There’s nothing ‘draconian’ about licensing game shooting estates

There were a couple of articles published in the Scottish Mail on Sunday yesterday about the possibility (probability) of the introduction of game shoot licensing in Scotland.

The first article didn’t bring anything new to the story; it was just a re-hashed version of who’s said what since Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham announced a package of new measures to address the on-going problem of raptor persecution and unsustainable grouse moor management. Lord David Johnstone of Scottish Land & Estates talked about maintaining the status quo (i.e. no licensing scheme required), James Reynolds of RSPB Scotland talked about the necessity of introducing a licensing scheme because self-regulation by the grouse-shooting industry has failed, and an unnamed spokesman from the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association talked about how licensing could have serious consequences for gamekeepers and their families. The two journalists who wrote the article described the Government’s proposed review as ‘the latest blow to landowners following draconian land reforms and the abolition of tax breaks’.

What ‘draconian land reforms’ are those, then? And why should multi-millionaire landowners, whose grouse moors are already subsidised by the public purse, be entitled to tax breaks?

Here’s a copy of the article, and for those who struggle to read it, here’s a PDF version so you can zoom in and increase the font size: MailonSunday1_July162017

The second article was a commentary column written by Carrieanne Conaghan, a gamekeeper’s wife who coordinates the ‘Speyside Moorland Group’ – one of several regional moorland groups closely affiliated with the Gift of Grouse propaganda campaign.

The headline begins: ‘As Draconian new land laws loom…’ These words probably weren’t Carrieanne’s but nevertheless, it’s clear from her commentary that estate licensing isn’t welcomed by gamekeepers because, she says, “For the vast majority of estates who have done nothing wrong and are resolute in their fight against wildlife crime, they would be penalised by strict new controls“.

Unfortunately she doesn’t explain why or how she things law-abiding estates would be “penalised by strict new controls“. The fact of the matter is, they wouldn’t be penalised at all, as the penalities would only be felt by those who continue to illegally kill protected raptors. And quite rightly so. Law-abiding gamekeepers, and their employers, have absolutely nothing to fear from the introduction of a licensing scheme, and you’d think they’d be welcoming it with open arms because if anything, it’ll protect them from being lumped in with the criminals.

Here’s the article and here it is as a PDF: MailOnSunday2_July162017

Carrieanne also claims that, “More worryingly, it [licensing] also brings the potential of gamekeepers losing their homes and livelihoods if a licence to operate was withdrawn“. This is just emotional scaremongering, probably encouraged by the same tosh spouted by SGA Chairman Alex Hogg earlier this year (see here). The only reason gamekeepers would potentially lose their homes and livelihoods would be if they’d broken the conditions of the licence and the subsequent withdrawal of that licence. That principle applies to everybody else in society whose activities are licensed. It’s the risk you run if, for example, you’re a professional driver and you commit road traffic offences leading to the loss of your driving licence. Why should gamekeepers be exempt from regulation when everyone else’s lives are governed by such rules?

Carrieanne claims that the licensing proposal has been brought about by “activists who object to the very existence of grouse moors, whether their opposition is based on a dislike of shooting or the ‘toffs’ who they believe are the only ones who participate“. Actually, the proposal was brought about by ordinary members of the public who are sick to the back teeth of criminal gamekeepers and their employers getting away with the illegal slaughter of protected wildlife, particularly on driven grouse moors.

Carrieanne claims that raptor persecution is “in decline” and that “tough new legislation has had a positive effect“. She also thinks, because her gamekeeper husband told her, that gamekeepers “desire to manage moorland for the interests of all species, whether it be grouse, ground-nesting birds, mountain hares or birds of prey“. Good grief.

She must have missed the Golden Eagle Satellite Tag Review, the findings of which were the final straw for Roseanna Cunningham and which led directly to the current proposition of a licensing scheme. She must also have missed the news that the hen harrier population continues to spiral downwards, thanks in large part to illegal persecution, and the news that peregrine populations continue to decline in areas dominated by driven grouse moors, and the news that the northern red kite population continues to suffer from the impact of illegal persecution on driven grouse moors, and the news that five prosecutions for alleged wildlife crime (all involving gamekeepers or their employers) have all been dropped in recent months, and the news that raptors continue to be illegally shot, even in recent weeks (see here, here) or illegally trapped (see here) on grouse moors up and down the country.

