NatureScot considering another out-of-season muirburn licence for notorious Leadhills Estate

You may remember last year that NatureScot (formerly known as Scottish Natural Heritage), the statutory conservation agency, granted an out-of-season muirburn licence to the notorious Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire (see here, here, here, here).

This was a controversial decision for a number of reasons, not least because at the time muirburn had been banned across the whole of Scotland after emergency Coronavirus legislation was passed in April 2020, but also because Leadhills Estate is notorious as being at the centre of wildlife crime investigations (approx 70) over the last 18 years and is currently serving a three-year General Licence restriction, imposed on the estate by SNH because Police Scotland provided ‘clear evidence’ of wildlife crimes having being committed by persons unknown in recent years. The estate is reportedly under further police investigation since more wildlife crime allegations were made last year, so questions were asked about why it was receiving ‘special treatment’ from the licensing authority.

[An example of muirburn on a grouse moor in the Angus Glens, April 2021]

The environmentally damaging consequences of muirburn (setting fire to upland heather moorlands as part of the routine ‘management’ for grouse shooting) are well documented, with some of these fires leading to increased carbon emissions, increased flood risk, increased air pollution and threats to other ecosystem services.

With the intensification of grouse moor management in some areas of Scotland comes an increase in the extent and intensity of rotational heather burning. These fires have even been lit on areas of deep peat (forbidden by the voluntary Muirburn Code, which many land managers seem to simply ignore) causing damage to protected blanket bog habitat – in fact 40% of the area of land burned for grouse moor management in Scotland is on deep peat (see here).

Why on earth, in a climate emergency, is NatureScot permitting out-of-season burning, and especially on this particular estate that is supposedly the subject of sanctions due to ongoing wildlife crime?

As it turns out, the management of Leadhills Estate (which appears to be a company run by our old friend Mr Osborne) decided against using its out-of-season muirburn licence last year, because, according to its licence return, of the Coronavirus restrictions, although NatureScot has told me that the restrictions did not apply at the time the estate wanted to set fire to the moor.

Fast forward a year and guess what? In June 2021 Leadhills Estate applied yet again for another out-of-season muirburn licence and according to a series of FoI responses I’ve received, NatureScot is actively considering the application.

Here’s a copy of the licence application:

And here is the map showing the proposed area of burning on the grouse moor:

The licence application was submitted in June 2021 and it requested permission to set fire to the grouse moor from 1st – 30th September (the official muirburn season in Scotland runs from 1st October to 15th April, although this can be extended to 30th April at the landowner’s discretion, right at the time when ground-nesting birds have commenced their breeding season – its totally bonkers).

Here’s a summary of the FoI responses I’ve received from NatureScot about this year’s licence application:

17 June 2021 – I asked NatureScot whether a licence application had been made for Leadhills Estate.

15 July 2021 – NatureScot confirmed an application had been received (on 9 June) but said it hadn’t yet been assessed and that they were advising customers that there was a six week waiting time for applications relating to anything other than health and safety purposes.

16 July 2021 – I asked again about the status of the application.

12 August 2021 – NatureScot told me ‘the licensing team intend to assess this application in the next few days’.

1st September 2021 – I asked again about the status of the application (as this was the start date for the out-of-season licence to begin).

2nd September 2021 – NatureScot replied, ‘The licensing team is awaiting for some further information from one of our advisors before taking this further’.

15th September 2021 – I asked again about the status of the application.

16th September 2021 – NatureScot replied, ‘I have chased up licensing team but haven’t heard anything back from them yet’.

So apparently, NatureScot still hasn’t made a decision on this licence application, and with only nine days remaining until the muirburn season officially opens anyway, perhaps this is a clever stalling tactic to avoid having to issue the licence. Although I would argue, for all the reasons stated above, that the licence application should have been dismissed at first sight back in June.

The issue of setting fires to grouse moors in a climate emergency is quite high on the political agendas of both the Westminster and Scottish Governments. In November 2020, in response to the long-awaited Werritty Review on grouse moor management, then Environment Minister Mairi Gougeon announced there would be a statutory ban on burning peatland except under licence for strictly limited purposes such as habitat restoration. She also said that the Government would revisit the definition of ‘peatland’ and consider whether a tighter and stricter definition was required.

We’re still waiting to see progress on that commitment.

