Regular blog readers will know that in some previous years, NatureScot has controversially granted an out-of-season muirburn licence to the notorious Leadhills Estate, permitting the burning of grouse moors in September.
These licences have been controversial for several reasons, including the fact we’re in a climate emergency so setting fire to peatland vegetation doesn’t seem a particularly bright thing to do, but also because since the early 2000s Leadhills Estate has been at the centre of over 70 police investigations into alleged wildlife crime and since 2019 has been serving a three-year General Licence restriction, imposed by NatureScot, after Police Scotland provided ‘clear evidence’ of ongoing wildlife crime, including the illegal killing of a short-eared owl, two buzzards and three hen harriers that were ‘shot or caught in traps’ on Leadhills Estate since 1 January 2014 (see here) and the discovery of banned poisons on the estate in May 2019 (see here).
Why on earth NatureScot should give the estate special dispensation / privileges for anything is beyond comprehension to many of us.
[Muirburn on Leadhills Estate, South Lanarkshire. Photo by Ruth Tingay]
Here’s a recent history I’ve compiled of licence applications for out-of-season muirburning at Leadhills:
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 refused it but estate appealed and NatureScot caved in and approved the licence.
Some of you may recall that in June this year, Leadhills Estate applied once again to NatureScot for an out-of-season muirburn licence. You may also recall that I’ve spent some time chasing up NatureScot to find out if they’d granted a licence for 2021.
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 received from 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’.
30th September 2021 – I asked again about the status of the application.
On 30th September 2021 I received the following response from NatureScot:
‘This licence application for out of season muirburn has lapsed as we were unable to issue a response within an appropriate timeframe. This is as a result of increased staff workload, in part due to increased levels of sick absence which has resulted in us needing to prioritise applications for public health and safety and the prevention of serious damage‘.
So, Leadhills Estate did not get an out-of-season muirburn licence this year, but only because NatureScot didn’t have the resources to deal with the application in time.
I find this astonishing, especially now that we know that at exactly the same time this muirburn licence application was being considered, NatureScot had already begun the process of notifying Leadhills Estate that it was about to impose a second General Licence restriction (in addition to the 3-year restriction Leadhills was currently serving) after Police Scotland provided more evidence to NatureScot of more wildlife crime on Leadhills Estate, including the alleged shooting of a short-eared owl by a masked gunman on a quad bike as witnessed by a local resident and his eight year old son in July 2020 (see here), the discovery of yet another batch of banned poisons, also in July 2020 (here), and the suspicious disappearance on the estate of a satellite-tagged hen harrier (Silver) in May 2020 (here).
Sure, Leadhills Estate is entitled to apply for whatever special dispensation/privilege it wants, and as a statutory agency NatureScot is probably compelled to consider it. But let’s just set aside the fact that COP26 was due to begin just up the road a few weeks later, drawing attention to and asking commitment for tackling the climate crisis (for example, by not burning peatland grouse moors, perhaps?).
Apart from that small matter, how long should it take NatureScot to consider an application from an estate with this sort of record before concluding that NO, given the regulator has lost trust and confidence in this estate (hence NatureScot imposing TWO General Licence restrictions, FFS), an application for any special dispensation should be refused, point blank?