Did anyone see any gamekeepers or any moorland groups condemning these incidents? Where was their uproar? Where was their outrage? How many gamekeepers or members of moorland groups have provided information/intelligence to the police about any of these recent crimes? We’ll take an educated guess – none of them.

Carrieanne is right to be concerned about her family’s livelihood, but it’s not at risk from a licensing scheme, which is neither draconian or unnecessary; it’s actually a long overdue and pretty measured response to decades of criminality and unsustainable practices. Carrieanne’s livelihood is only at risk from those criminal gamekeepers and their employers who refuse to reform and continue to stick up two fingers to the law.

UPDATE 25 July 2017: SRSG response letter here

How divisions within SNP affect rural policy decisions, including tackling raptor persecution

A couple of days ago we read the following short conversation on Twitter, which followed the news that Police Scotland are investigating the shooting of a short-eared owl on Leadhills Estate:

Dominic Mitchell (@birdingetc): Another day on a Scottish grouse moor, another protected bird of prey shot. When will the authorities take effective action to stop this?

Scottish Birding (@birdingscotland): In @strathearnrose [Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham] I believe we have someone who will act! These morons are simply highlighting the case against themselves.

There’s no doubt in our minds that Roseanna Cunningham is as angry as the rest of us about the continued illegal persecution of birds of prey on grouse moors. Those of us listening to her speech at the SRSG conference earlier this year all saw, heard and felt that anger.

But will she act? Well, her recent announcement of a new package of measures to fight raptor persecution was a sure sign that she intends to act, and a recent tweet from the First Minister’s Special Environment Advisor (David Miller), also in response to a question about what Scot Gov intends to do following the news of the shot short-eared owl on Leadhills Estate, suggests progress is being made:

Trust me. Minds are very definitely focused. Further high level discussions held today. Pushing ahead“.

But as we said when Roseanna announced her package of new measures, we should be under no illusion whatsoever about the dark and powerful influences who will be doing their utmost to disrupt and derail those plans.

Some of those influences will come from external individuals and organisations (no prizes for guessing who), but some of them will also come from within the Government itself. Political divisions within a party are nothing new; we see examples of them all the time. Sometimes they’re just minor squabbles but sometimes they can have enormous consequences.

As an excellent introductory primer to internal SNP divisions, Jen Stout has written an article for the New Statesman. It focuses on why the SNP recently voted, controversially, to lift the ban on tail docking, permitting what many see as a ‘barbaric’ procedure, without anaesthetic, on three-day-old puppies. However, the article also has a broader perspective and Jen ends with this:

The next big showdowns in Holyrood on animal welfare are likely to be just as emotive: the use of electric shock collars on dogs, and the prosecution of wildlife crime (or, how to deal with the fact that poisoned, bludgeoned birds of prey keep turning up on grouse shooting estates). The latter in particular will test, once again, the direction of a party split between appeasing a land management lobby, and meeting the high expectations of its newer members“.

For those of us interested in rural policy decisions in Scotland, and particularly those related to dealing with illegal raptor persecution, it’s well worth taking a moment to consider the political divisions within the SNP because those divisions will undoubtedly make Roseanna Cunningham’s endeavours all the more difficult, and we should all bear that in mind when voicing our criticism. That’s not to say we shouldn’t continue to criticise; on the contrary, the Government should expect to be held to account and public pressure over the last few years has brought things a very long way, but we need to make sure our criticism is aimed at the right target.

Further comment on admissibility of video evidence from more law academics

Last week we blogged about a commentary from Professor Peter Duff (Aberdeen University Law School) on the admissibility of video evidence in wildlife crime prosecutions (see here).

As a quick summary, we fundamentally disagreed with Professor Duff’s conclusions that “the courts would not excuse such an irregularity in obtaining the video evidence and prosecutions would be fruitless” because the Scottish courts HAVE excused the irregularity of obtaining video evidence without the landowner’s permission and far from those prosecutions being ‘fruitless’, they actually resulted in the conviction of the accused (e.g. see the Marshall trial here and the Mutch trial here).

On the back of that blog, another Aberdeen University Law School academic, Dr Phil Glover, has now written a blog on the same subject – see here and he appears to support the opinion of Professor Duff that the COPFS was correct to apply caution and reject the RSPB’s video evidence as inadmissible. Dr Glover addresses the two case studies we had previously mentioned whereby video evidence had been deemed admissible by the courts (the Marshall and Mutch trials) and his opinion is that the two Sheriffs presiding over these cases were wrong to accept the video evidence.

