General Licence restriction for wildlife crime – a wholly ineffective sanction

Just before Christmas Scottish Environment Minister Mairi Gougeon told the Environment Committee that the Scottish Government was ‘actively considering’ additional enforcement measures on wildlife crime.

As part of this discussion, she told Committee member Mark Ruskell MSP (Scottish Greens) that the Government was considering whether current measures, such as General Licence restrictions which are imposed following evidence of wildlife crime, are ‘as effective as they can be’.

The issue of General Licence restrictions had been discussed at an earlier committee hearing where we and RSPB Scotland had argued the sanction was impotent because an estate could simply apply for an individual licence to continue killing the wildlife it would have killed under the General Licence, just with a bit more paperwork to do. However, BASC had disagreed with us and defended the General Licence restriction as an effective sanction as follows:

Ross Ewing (BASC): I disagree with Ruth Tingay and Ian Thomson on the effectiveness of the restriction of general licences. It is important not to underestimate the pivotal role that general licences play on shooting estates in Scotland, where they are an integral part of what the estates do. Restricting a general licence will make it very difficult for estates to carry out an integral function.

Ruth Tingay mentioned applications for individual licences—there is a litany of species for which individual licences would need to be applied for. Moreover, an estate’s having a restriction against it reflects very badly on it, and information about that is publicly available online. I know a number of people who would probably not visit an estate that had a restriction purely on the basis that they would know that wildlife crime was probably being committed there.

The other thing to note about the restriction of general licences is that it takes place under the civil burden of proof— there is no need to surpass the criminal burden of proof, as there would be otherwise. That is a really useful tool. Currently, the police and SNH meet every three months. Perhaps if they met more regularly to review the situation, that might result in a few more restrictions being put in place. As a result, restrictions might act as more of a deterrent.


Let’s look at each of those claims in turn.

First, restricting a General Licence does NOT make it ‘very difficult for estates to carry out an integral function‘ (and that statement of ‘integral function’ deserves to be pulled apart, but this isn’t the time). As we’ve pointed out time and time again, when a General Licence restriction has been imposed based on ‘clear evidence’ of wildlife crime, the estate can simply apply to SNH for an individual licence to carry on as before but has to do a bit more paperwork by applying for the licence and then submitting a return at the end of the year, e.g. see here. That’s hardly ‘very difficult‘, is it?

BASC says, ‘There is a litany of species for which individual licences would need to be applied for‘ – this is misleading. As we’ve seen, when a General Licence restriction has been imposed an estate needn’t apply for an individual licence to continue killing each separate species – SNH will simply issue one individual licence (e.g. see here) that permits the gamekeeper and his/her named associates to kill multiple species. Again, this process is hardly ‘very difficult‘.

The BASC rep argued, ‘I know a number of people who would probably not visit an estate that had a restriction purely on the basis that they would know that wildlife crime was probably being committed there’. He may well know a number of people with principles but there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that a General Licence restriction does not deter others from visiting.

For example, here is evidence of GWCT hosting a guided tour and BBQ on ‘the renowned Corsehope Shoot‘ in June 2017, at the same time that this estate was serving a three year General Licence restriction, along with neighbouring Raeshaw Estate, following evidence of wildlife crime:

Here’s another example showing how a General Licence restriction is no deterrent to many visitors. This is a social media post on 30 January 2019 by the Edradynate Estate talking about “a belter season“, at the same time this estate was serving a three-year General Licence restriction following evidence of wildlife crime:

And it’s clear that a General Licence restriction is no deterrent for endorsement from the British Game Alliance, the game shooting industry’s own ‘assurance’ scheme, membership of which is supposed to indicate ‘rigorous and ethical standards’ although we’ve questioned this before (see here and here).

Yep, these General Licence restrictions are really hurting these estates.

BASC’s final argument about General Licence restrictions was a suggestion that if the Police and SNH met more frequently than every three months this ‘might result in a few more restrictions being put in place’. This is simply nonsense. It’s not the frequency of evidence-sharing meetings that has resulted in so few General Licence restrictions being imposed – quarterly meetings have been happening for the six years since the restriction sanction was made available to SNH.

However, the actual reasons behind decisions not to impose a General Licence restriction despite clear evidence of wildlife crime, including actual convictions, are still being kept secret by SNH because, they argue, it isn’t in the public interest to discuss them.

In these post-Werritty months we know the Scottish Government is going to have to make some big decisions about game bird management and its deep association with ongoing wildlife crime. The shooting industry will be doing its level best to maintain the status quo and limit any additional sanctions, which is what BASC is trying to do with this weak defence of General Licence restrictions.

We’ll continue to put evidence in front of Ministers and MSPs to ensure the status quo is not allowed to continue.

21 thoughts on “General Licence restriction for wildlife crime – a wholly ineffective sanction”

  1. Ruth and team, you write an outstanding blog. Scientific, rigorous and full of common sense. I am doing my best to spread the word amongst the general public (family, friends and colleagues) who are/were still mostly unaware of how our countryside and wildlife are ‘looked after’ in this country.

