for example, scaring,” NatureScot stressed. “For air safety licences, applicants must submit a wildlife management plan, which outlines the risks posed by, and management strategies for each species.”

In 2019, we revealed that NatureScot had licensed the killing of 130,000 wild animals between 2014 and July 2019. Some 62,521 animals were reported as dead.

The wildlife agency said it licensed the killing of 177,651 animals over the last decade.

‘Devastatingly high numbers’ 

The animal welfare charity OneKind said it was “appalled to learn that so many wild animals continue to be killed under licence”.

“These devastatingly high numbers don’t even include the unlimited number of animals who are killed under general licences, nor the death count for the species of animals where no licence is required to kill them, including familiar animals such as foxes,” said Bob Elliot, director.

“We believe that a fundamental shift in mindset is required, away from viewing other animals as a resource to be ‘managed’ towards valuing them as other sentient beings, who should be allowed to thrive. Killing should not be part of routine ‘management’.”

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said it accepted “that in some specific circumstances, species do need to be controlled to protect public interests, including the conservation of threatened bird species”.

But a spokesperson added: “We have long requested that there should be greater transparency in the species licensing process and an evidence-based approach to any control of birds and other animals, as well as mandatory returns to NatureScot on any species controlled under licence to inform future conservation efforts.”

‘Need for species management’

The National Farmers Union in Scotland argued that “the conservation of wildlife in Scotland goes hand-in-hand with the need for species management.”

“The heavily licenced and legal control of a number of species is founded on the need for balance,” said policy director, Jonnie Hall. “For many that live and work in Scotland’s countryside, there is an ongoing need to prevent significant agricultural damage or safeguard the biodiversity across our wildlife, or both.

“Regardless of species, we shouldn’t measure them by population alone but also by impact. It’s not a numbers game, either by population or licence returns. It’s about understanding impacts and managing them appropriately, working alongside Scottish Government and stakeholders through the well-regulated and transparent routes.”

NatureScot stressed that the figures referred to the total number of animals permitted to be killed under licence “over a five or ten-year period, and not the numbers actually killed each year”.

“Lethal control is a last resort and in the majority of cases where licences are issued, the desired outcome is achieved without the need for animals or birds to be killed,” said a spokesperson.

Recent changes to the licensing system had led to a 69 per cent reduction in the number of licenced kills, from 23,000 a year from 2014 to 2016, to just over 7,000 a year from 2020 to 2022, they said.

“No activity carried out under these licences will adversely affect the conservation status of any of our native species and none of these licences issued relate to endangered species”.

The government’s cooperation agreement with the Scottish Greens led to a review of the species licensing system “to ensure that the law is being applied correctly and that lethal control is only licensed where the licensing conditions are shown to be met,” added the spokesperson.

“NatureScot welcomes this review of our licensing function and is currently waiting to hear the specific details of how this will be undertaken. In the meantime, we are working with Scottish Government colleagues to ensure that NatureScot licensing processes are clear and transparent in addressing the dual crises of biodiversity loss and climate change.”

  1. Inhuman cruel, everything on this planet has a right to be here. Get rid of those who call themselves god disgrace, have you no hearts

  2. I am totally disgusted with this… My family and others around us will never vote for you again… a parliament full of thieves liars and corruption… more and more I see I voted for the wrong party… Alba party all the way now…. this murderous monstrous act has too stop.. farmers kill and poison hundreds if not thousands every year anyway…

  3. Absolutely disgraceful and cruel. Why do humans think they have the right to kill and destroy our beautiful creatures often leaving them to suffer a slow agonising death. As for the money making shooting sport
    That is also wrong, killing animals and birds for greedy land owners own gain. The participants often shoot indiscriminately at any species.
    I believe foreign participants of this sport pay to slaughter our animals and birds as they are unable do it in their own countries.Why is this allowed? Money!!

  4. If we feel repulsed at this cruel slaughter how does the One who created these magnificent creatures feel? The One whose name alone is Jehovah (Psalm 83:18) says that very soon He is going to being to ruin those ruining his beautiful earth he has made to remain forever. (Revelation 11:18;Psalm37:29)

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