Dr Glover’s blog is technical, dry, and stuffed with specialist knowledge of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (Scotland) Act 2000 (RIP(S)A) and the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). As such, it is way beyond the scope of our limited knowledge of this legislation and thus we won’t even attempt to critique it. That is not to say it should be dismissed – on the contrary, we welcome the opportunity to read the informed opinion of a law academic, particularly one whose PhD research focused on the very subject of RIP(S)A, and hopefully some of our legally-trained blog readers will be willing to provide a critique.

Another blog has also been published on this subject, this time by Malcolm Combe, a lawyer also working within Aberdeen University’s Law School. Malcolm’s blog (here) is written in a way that is easier (for us) to comprehend and features some pertinent commentary on privacy and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, of which he has detailed, specialist knowledge.

What is clear from all three legal blogs is that the issue about the admissibility of video evidence in relation to wildlife crime prosecutions in Scotland is complex and confusing and, like most legislation, subject to interpretation, which has led to an inconsistent application in recent years. It has been fascinating to read the opinions and the rationale behind them; it’s a shame that the COPFS has not put as much time and effort in to explaining the recent decisions made by the public prosecutors to drop five wildlife crime prosecutions, leaving many questions still unanswered and public confidence in wildlife crime prosecutions at an all time low.

What is also clear is that the current legislation is practically unenforceable in cases of alleged wildlife crime that takes place on large, remote game shooting estates where the likelihood of anybody witnessing the crime is pretty slim. Back in 2014, when this issue was again at the centre of attention, the then Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse told a Parliamentary Committee that he was “confident” that surveillance cameras could be used in wildlife crime investigations where it was appropriate and the Lord Advocate had apparently made it clear that the option was available to Police Scotland (see here). Police Scotland had a different view and said, “Police Scotland will not be routinely deploying these tactics” (see here).

So where do we go from here? As both Dr Glover and Malcolm Combe note, there is a wider debate to be had here and maybe, on the back of the recent COPFS decisions, these commentaries from legal academics will prompt a review, leading to much-needed reform. In his blog, Dr Glover makes several suggestions for improvement, and some of our blog commentators have, in previous posts, suggested that a condition of any proposed game shoot licensing scheme could be that landowners have to agree to the installment of cameras at the nests of certain raptor species. A review of this type would come under the remit of the PAW Scotland Legislation, Regulation & Guidance sub-group, whose objectives include:  ‘To review the operation in practice of wildlife legislation and regulations; identify areas for improvement and make recommendations; produce guidance for wildlife crime law enforcement practitioners, land managers and other countryside users‘.

What absolutely cannot be allowed to continue is clear-cut evidence of illegal raptor persecution being routinely dropped on the basis of a legal technicality. If the current legislation doesn’t work (it doesn’t), it needs to be amended. We’ve seen the much-welcomed review of wildlife crime penalties, the recommendations of which have been agreed by the Scottish Government (here) but there’s no point in having stronger penalties as a deterrent if the offender knows that the chances of being caught and receiving the punishment are minimal.

Scottish Government to review use of stink pits on game shooting estates

Yesterday the Scottish Parliament debated the use of stink pits (middens) on game-shooting estates, following a motion from Christine Grahame MSP.

Stink pits are piles of rotting animal carcasses (often including the corpses of wild and domestic animals) that are dumped in a heap and surrounded by snares. The putrefying stench from the corpses attracts predators to the pit who are then caught in the snares, killed and thrown on to the pit. This is all quite legal as long as the animals have been lawfully killed.

The official transcript of the debate can be read here: Stink pit debate_ScotParl_15June2017

Take note of the comments made by Peter Chapman MSP (Conservative, NE Scotland, a former vice president of NFUS and now serving as Shadow Cabinet Minister for the Rural Economy & Connectivity). According to Peter,

On baiting, a proper midden is located in an area where target species can be naturally channelled and, as such, I am told that descriptions of piles of carcases are frankly incorrect. Indeed, such piles are not necessary: it does not take a tonne of wheat to attract a rat—a small pile will do—and it would be the same for a midden“.

