Leadhills Estate wants to keep details of its General Licence restriction appeal a secret

As many blog readers will know, the notorious Leadhills Estate, a grouse-shooting estate in South Lanarkshire that has been at the centre of police wildlife crime investigations at least 70 times since the early 2000s, is currently serving two General Licence restrictions imposed by NatureScot after ‘clear evidence’ of wildlife crime was provided to the statutory regulator by Police Scotland (see here and here).

For new blog readers, a General Licence restriction is a light-touch sanction for estates in Scotland where there is sufficient evidence of wildlife crime taking place but insufficient evidence to prosecute a specific individual. It’s not really a sanction at all though, because an estate can simply apply to NatureScot for ‘individual’ licences instead of a General Licence which allows them to continue the activities they were supposedly restricted from doing, just with a tiny bit of scrutiny attached (e.g. 1,000 birds were legally killed on a shooting estate despite being under a General Licence restriction, see here).

Nevertheless, a General Licence restriction is useful for campaigners for highlighting to the law makers that wildlife crime persists and further regulation/enforcement is therefore required.

So, back to Leadhills Estate. The reason why this grouse moor estate is currently serving an unprecedented double General Licence restriction is because of police reports relating to the illegal killing of a short-eared owl, two buzzards and three hen harriers that were ‘shot or caught in traps’ on Leadhills Estate in the last few years (see here), the discovery of banned poisons on the estate in May 2019 (see here), the alleged shooting of a(nother) 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) and the discovery of yet another batch of banned poisons, also in July 2020 (here). A satellite-tagged hen harrier (Silver) also vanished in suspicious circumstances on the estate in May 2020 (here), and although NatureScot don’t consider missing satellite-tagged raptors as sufficient evidence for a General Licence restriction, the disappearance can be used as supportive evidence if further alleged offences are also being considered.

Incredibly, Leadhills Estate with its double General Licence restriction is STILL a member of the lobby group Scottish Land & Estates, which claims to have a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to raptor persecution. Hmm.

[Grouse moor on the Leadhills Estate. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

As you may recall, Leadhills Estate’s second General Licence restriction was announced by NatureScot in late September 2021 (here) and the estate was reported to be considering an appeal (here).

Having seen the estate’s previous (failed) appeal against its first General Licence restriction in 2019 (here), I was keen to see the arguments it would make for an appeal against a second restriction.

On 30th September 2021 I submitted an FoI to NatureScot to request copies of Leadhills Estate’s appeal.

On 3 November 2021 NatureScot responded as follows:

We have withheld a letter from an agent acting on behalf of Leadhills Estate, pending an appeal against NatureScot’s decision to restrict General Licence. This information is of a sensitive nature and disclosure into the public domain could prejudice the applicant’s right to a fair hearing’.

I didn’t see how public disclosure could possibly prejudice a hearing given that it’s all done in-house at NatureScot but fine, I could wait.

In December 2021 it was announced that Leadhills Estate had lost its appeal against the second General Licence restriction (here) so I wrote back to NatureScot on 3rd December as follows:

You told me in the letter dated 3 November 2021 that you were withholding a letter from an agent who was acting on behalf of Leadhills Estate, and the reason you gave for withholding it was that releasing it may prejudice the applicant’s right to a fair appeal. As the appeal process has now concluded and therefore the applicant’s right to a fair hearing cannot be affected, please can you send me the agent’s letter that was previously withheld‘.

Yesterday (5th January 2022) NatureScot responded to my latest FoI request, as follows:

We have completed our information searches, and we have identified eight documents comprising 126 pages relevant to your request. We shared a redacted version of these documents with the solicitors acting on behalf of Leadhills Estate, who have provided additional legal arguments as to why certain information should be withheld. We will need additional time to assess these arguments and, potentially, take further legal advice.

Regulation 7 of the EIRs allows public authorities to extend the time for compliance with requests for up to an additional 20 working days. This means we must respond to your information request by 3 February 2022 at the latest‘.

That’s interesting. Why might Leadhills Estate not want the details of its appeal to be made public? And what legal arguments might it use to block the transparency of the decision-making process of a statutory agency?

I guess we’ll find out on 3rd February.

UPDATE 23rd February 2022: NatureScot refuses to publish details of Leadhills Estate’s general licence restriction appeal (here)

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