NatureScot refuses to publish details of Leadhills Estate’s general licence restriction appeal

This is a long and sorry saga, and it’s not yet over.

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 an unprecedented 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), including the illegal killing of short-eared owls, buzzards, hen harriers and the discovery of two stashes of banned poisons.

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. Convincing, eh?

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

The first three-year General Licence restriction was imposed on Leadhills Estate in November 2019 (here). The estate appealed this decision, with an hilarious letter of objection (here), but its appeal failed.

The second General Licence restriction was imposed on Leadhills Estate in September 2021 (here) after Police Scotland reported even more wildlife crime while the estate was still serving its first restriction.

Once again, Leadhills Estate appealed the decision with a written objection letter.

It is this letter of objection that I have been trying to get from NatureScot since September 2021. Five months on, it is still being withheld, for what I have argued are spurious reasons.

Here’s a short summary of what’s happened so far:

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‘.

On 5th January 2022 NatureScot responded 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‘.

Hmm. 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?

On 7th February 2022, NatureScot sent this explanation:

That’s all very interesting. Obviously, I’ve appealed this decision and asked for a review. I don’t believe there are further proceedings to ‘prejudice’ as Leadhills Estate has now exhausted the appeals process for the General Licence restriction. I also don’t believe that correspondence between an agent and a public authority qualifies as ‘legal privilege’ and especially when it’s in the public interest to understand how the statutory agency has reached its decision with transparency and fairness.

Let’s see. Another 20 working days to wait, which will take us to six months since I made the original request.

9 thoughts on “NatureScot refuses to publish details of Leadhills Estate’s general licence restriction appeal”

  1. NatureScot puts up more of a smokescreen than a whole muirburn season. Yet more evidence that NatureScot cannot be relied on to rigorously enforce laws/regulations/guidelines relating to DGS, whatever ‘system’ is in place.

  2. Clearly, there are no grounds for witholding this information from the public. But Leadhills are paying their solicitors to scare NatureScot with vague threats of legal action, and NatureScot would prefer to abandon their duty to the public rather than face them down. It’s a well established route by which the wealthy buy the complicity of under-resourced and/or politically compromised public bodies.

  3. NatureScot, English Nature and Natural Resources Wales are not fit for purpose. They are only good for platitudes and obfuscation. In my opinion they certainly could not care less about wildlife and the crimes they are subjected to. Their whole remit seems to be to pretend that they are acting in the interests of wildlife, puffing the pitiful measures put forward by government whilst patently ignoring the harms being done to our wildlife and the environment by the failures of government (HS2, badger cull, shooting estate licensing, hunting with hounds, lead shot, muirburn, etc etc)

    1. Thanks Simon, on the nail.
      Continued thanks to Ruth too for her teeth grinding determination. I wonder what would be the state of wildlife In the Highlands otherwise.

  4. If you think licensing of grouse moors will be a winner, if it ever happens, good luck if NatureScot are managing it.

    1. Nailed it Graeme. This is just one of the main reasons why DGS licensing as a campaign objective is utter folly.

  5. Ruth,

    When, as I’m sure you will, are forced to appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner please ask Mr. Fitzhenry about the legality or otherwise of SNH (now trading as NatureScot) consulting with the sender of a letter you seek access to under FOI legislation.

    Scot Gov departments such as SNH, Marine Scotland and, to a lesser extent, SEPA have all too often bent over backwards to accommodate and protect landowners, land “managers” , farmers, salmon farmers and polluting industries while, treating those who seek to protect wildlife and natural habitat as enemies of the state.

    Cheers

  6. We can assume that NatureScot must spend a lot of time and salaried-hours on figuring out ways of not being straightforwardly open and honest, presumably for fear of upsetting the managing Agents legal team. But I wonder how many hours are actually spent in the field (on any and all Estates that are under restrictions, not this one specifically) by NatureScot staff? i.e. sneaking about with the binoculars for hours on end in all weathers and in hard to access places. Without this what is the level of confidence that Estates follow the rules? And (genuine question, not being sarcastic) do they employ fieldworkers that actually know what type of tactics they are looking out for from keepers that live and breathe this type of black-ops and have been doing it for 10, 20 or 30-plus years? Seems to me that this is like pitting Manchester City against the Scottish Government Reserve 2nd XI.

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