This was challenged by Christine Grahame who asked whether Peter had seen the online photographs of piles of carcasses. He had to admit that he had (so therefore his assertion that Christine’s claim was ‘frankly incorrect’ was, er, totally incorrect). Peter claimed that “despite spending my whole working life living and working in the countryside“, he had not ever seen a stink pit nor even heard of one before yesterday’s debate. Perhaps he needs to get out a bit more. Here’s one, photographed in his own constituency (on Glenogil Estate) – a pile of bloodied, rotting mountain hares dumped underneath a tree and surrounded by snares (Photo by one of our blog readers who wishes to remain anonymous):

Aside from Peter’s uninformed comments, other MSPs spoke of their revulsion of stink pits and expressed shock that there is currently no regulation or legislation covering stink pit use in Scotland or elsewhere in the UK.

Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham spoke at the end of the debate and claimed that “stink pits are used as a way of maximising the effectiveness of snaring as a means of fox control. They are used to draw foxes into fewer, more easily checked sites; thus, they have the benefit of concentrating snaring effort and reducing the number of snares that are set in the wider countryside“. That’s an interesting claim. Is there any evidence to support it? Given that nobody knows how many stink pits are in use at any given time, or how many snares are set at any given time, it seems a bit of a jump to argue that stink pits reduce the number of snares used in the wider countryside, doesn’t it? You could equally argue that stink pits ADD to the number of snares being set on these estates. Without supporting data, both claims are as valid/invalid as each other.

Anyway, the good news is that Roseanna has confirmed that stink pit use will be under review by two separate groups. One is the Scottish Government’s Technical Assessment Group, who will review stink pits as part of their overall snaring review. The other is the yet-to-be established independent group that will review grouse moor management practices, as announced last month in response to continued illegal raptor persecution. We look forward to hearing more about that group, and its full remit, in the very near future.

New petition calling for study on economic impact of driven grouse shooting

A new public petition has been launched by Les Wallace asking the Scottish Parliament to ‘urge the Scottish Government to sponsor a comprehensive and independent study into the full economic impacts of driven grouse shooting’.

The petition can be read here.

It seems that Les was way ahead of the game because as his petition was being finalised, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham surprised everyone with her announcement last week that, among other things, she intends to ‘commission research into the costs and benefits of large shooting estates to Scotland’s economy and biodiversity‘.

This would appear to supercede Les’s petition, although the wording is slightly different and we don’t yet know the finer details of Roseanna’s plans, including whether there’ll be a focused assessment of the economics of driven grouse shooting, as Les is calling for.

The grouse shooting industry often shouts about its economic benefit to the Scottish economy and uses this as justification for rejecting calls for regulation. However, the main study used to support this claim of economic benefit has been widely criticised (see a useful recent summary here, pages 22-23) and so there is every reason to support Les’s call for an updated and independent study.

Les’s petition can be signed online here (closing date 18 July 2017).


Richard Lochhead MSP to meet Environment Secretary today to discuss wildlife crime

Richard Lochhead MSP, who represents the SNP in Morayshire, continues to impress.

Last night, he posted the following on his Facebook page:

Richard Lochhead MSP will meet with Roseanna Cunningham tomorrow to discuss the need for more to be done to catch those who commit wildlife crime.

Mr Lochhead’s meeting with the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Climate Change follows his exchange with Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions, where he highlighted the disappointment at the Crown Office’s decision to drop the case relating to the alleged illegal killing of a hen harrier in the Cabrach in 2013.

Moray’s MSP has been contacted by many constituents who were shocked that the Crown Office had taken the view that video footage supplied by RSPB Scotland was inadmissible despite such evidence being accepted in the past.

Whilst Mr Lochhead welcomes the progress that has been made by the Scottish Government in recent years in tackling wildlife crime, he will convey to the Cabinet Secretary that the Crown Office must take into account how difficult it can be to detect wildlife crime given that it most often takes place in remote areas and that they must ensure the justice system doesn’t miss opportunities to hold to account those who illegally kill endangered species.

Former Environment Secretary and Moray MSP Richard Lochhead said:

The justice system needs to reflect the fact that wildlife crime often occurs in very remote areas and therefore every scintilla of evidence must be captured and used in the courts given how difficult it is to gather in the first place.

The alleged perpetrator caught on film who appears to have shot and killed a protected hen harrier in my constituency probably can’t believe his luck that he’s getting away with it. When the public view with their own eyes video footage showing an alleged crime being committed they expect it to count in the courts.

