Parliamentary questions challenge absurd ‘sanction’ of General Licence restrictions

Mark Ruskell has submitted a couple of timely Parliamentary written questions on General Licence restrictions:

These questions are very relevant right now given the recent General Licence restrictions imposed on Lochan Estate in Strathbraan (here) and Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park (here) after evidence of wildlife crime was detected.

For new readers, a three-year General Licence restriction can be imposed on a game-shooting estate if Government agency NatureScot receives notification from Police Scotland that there is evidence of wildlife crime taking place on the estate but it is insufficient evidence to initiate a prosecution of a named individual.

The GL restriction does not affect the shooting of gamebirds on the estate but it does restrict the estate from undertaking any activity that would normally be covered by a General Licence, e.g. catching and killing certain so-called ‘pest’ species such as carrion crows.

Well, it’s supposed to restrict those activities, but in reality it does no such thing because the estate can simply apply to NatureScot for an Individual licence which allows the estate to continue its activities as if the General Licence restriction doesn’t exist!

It’s bonkers, and I’ve called it out many times in the past (e.g. see herehereherehere) and I even gave evidence to this effect alongside RSPB Scotland and others to a Scottish parliamentary committee in 2019 (here).

I believe this absurd situation is a legal quirk, outlined in the proceedings of a Judicial Review in 2017 of NatureScot’s decision to impose a GL restriction on Raeshaw Estate. I don’t believe it’s NatureScot’s fault that this situation has arisen, although NatureScot could be doing a lot more to point out the system’s failings to the Scottish Government.

As I understand it, if a penalised estate isn’t provided with an opportunity to apply for an individual licence then the estate could argue the system was unfair and the legality of the General Licence restriction probably wouldn’t stand. If further wildlife crimes are discovered on the estate when an individual licence is in place, NatureScot can revoke the individual licence but the estate can simply reapply for another one. NatureScot may refuse to issue another individual licence, but then it risks a costly legal challenge.

I’m pleased Mark Ruskell has asked for clarity on this situation because it strikes me some clever legal minds should be looking to close this loophole so that when a GL restriction is imposed on an estate, it actually has a meaningful application.

I’ll blog again on this when Mark’s questions have been answered.

UPDATE 8th April 2022: Absurd & ineffective General Licence restrictions for wildlife crime are ‘fair and proportionate’, says Environment Minister (here)

11 thoughts on “Parliamentary questions challenge absurd ‘sanction’ of General Licence restrictions”

  1. This is excellent. Reading the Naturescot documentation gives little clue as to the actual legal position. It is just one more nudge to get the Scottish government to at last take some long overdue action. I just hope that there is someone willing in post

  2. My suspicion is that this loophole of allowing a party to apply for an individual licence, when a general licence restriction has been imposed, was deliberately and carefully crafted into the legislation by those with a mind to protect the vested interests which dominate the countryside.
    It is like other aspects of how the dominant class within a society will manipulate legislation to protect its own interests.
    It is for this reason, that when the proposed licensing of grouse moors in Scotland ever materialises, it will need very careful scrutiny to ensure the legislation covering the licences isn’t written in such a way that there are carefully crafted loopholes and “get out of jail free cards” to ensure the land owning class with their vested interests in game shooting aren’t able to operate as they do now- which will be their objective!

  3. Clearly it would be preferable that a GL restriction, if imposed, should stand, without any recourse to an individual application

    Where a General Licence restriction has been imposed and the estate subsequently insists on applying for an individual licence on the grounds that withholding an individual licence would legally jeopardise the GL in the first place – Why should the applicant’s name on the subsequent individual licence be anyone other than the estate owner or shoot manager.

  4. Perhaps there should be Only Individual Licences and a hefty price for each! Give General Licences the Heave Ho.

  5. I have questioned NatureScot’s integrity in regard to the shooting of beavers. Within that legislation there are weaselly words in the legislation that allow for the continued shooting of beavers. In response to an inquiry I made about shooting beavers Liz McLachlan, the Licensing Manager replied:

    ‘ Following the recent Scottish Government announcement to promote the translocation of beavers to help them establish in new areas of Scotland we expect there to be greater opportunities to trap and translocate beavers. We anticipate there will continue to be requests for licences to remove beavers where they are causing a public health and safety issue or are causing serious damage to agriculture.’

    I don’t know whether she is also responsible for handing out individual and/or General Licences, for ‘Game Shooting’ as I have not done the judicious work that Ruth has. But I agree with previous comments that legislation relating to wildlife is carefully framed with ‘get out’ clauses to ensure that nothing changes.

  6. For a trade which seems to have a considerable cash flow, I trust any licencing will be priced to cover all costs of issue and the resulting inspection.

  7. Part of the theory behind removing the generl licence is that SNH can then subject the individual licence closey and check for compliance. The elephant in the room is clearly “what if they dont comply”? In reallity there is no practical sanction available. SNH do have the ability to be more restrictive with an individual licence by making them shorter and attaching more stringent conditions.

    The individual licence area could be restricted to specific sites within an estate.
    The licence could be for shorter periods of time eg. 1-2 months
    The need for licence returns could be ramped up. eg weekly reporting.
    SNH could actually do some regular inspections.

    No doubt there would be whinging from the …whingers, but the removal of the general licence is supposed to be a punitive measure…the unqualified issue of a replacement individual licence is barely an inconvience.

    Potentially the breaking of individual licence conditions could be linked to agricultural grant conditions and firearms licence certifficates. That might improve adherance however, the SG would simply argue that these issues will soon be addressed through the roll out of the shooting estate licence…..in 20 years time.

  8. This general licence fiasco by NatureScot is nothing short of farcical. If a landowner and/or his staff are found by Police Scotland to have contravened the law there should be no recourse to be applying for an individual licence. By and large it most likely that it is an individual that is carrying out the crime, end of story.
    As for the ScotGov introducing a licencing scheme for Grouse moors is another joke. I have been asking my local MP about it but get fobbed off by saying he will write to the Environment Minister for information. Needless to say weeks and weeks on now and no word. The word ‘worthless’ comes to mind..

  9. Its always struck me as odd that an estate that has lost the ability to operate under the general licence because one of their employees has almost certainly committed crimes against wildlife, yet that individual may be granted an individual licence to almost carry on before. OK so these individual licences are more restrictive, how? It is all well and good telling us that NS monitor their use how, how often and is this response by them robust enough, because I for one rather doubt that. Without extremely robust monitoring an individual licence is essentially a ” get out of jail free card” and it is quite , quite ludicrous.

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