I’ve done some further digging about out-of-season muirburn on Leadhills Estate and have found the following information:

2017 – Licence issued (although apparently the estate failed to provide a licence return, which is a breach of the licence conditions).

2018 – The estate did not apply for an out-of-season muirburn licence.

2019 – Licence application made but was refused. The NatureScot assessor wrote: ‘Removing dead Molinia does not constitute a licensable purpose as burning within the muirburn season will achieve this aim and is a common management practice’. And, ‘Evidence of high Molinia not presented [in photographs]’.

2020 – Licence application made. NatureScot refuses it but estate appeals and NatureScot caves in and approves the licence.

The explanation given by NatureScot for its refusal of the 2019 licence is very interesting, because the removal of Molinia is again the stated purpose on Leadhills Estate’s current licence application for permission to conduct out-of-season muirburn.

What’s the decision going to be this year?

What’s more important – grouse shooting or the climate emergency?

12 thoughts on “NatureScot considering another out-of-season muirburn licence for notorious Leadhills Estate”

  1. Just out of interest, is there any grouse moor that is NOT notorious for some reason or another, and if there is one such blessed place, does it have any grouse?

  2. Having visited Scotland in June for the first time since I started reading this blog, and it opened my eyes, I can confirm that in 6 days of viewing grouse moors, I only heard 1 red grouse, and there were no waders on the manged grouse moors I saw. Looked like the grouse moors that I saw were so degraded now that they supported nothing

  3. Clearly there are some serious questions hanging over NatureScot.
    I do not think it entirely proper that the full weight of fire should be directed at that controversial detachment. It is the Holyrood mob who should be made to hold the “go to jail” card. That is the outfit who are ultimately responsible for the failures of those who were supposedly appointed to protect nature’s land and the dear creatures that depend on it.
    The Sc. Gov. would be mighty relieved to see NatureScot take all the flak whilst they continue to slither about in the shadows. Any criticism of NatureScot should always be simultaneously directed at the Sc. Gov. They are both inseparable members of the same brotherhood.

  4. As well as the burning, of equal concern to us all should be the proposal to use Glyphosate to kill the vegetation on approx 1200 ha of uplands – exactly how much of this (possibly carcinogenic) chemical will be used here and what are the potential effects of this? Natural England have produced very few long term management plans for English Grouse moors – but those that have been produced endorse similar use of chemicals for Mollinia grass. I have asked some well known friendly conservationists how the use of Glyphosate can be avoided in these circumstances but got no clear alternative. The whole of this plan for Leadhills is an environmental disaster endorsed by government both north and south of the border. Rewildiing and a change of mindset has to give us the answers.

  5. Technical issue?:

    Looking at the application form, they have applied for an out of season licence for the purposes of :- “Conserving, restoring, enhancing or managing the natural environment”.

    So what is the “natural environment” that they are refering to?

    SNH is responsible for the “conservation of the “natural heritage”. Conviently, the “natural heritage” has a clear legal definition. However, “Natural Environment” is a much broader concept and involves many other factors. The naural heritage is only part of the “natural environment”.

    So looking at the options that an out of season licence may be issued for:-

    They are not proposing to conserve the natural environment.

    They are not proposing to restore the natural environment.

    They are not proposing to enhance the natural environment.

    They are therefore applying to “manage” the natural environment. SNH can only be considering the application under this sub-heading.

    The applicants stated intention is to destroy one manmade habitat with chemicals and fire then replace it with a different manmade habitat. (Sounds like agriculture to me.)

    Technically they are asking for permission to pollute the air and water. Releasing CO2 amongst other pollutants into the atmosphere during the climate emergency!

    Licensing polluting emissions is beyond SNH’s remit, that is the responsibility of the Scottish ENVIRONMENT Protection Agency (SEPA). Unless there has been some new environmental legislation that I am not aware of, SNH simply have no business issuing licences for muirburn (out of season or not).

  6. Are NatureScot, Natural England and Natural Resources Wales in a competition to see which body can allow the most destruction of their natural environment and wildlife whilst pretending to do the opposite?

  7. The estate/agent hasn’t explained how burning a specific grass, which at present has scrub bushes (does that means young trees?) within it, will ‘Prepare a seed bed for growing and restoring woodland’ when in fact, its clearly stated purpose is to re-establish heather. The whole stated ‘reason’ is not about trees at all and is in fact a device to destroy naturally recurring growth including trees. NatureScot, should simply reject this contrived justification for out-of-season muirburn!

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