It’s clear we need a further package of measures to build on the good work already underway to tackle wildlife crime in Scotland. Nothing should be ruled out at this stage including the enhanced use of cameras by the authorities at nesting sites and improved enforcement and deterrents“.


Richard has been tweeting about this (@RichardLochhead) as has his Moray Parliamentary Office (@MorayParlOffice). If you’re on Twitter, or Facebook, please drop him a line to thank him for his interest and his efforts.

‘Official’ 2016 raptor persecution maps are a misleading distraction

Today the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime (Scottish PAW Raptor group) has published the so-called ‘official’ annual raptor persecution maps showing details of recorded raptor persecution crimes for 2016.

Once again, Police Scotland has withheld information about several incidents ‘for operational reasons’ and as such these are not included on the ‘official’ map. Some details have been included in the accompanying summary data tables but even information as basic as the species affected has not been published.

Here’s the ‘official’ map purportedly showing ‘ALL’ recorded bird of prey crimes in Scotland from 2013 to 2016:

However, just as last year, some incidents are not shown and so the title of this map is totally misleading. As we’ve said before, there is no point whatsoever publishing these maps if Police Scotland is going to keep some of these crimes a secret. Seriously, what is the point?

The PAW Raptor group is headlining today’s news as a “26% drop in recorded bird of prey offences during 2016“. No doubt this supposed ‘good news’ will be used by the game-shooting industry as evidence that things are improving. On a superficial level this looks like a reasonable conclusion, but as well as the withholding of known poisoning offences, other information has also been excluded.

For example, there is no mention at all about the four satellite-tagged golden eagles that are known to have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances in 2016: three of them ‘disappeared’ on grouse moors in the Monadhliaths and one ‘disappeared’ on a grouse moor in the Angus Glens.

There is also no mention of the three satellite-tagged hen harriers that are also known to have ‘disappeared’ in suspicious circumstances in 2016: ‘Chance‘ disappeared on a South Lanarkshire grouse moor in May 2016; ‘Elwood‘ vanished on a Monadhliaths grouse moor in August 2016;  and ‘Brian‘ vanished on a grouse moor in the Cairngorms National Park in August 2016.

PAW Scotland will argue that these data have not been included because they do not represent confirmed persecution crimes. Technically, that’s fair comment, but given the frequency with which satellite-tagged raptors are ‘disappearing’ on Scottish grouse moors, they point to a much more sinister picture, as recognised by the Environment Cabinet Secretary when she ordered a review of raptor sat tag data last year. She also mentions that review in her comments about today’s supposed ‘good news’.

As far as we’re concerned, the PAW Scotland raptor persecution maps are a misleading distraction from what is actually going on in the Scottish uplands. All eyes should be on the forthcoming raptor satellite tag review for a more meaningful and revealing picture.

PAW Scotland press release here

PAW Scotland persecution maps and data here

Environment Secretary’s message to Scottish gamekeepers re: raptor persecution

roseanna-cunninghamLast week, Environment Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham gave a speech at the Scottish Raptor Study Group’s annual conference, where she described, with feeling, her ‘contempt‘ for the continued illegal persecution of birds of prey (see here).

Her speech was warmly welcomed by those in the audience and many were hoping she would deliver the same message when she spoke at the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association AGM, six days later on 3 March.

It seems as though she did. According to this article in the Courier, her speech to the SGA was similarly-worded and hopefully it was delivered with the same strength of feeling she gave at the SRSG conference.

Here are some quotes from her SGA speech:

Not only are you valuable eyes and ears in the Scottish countryside, but you are stakeholders in the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime, with a vital role to play.”

We also need to continue to work together to change attitudes and every person in this room can help“.

The successful reintroductions of red kite and white-tailed eagle, and the recent 15% increase – which is in real terms a recovery – in golden eagle numbers, from the results of the last national survey – is welcome progress“.

For many people seeing these magnificent birds is a rare event. Many of you here today are in the fortunate position of seeing them regularly and I envy you that“.

Unhappily however the illegal killing of raptors is still with us“.

I have no patience at all with old fashioned attitudes towards these birds that linger on in this day and age. We all have to abide by the law, and must do so every day“.

I have no truck with any excuse that raptors damage driven grouse shooting interests – such damage is a business risk that grouse moor owners have to live with, and manage for – and this has to be done within the law“.

I note and welcome your chairman Alex Hogg’s reiteration of the pledge to ensure SGA members only consider legal routes to conflict resolution and he has made it clear that those committing wildlife crime will be removed from the SGA.

