Nearly 3,000 licences have been issued allowing protected species in Scotland to be killed or disturbed including hedgehogs, mountain hares and birds in decline.
SNH has also issued licences for species including bats and otters. In other cases, a licence was issued to allow rescuers to move a stranded whale into deeper waters and to move hedgehogs from one part of the Uists to another, to allow wading birds to breed successfully.
They were also issued to prevent bird strikes on aircraft at airports and for scientists to fit electronic tags to birds of prey to monitor their movements.
However, critics said that the total number sanctioned by SNH calls into question the agency’s commitment to ensuring that protected species are only killed or disturbed as a last resort.
They also said that the taxpayer should not have footed the £450,000 bill for the licensing scheme which came out of SNH’s budget. The information released by SNH does not reveal how many species were actually killed as one licence can allow multiple killings, they added.
It’s extraordinary that licensing for killing and disturbing protected wildlife is entirely funded by taxpayers. Alison Johnstone, Green MSP
The 2018 figure was revealed after a question was submitted to the Scottish Government by Scottish Greens MSP, Alison Johnstone, who argued that the data released “raises serious questions” about SNH and its commitment to protecting wildlife.
“As the public purse is bearing the cost of this activity, it shouldn’t take repeated questioning and freedom of information requests to force a government agency to be transparent,” she said.
“I will be asking for a full explanation as to how many protected species were killed last year and in what circumstances, particularly for those species that are in trouble such as mountain hares and grey partridge.”
She added: “It’s extraordinary that licensing for killing and disturbing protected wildlife is entirely funded by taxpayers.
“It’s perfectly normal for licences to be charged for in other sectors, so I’m calling on the Scottish Government to commit to making this scheme revenue-neutral so that Scottish Natural Heritage can spend their money on protecting wildlife rather than facilitating its destruction.”
Duncan Orr-Ewing, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland, pointed out that each licence will have a quota of birds that are allowed to be killed.
He added: “The key point is that this is 3,000 licences, but the number of birds killed will be much higher. It is worrying to see a number of what are considered birds of conservation concern on this list. eg. swift, grey partridge.”
But SNH argued there was compelling evidence that charging for licences would not be cost effective, claiming they could lead to increased incidence of wildlife crime.
“Scotland has robust laws in place that protect and conserve our nature and wildlife. We only issue licences to suspend this protection in a small number of cases – such as for human safety or to improve our understanding of the best ways to conserve and protect species,” said an SNH spokeswoman.
“We issue licences to prevent bird strikes on aircraft at airports, for scientists to fit electronic tags to birds of prey to monitor their movements, to prevent serious damage to farmers’ crops to protect their livelihoods.”
She added: “Lethal control is only used as a last resort when other alternatives, such as scaring or trap-and-release, have not worked. We are confident that all activities carried out under these licences do not affect the conservation status of any of our native species.”
Information on species licences released by Scottish Government
A version of this story was published by The Sunday Times on 15 April 2019.