Evidence session: petition to introduce gamebird hunting licensing

Last week the Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee held an evidence session as part of their consideration of the Scottish Raptor Study Group’s petition calling for the introduction of state-regulated licensing for all game bird hunting in Scotland.

The archived video of the session can be viewed here

The official transcript can be read here: ECCLR transcript gamebird shooting licensing 18 April 2017

The evidence session was split in to two parts. The first part comprised evidence from the petitioners (Logan Steele & Andrea Hudspeth from the SRSG) and the second part comprised a panel of ‘stakeholders’ including Logan Steele, Duncan Orr-Ewing (RSPB Scotland), Robbie Kernahan (SNH), Andy Smith (Scottish Gamekeepers’ Assoc) and Lord David Johnstone (Scottish Land & Estates). (Photos from ECCLR webpage).

We’re not going to go through the transcript line by line because that would be tedious, but instead we wanted to comment on a few observations.

Unlike the evidence session held at Westminster last autumn, this was a civilised, unbiased hearing. That may be because, unlike the Westminster Environment Committee, none of the ECCLR Committee have a direct conflict of interest in the subject nor receive payment from any of the organisations represented by the witnesses. The Convenor of the ECCLR Committee (Graeme Dey MSP) was far more professional than his inexplicably rude Westminster counterpart, and although Mr Dey is known to support the propagandist Gift of Grouse campaign, his management of this evidence session was reasonably balanced and fair.

In the first part of the session, Logan and Andrea gave measured, thoughtful evidence about the continuing issue of illegal raptor persecution, supported by decades of scientific monitoring and peer-reviewed science. These two witnesses deserve much kudos. They are ‘ordinary’ members of the public, so exasperated by the failure of successive Governments to sort out this problem that they’ve been moved to exercise their right through the democratic process of petitioning the country’s decision-makers. As a result, they’ve been vilified on social media, exposed to a barrage of personal abuse from certain individuals within the game shooting sector, and yet here they were again, calmly and adeptly stating their case. We all owe them a massive vote of thanks.

The performance of the other witnesses was mixed. Andy Smith (SGA) is doubtless well intentioned but his ability to engage in the actual discussion is limited. He clearly had a list of points he wanted to get across, but blurting them out whenever he had an opportunity to speak, instead of listening to the question that was posed and reacting to that, didn’t help his cause.

Robbie Kernahan (SNH) didn’t say too much, and most of what he said was fairly standard SNH-speak (i.e. fence sitting), although he did make an important opening statement that should add some gravitas to the Committee’s future deliberations:

Generally, in Scotland, we have quite a positive message about the recovery of raptor populations from those all-time lows. It is certainly a national picture. However, that is not to say that there are not issues. Certainly, some of the concerns about the intensification of moorland management prompted our scientific advisory committee to have a review two years ago. Without wanting to go through that chapter and verse, I can say that there is no doubt that the on-going issue of raptor persecution is inhibiting the recovery of populations in some parts of the country“.

The evidence provided by Duncan Orr-Ewing (RSPB) and David Johnstone (SLE) was perhaps the most interesting. Duncan spoke with authority about the extent of illegal raptor persecution, saying the RSPB “thinks the situation is as bad as it has ever been“, while David flatly denied this, pointing to the annual ‘body count’ as his supporting evidence but completely ignoring the long-term population data, as published in peer-reviewed scientific papers. When asked by the Convener whether there was a possibility that culprits might now be better at hiding the evidence, in part pressured by measures such as the threat of vicarious liability, David’s response was “No“. No? Really? No possibility of that happening at all? Come on.

What made David’s response even more incredible (in the literal sense) was that SLE, as members of the PAW Scotland Raptor Group, have been made aware of the recent flow of scientific papers (e.g. on red kite, golden eagle, hen harrier, peregrine), all clearly showing population-level impacts of illegal raptor persecution, and as PAW partners, are supposed to have been advising their members accordingly. So how come the Chairman of SLE hasn’t been informed?