Although it looks like she didn’t go as far as directly pointing the finger at the SGA, it is to be hoped that the sub-text was clear enough to have some people squirming in their seats.

As several commentators have mentioned on this blog, although the Environment Secretary’s words were welcome, we have heard them all before, not only from her but also from three previous Environment Ministers, and yet raptor persecution continues. For now though, we’re cautiously giving Roseanna Cunningham the benefit of the doubt.

Yes, her words to the SGA are a big improvement on the words her predecessor gave to the SGA (see here) and yes, she’s bought herself and the Scottish Government a bit more time with these two speeches, but society’s patience is not limitless. We expect to see further measures enacted, and soon. There will be a lot of attention placed on the Cabinet Secretary’s response to the recently-published game bird licensing review, the forthcoming review of satellite tagged raptors, and the decision on whether to give increased investigatory powers to the SSPCA.

There’ll also be a great deal of attention paid this year to whether SNH grants licences to gamekeepers allowing them to kill protected raptors and if so, on what grounds? Roseanna has been clear that any perceived damage by raptors to grouse moor management should be a ‘business risk’ that has to be ‘managed within the law’. The SGA will no doubt argue that applying for licences to kill raptors would be ‘managing the business risk within the law’ and technically, they’d be correct, in as much as the provision is there to apply for such licences but whether protecting artificially high numbers of game birds is justification for legally killing protected raptors, especially when illegal raptor persecution continues, is an argument that will dominate MSPs’ inboxes if licences are given this year.

Interesting times ahead.

“I have no truck with the argument that raptors damage driven grouse shooting” says Environment Cabinet Secretary

roseannacunninghamLast Saturday, Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham, delivered a speech to members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG) at their annual conference in Perthshire.

She deserves a good deal of credit, not only for giving up her Saturday morning, but particularly for her willingness to come and speak to a room full of raptor workers, many of whom have repeatedly written heated and impassioned emails to the Scottish Government in recent years, criticising its failure to effectively tackle the illegal killing of raptors. It was a challenge too far for her predecessor, former Environment Minister Dr Aileen McLeod who declined an invitation to attend, and let’s be honest, can anyone imagine Roseanna’s Westminster counterpart, Dr Therese Coffey, turning up to a Northern England Raptor Forum conference?

Roseanna began her speech in the same way she began her last speech to this group back in 2009, by thanking SRSG members for their voluntary efforts. She described this as “dedicated, high quality fieldwork” that is “genuinely appreciated by the Scottish Government“. She recognised the importance of this work, saying the information generated for the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme was “essential and fundamental” to help the Government to assess the conservation status of raptor populations. That was good to hear, and is a big kick in the teeth to those organisations who seek to discredit and undermine the professionalism of the SRSG (e.g. see here), undoubtedly in an attempt to disguise the continued persecution of raptors in some areas of Scotland that is being clearly exposed by SRSG monitoring efforts.

She then spent a bit of time talking about the intrinsic value of raptors, their place as part of Scottish identity, and how they are becoming increasingly important for tourism and the revenue that can generate for local economies. She talked about some of the ‘good news’ stories such as successful reintroduction projects for white-tailed eagles and red kites (although she didn’t mention the continued persecution of red kites in northern Scotland that is still inhibiting population growth, 25 years on) and the welcome return of other species such as ospreys and buzzards. She also touched on the 15% increase in the national golden eagle population, which is a good news story, but she didn’t mention the other part of that story which is the continued absence of this species on many driven grouse moors in eastern and southern Scotland.

Then came the part we really wanted to hear – her thoughts on raptor persecution. Her opening statement received a loud, spontaneous round of applause from an appreciative audience. This is what she said:

The illegal killing of our raptors does remain a national disgrace. I run out of words to describe my contempt for the archaic attitudes still at play in some parts of Scotland. We all have to abide by the law, and we do so, most of us, all throughout our lives. All I’m asking is that everybody does the same. Sporting businesses are NO different, and the people who breach the law deserve all the opprobrium and punishment we can mete out. I have no truck with the argument that raptors damage driven grouse shooting interests. Such damage, frankly, is a business risk you have to live with and manage, but within the law. And that is what must be reiterated again, and again, and again.