      1. It’s actually a bit intimidating how dedicated, insightful and professional RPUK is, it punches way, way above its weight. I hope those behind it know how much we appreciate their efforts and never take them for granted.

  2. Inaction on the part of the government is simply not acceptable! The slaughter of our native wildlife by these shooting estates is shameful and cannot be allowed to continue! We will be watching the government very closely. Welfare needs over money talking is what we want to see!

  3. All this just proves that grouse-shooting is managed unrealistically, based on old wives’ tales and game-keepering philosophy that is unscientific. I’ve been fascinated by Hen Harriers since I read the legendary Donald Watson’s excellent monograph “The Hen Harrier” (Poyser 1977). I’ve casually observed their breeding seasonal behaviour for many years, and contracted to study a population on three connected grouse moors for five years, along with several other members of the local Raptor Study Group as Assistants. We still monitor the moors, as volunteer members of the RSG. Over all those years we have found literally NO evidence that harriers feed grouse chicks to their nestling young (based on hundreds of hours of CCTV), and on only ONE occasion did I witness an adult female take an adult Red Grouse. So on my patch at least, Hen Harriers were hardly a threat to the Red Grouse population – in fact both species survived in their natural ecosystem for thousands of years before Man invented firearms, otherwise they would not still exist! A logical conclusion perhaps, but apparently not in the brains of most gamekeepers and the grouse-shooting fraternity in general. Left to their own devices I believe that gamekeepers have eliminated Hen Harriers throughout most of their ancestral range, and remain determined to severely control the remaining population. Rendering them extinct throughout the entire country might be a gamekeeper’s idea of a dream. But wait a minute, that could leave them without a job! Perhaps that’s why they leave the odd nest alone, to ensure some harriers return the following year. One gamekeeper (now thankfully retired) admitted to me that he fooled the RSPB by taking them to a nest that he was “protecting” by killing foxes, but not telling them (of course) that he had eliminated several other nests by shooting the harriers at egg stage or earlier. I still firmly believe that regulation alone will not end the persecution of Hen Harriers and all other protected birds of prey on grouse moors.

    1. ” I still firmly believe that regulation alone will not end the persecution of Hen Harriers and all other protected birds of prey on grouse moors.”

      That is perfectly correct. Apart from the government lacking the courage to impose strong regulation there will always be the very difficult problem of providing adequate resources to investigate and prosecute criminals. Without such resources regulation alone will not be a deterrent.

  4. I struggle to see how an estate that has a general licence taken away because of illegal activity has the ability to be granted individual licences. surely the whole point of the restriction is that estate is proven to be unfit to operate under licence. Also the estate clearly isnt shy of shooting birds not on a licence hence the raptor persecution in the first place. The whole licencing process in Scotland and England is an utter farce and needs a proper independent overhaul to work for wildlife. Surely an agency with natural heritage in its name should be looking after the natural heritage not allowing it to be trashed for the selfish exploits of the rich minority

  5. With the general level of wilful ignorance and bigotry against raptors by those who run these shoots and who encourage clients to come to their shoots – they are hardly likely to be telling those clients they have been wrong in carrying out their crimes. Im pretty sure that these ineffective sanctions are a badge of honour and a recommendation for many shooters rather than a hindrance. Weve got lots of birds to shoot as weve dealt with the raptor problem.

  6. When the law regarding a General License Restriction/Suspension was authored and made it’s passage into law even a could understand that though these crimes would appear to be authorised in some way by the Organ Grinder of our Moors, it would be his monkey who would pay the price and not him. The Organ Grinder simply gets himself a new monkey, fills in a few forms and the macabre Dance of Death continues uninterrupted as our maniacal musician keeps calling the same tune.
    A more confrontational approach … possibly similar to Extinction Rebellion … looks almost a certainty at some future point.

  7. The whole thing is a farce, if someone gets a driving ban he can’t just say I’ve changed my car and carry on driving, it’s about time people stopped pandering to these arse holes and punished them properly . If this was a proper deterrent then BASC would not be happy with it.

  8. I believe that the so-called ‘General License’ – to kill or ‘take’ the published list of wild birds – is under review in all the constituent statutory environmental bodies of the UK, following the recent successful challenge by Wild Justice (thanks, Ruth!)

    So long as the UK’s Royal Family (and patron of the RSPB) support the shooting industry it will always be an uphill task to challenge the power of these aristocratic land owners and their violent ‘sports’.

    Most of these aristocratic land owners are exempted from inheritance tax on their estates purely to maintain their power of ownership of vast tracts of land – in order to continue their shooting interests – after all.

    But this conflicts with loss of biodiversity and bioabundance, and it conflicts with what is required to challenge global warming. The public know this. The public do not support them. But what will the political parties in power do?

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