And on the subject of ‘possibilities’, much was made of the possibility of estates being ‘set up’ (i.e. someone planting evidence) if a licensing system was introduced. Both Logan and Duncan accepted that this was a possibility and they were right to do so. Of course it is a possibility, although on previous experience, the probability of it happening seems quite low.

In January 2012, just after the introduction of vicarious liability, David Johnstone was cited as saying there was a risk of estates being set up in response to the new vicarious liability measure. Five years on, there hasn’t, as far as we are aware, been a single case of an estate being ‘set up’.

Similarly, in November 2013, the then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse was asked during a Parliamentary Committee whether estates being ‘set up’ was a legitimate concern for landowners and gamekeepers. Wheelhouse responded that yes, it was a possibility, but that there wasn’t currently any evidence to support such claims, although a new study on trap interference was due to assess the issue. The results of that study showed that the illegal tampering of traps was not as widespread as the gameshooting industry had claimed (see here) and when it had happened, the interference mostly related to trap ‘damage’ (rendering the trap inoperable) as opposed to setting an illegal trap to infer a guilty responsibility on the estate.

There was quite a lot of discussion about what a licensing system might look like, and it was argued by Logan and Duncan that it should be based on the civil burden of proof (much like the policy used for General Licence restrictions) and that this should be a tiered approach, so that a number of incidents would be required before a licensing penalty was applied. David Johnstone was totally opposed to this, saying that the use of the civil burden of proof would be too much of a business risk. There was quite an amusing discussion about this between him and Committee member Mark Ruskell MSP, who argued that if the business was already fully compliant with the law, as David claimed, then the risk should be very low.

All in all, it was a useful evidence session and the ECCLR Committee will be hard pressed to justify not taking things further. The Committee now has to consider the evidence presented and decide on its next move. We may well have to wait until after 8 June to find out what that move might be, because thanks to the forthcoming General Election, no political or sensitive announcements or decisions are permitted during election purdah.

21 thoughts on “Evidence session: petition to introduce gamebird hunting licensing”

  1. Aye well done Andrea and Logan (and Duncan) and thanks – needs repeating. Usual insightful and intelligent analysis RPUK, cheers.

  2. As others have said I thought the performance from Duncan Orr Ewing was outstanding with his measured and articulate responses to the questions put to him.
    Logan and Andrea did themselves proud also and we are greatly indebted to them for bringing this petition to the government committee in the first place and representing the SRSG in the way they did. Nothing too showy and not trying to gain brownie points from the opposition.
    The comments made about David Johnston and Andy Smith performance was certainly justified as they both bumbled their way through the questioning by members of the committee.
    I loved the way the chairman questioned David Johnstone at some length about how a licensing system would affect them.
    I am always mystified by their inspirational comments about how their management of the moorlands encourages good numbers of Curlew and Lapwing to nest.
    In my long experience of over 50 years of birdwatching I have rarely seen Curlew/Lapwing on driven grouse moors and Lapwing are more of a farmland species although the books say they can breed on moorland.
    I would love to see some statistics from the BTO being used to bring some measure of realism into the claims by SL & Estates and the SGA that the management of such areas are good for these species.
    We need to produce some scientific facts to counter their statements.
    I was generally impressed by the committee members and how they used their questions sparingly to get at the facts.

    1. There was a letter in this month’s Countryman magazine blaming the shortage of curlews on there being too many Hen Harriers and called on removal of protection from the harriers. Seriously. Also blamed were buzzards and badgers. It is on page 88 of the May 2017 issue (Vol 123 No. 5) under the title “Curlew crisis”.

      I do wonder if the writer, named in the magazine but name withheld from here to avoid liability reasons, is a lone nutcase or someone from a PR firm testing the waters to see how well that would go over.

      1. ‘blaming the shortage of curlews on there being too many Hen Harriers’

        Do they eat the eggs? Or do they only do that with lapwing?

      2. My wife has written to Emma Harper MSP, who referred to a conversation with local farmer(s) in her region of SW Scotland along similar lines. In our opinion, as residents there, this ill-informed input was not worthy of a member of an Environment Committee. No reply, as yet!

