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?