She then went on to discuss vicarious liability, recognising that with only two successful prosecutions in five years this probably isn’t the ‘magic bullet’ that everyone hoped it would be when it was first introduced. And she said she thought there was a lesson in that. She feared there are no single ‘magic wands’, just a lot of work, to be done constantly, with a lot of people, over a period of time, and how it would involve some changes.

She commented on some of the changes already in place, such as the General Licence restriction (although she acknowledged this was currently being challenged via a judicial review), an acceptance of the recommendations for increased penalties for wildlife crime, and how the Government was working with Police Scotland to introduce new investigative support for these crimes.

She then repeated the importance of the recent review on game bird hunting regulations in other European countries and the forthcoming review on satellite-tagged raptors, which is due to report at the end of March and how she will “look carefully” at these reports to help inform the Government’s next moves.

All in all, this was a very positive speech. The Cabinet Secretary is not yet in a position to formally show her hand because, quite rightly, she needs to wait for the satellite tag review to be published to be able to consider its findings and put them in to context with all the other evidence at her disposal. However, she’s obviously keenly aware that raptor persecution “does remain” a national disgrace (that’s an important distinction – she’s talking about it as a current, ongoing issue, not an historical one as the game shooting industry would like everyone to believe) and she clearly acknowledges her “contempt” for this criminality.

The scene has been set. The question now is, will she be able to deliver change?

Where’s that SNH review of European gamebird licensing systems?

Pressure is mounting for the publication of SNH’s review of the systems used to regulate gamebird hunting in other European countries.

This review was first commissioned over two and a half years ago by former Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse, during a parliamentary debate on wildlife crime / raptor persecution, way back in May 2014 (see here).

Nothing happened.

Seventeen months later in December 2015, Claudia Beamish MSP lodged a parliamentary question about the lack of progress:

Question S4W-28992 (date lodged: 16/12/15):

To ask the Scottish Government when it will carry out the review of gamebird licensing and legislation agreed by Paul Wheelhouse in May 2014; who has been appointed to conduct the review, and when it expects the report to be published.

Answered by Aileen McLeod MSP (the then Environment Minister) 11/1/2016:

Tender documents were issued by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) on 11 December 2015, inviting bids from contractors to carry out the review of gamebird licensing and legislation in other European countries. The deadline for quotes to be submitted to SNH is 20 January 2016. We expect work on the review to commence in early 2016 and for the report to be published in autumn 2016.

Nothing appeared in the public domain so in August 2016 Claudia Beamish MSP submitted another parliamentary question:

Question S5W-02043 (date lodged: 18/8/16):

To ask the Scottish Government, further to the answer to question S4W-28992 by Aileen McLeod on 11 January 2016, on what date the gamebird licensing and legislation report will be published.

Answered by Roseanna Cunningham MSP (current Cabinet Secretary on Environment) 25/8/16:

Further to the answer to question S4W-28992 by Aileen McLeod on 11 January 2016, the review of gamebird licensing and legislation is currently being finalised and will be published in Autumn 2016.

Still nothing, so in October Mark Ruskell MSP lodged a parliamentary question:

Question S5W-04342 (date lodged 31/10/16):

To ask the Scottish Government when the Scottish Natural Heritage review of gamebird licensing systems in other European countries will be published.

Answered by Roseanna Cunningham MSP (Cabinet Secretary on Environment) 8/11/16:

The Scottish Government commissioned Scottish Natural Heritage to carry out a review of gamebird hunting in selected other countries. This is currently being finalised for submission to Scottish Ministers and we anticipate that it will be published shortly.

It’s now January 2017 and still no sign of the report that was promised “in Autumn 2016”, so Mark Ruskell MSP (Scottish Green Party) has submitted another parliamentary question:

Question S5W-06033 (date lodged 10/1/2017):

To ask the Scottish Government, further to the answer to question S5W-04342 by Roseanna Cunningham on 8 November 2016, on what date the SNH review of gamebird licensing systems in other European countries will be published.

Expected answer date: 24/1/2017.

It is our understanding that the authors of this report submitted their findings to SNH eight months ago, in May 2016. According to the parliamentary answers above, the report was being ‘finalised’ in August and was still being ‘finalised’ in November!

There is great anticipation amongst conservationists to see this report published. The findings are expected to demonstrate just how poorly regulated gamebird hunting is in Scotland in comparison to the more progressive policies implemented in other European countries. If that is what the report’s findings show, this will add considerable pressure on the Scottish Government to introduce a licensing scheme.

Photo by RPUK