    2. I live in the western isles, on Harris. Last year before the driven grouse debate in Westminster I asked our MP, Angus MacNeil, how he felt about the issue. He trotted out what was clearly a statement concocted in SNP headquarters telling me about all the lapwings, curlews and golden plovers whose lives are made so much better by “moorland management” for driven grouse shooting.

      Thing is, we have plenty of curlews, lapwings and golden plovers in the western isles, and no driven grouse shooting. Angus MacNeil grew up on Barra. I don’t know where he thinks I live.

      In the event no SNP MP turned up for the debate.

      1. Whenever the grouse lobby trot out the claims about lapwings etc, it isn’t a picture I recognise, and yet it often seems to go unchallenged. What is the evidence and where is it? We seem to have bucket loads of evidence on raptor persecution and the consequent gaps in population. This positive propaganda needs addressing with clear science and put to bed for good. Or am I missing something here?

    3. “I would love to see some statistics from the BTO”

      From the most recent BTO BBS report referring to Curlew population decline:

      “Declines in the uplands are highest in heather-dominated areas.”

    4. My anecdotal evidence is similar. I was walking along a road through the Forest of Bowland a few weeks ago. There were lots of lapwing displaying in the in-bye fields and rough grassland on the edge of the moor but none on the fell proper. In previous years i am pretty sure I have seen the occasional pair in the boggy patches on the fell but only where heather doesn’t grow. I see the same on Mull. There used to be a pair on the neighbouring farm but only in the boggy areas. So basically driven grouse moors aren’t the right habitat for Lapwings..

      1. A pro estate person that’s been mentioned here before actually produced a video trying to show that grouse moors are great for waders, but all the birds shown were definitely NOT on heather, rather in what looked like areas grazed by sheep, and in a section where he interviewed a keeper on a grouse moor their conversation was nearly drowned out by calling waders – but their recorded calls were actually louder than the conversation which was very strange given that the microphone was closer to the presenter and keeper. I can’t recall either man referring to the noisy waders around them although the video was supposed to be about the wildlife benefits of grouse moors. Surely they wouldn’t stoop so low as to use dubbing would they?

  3. …..so Mr Johnstone, if you are already complying with the existing laws and adhering to all the codes of practice which would underpin the licencing system, what’s the problem?

    …………..oh deary deary me….there would be a terrible terrible risk……. we might get caught!

    Really Mr Johnstone? Thats your argument????

  4. What happened to the investigation into disappearances of golden eagles complete with their satellite tags in Monadhliath? As I recall that was supposed to report in April.

    1. A draft copy of the raptor satellite tag review was submitted to SNH at the end of March. It was then sent for peer review, which probably should have been completed by now.

      We don’t know when exactly the final report will be published – it may get caught up in election purdah – but rest assured we’ll be asking questions about its publication date over the coming month.

  5. Ah yes, the grouse moor owners great love for waders…which is why they have over the last 40 years strenuously resisted each attempt to give them protection from shooting – as they are doing at present on snipe and woodcock. Curlew was only taken off the shooting list through the original 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act and only after lengthy debate…..

    ..and to repeat, once again, all this talk of “set-ups” from the shooting side is an indication of how these people think, its the language of the petty criminal.

  6. “If shooting estates were to be licenced who could enforce this” this point was made a number of times.

    SSPCA could help to do so if they were given extra powers.

    This makes perfect sense all round.

    1. I’ve never understood the argument as to who would enforce it, yes the SSPCA would be great, but there are a lot of leisure and workplace facilities which need to be licenced to operate. Even if they do not want the SSPCA to do it, there are no shortage of models and agencies to which grouse moors could easily be added. Its not hard. Maybe that is the real objection their lordships have, the ease of which it really could be done. They don’t want us to know how easily we could make the great and good be the same as ordinary citizens.

      1. I’ve reported incident to the RSPCA, police and Trading Standards. Trading Standards have been the most pro-active and have acted on every complaint.

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