The ability to impose a General Licence restriction on an estate where there is ‘clear evidence’ of wildlife crime has been an option available to the Scottish Government’s statutory nature conservation advisor (NatureScot) since 1st January 2014.
This measure, based on a civil burden of proof, was introduced by then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse in response to the continuing difficulties of meeting a criminal burden of proof to facilitate a criminal prosecution in relation to raptor persecution crimes on game-shooting estates across Scotland (here). The measure has not yet been implemented in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.
General Licences represent a relatively ‘light-touch’ approach to regulation, allowing persons to carry out activities (typically the killing of so-called ‘pest’ bird species such as crows) without the need for those persons to apply for a specific licence or indeed without them having to submit any records whatsoever of how many birds, and of what species, they’ve killed in a given period at a given location. It’s actually a bit of a free-for-all, enabling the casual killing of birds with virtually no oversight and just a few rules to follow about the type and specification of various traps and a list of species that are allowed to be killed. Conservation campaign group Wild Justice has been challenging the lawfulness of these General Licences for the last three years (see here).
[A cage trap used for catching multiple corvids at a time, which are then beaten to death by the trap operator]
The rationale behind imposing a restriction on the use of General Licences is that light touch regulation should not apply in situations where the regulator has “lost trust or confidence“.
Since this new measure was introduced in 2014, NatureScot has imposed a General Licence restriction on only a handful of shooting estates (and one unnamed individual in 2017) – Raeshaw & Corsehope Estates (2015), Burnfoot & Wester Cringate Estates (2015), Edradynate Estate (2017), Leadhills Estate (2019), Leadhills Estate again (2021), Lochan Estate (2022) and Invercauld Estate (2022).
I have been highly critical of the supposed ‘sanction’ that a General Licence restriction is meant to secure because I believe it to be wholly ineffective, for a number of reasons, but not least because the supposedly ‘sanctioned’ estate can simply apply to NatureScot for an Individual licence which then allows the estate’s gamekeepers to continue the activities that were supposed to have been restricted by the General Licence restriction! It’s utterly bonkers and I’ve written about it many times before (e.g. see here, here, here, here) and I even gave evidence to this effect alongside RSPB Scotland and others to a Scottish parliamentary committee in 2019 (here).
In February this year, Scottish Greens MSP Mark Ruskell took up the issue by submitting two written questions to the Scottish Parliament (see here). Scottish Environment Minister Mairi McAllan has now responded as follows:
I’m astounded that the Scottish Environment Minister thinks that this ineffective sanction is “a fair and proportionate response where there is evidence of wildlife crime“. Good grief. Really? She thinks this is a reasonable response to a deliberately poisoned golden eagle, found next to a poisoned bait, on a grouse moor inside the Cairngorms National Park?
Whatever happened to the Scottish Government’s 2019 commitment, made by former Environment Minister Mairi Gougeon, that the Scottish Government was ‘actively considering’ additional enforcement measures on wildlife crime, including whether General Licence restrictions are ‘as effective as they can be’ (see here)??
How about getting serious with estates where wildlife crime is discovered and imposing sanctions that actually are sanctions?
Otherwise, what’s the point?