Leadhills Estate ‘information day’ – an update

Many thanks to several blog readers who attended Leadhills Estate’s ‘Information Day‘ yesterday and sent reports.

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

A number of people have told me that the rumours about the sale of the estate and/or the estate’s shooting rights were ‘categorically denied’ by Lord Andrew Hopetoun himself.

Hmm. Personally, I have zero confidence in anything this former Director of Scottish Land & Estates says after his previous statements about the relationship between the Hopetoun Estate in Edinburgh and the Hopetoun (Leadhills) Estate in South Lanarkshire (see here, here and here for previous blogs on this).

And given some of the statements published on information boards at yesterday’s meeting (see below), it’d hard to keep a straight face when you know that Leadhills Estate is currently serving not one, but TWO General Licence restrictions after the police found ‘clear evidence’ of wildlife crime (see here & here), just the latest in an astonishingly long list (at least 70 reports of alleged raptor persecution there since the early 2000’s).

Obviously, people can draw their own conclusions about what might be going on. Equally, I can draw my own and I can state with absolute certainty that Leadhills Estate will remain high on my watch list.

Here are the display boards from yesterday’s meeting:

Here is the map showing the areas of the estate that have been made available to forestry companies:

Something afoot at Leadhills Estate?

Rumours have been circulating for several weeks that ‘something’ is going on at Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire.

This estate, currently serving TWO General Licence restrictions after police found ‘clear evidence’ of wildlife crime (see here and here), has featured on this blog for years.

The rumours suggest that either the estate has been sold or the shooting rights have been sold, very recently. So far I haven’t seen any evidence to substantiate the claims but the rumours are persistent and are coming from multiple sources.

Leadhills Estate is hosting an ‘information day’ today at Leadhills Village Hall between 3pm-8pm, where the estate will ‘showcase ongoing plans‘. If any local blog readers happen to attend I’d be very interested to hear about it.

UPDATE 5th October 2022: Leadhills Estate ‘information day’ – an update (here)

Millden Estate’s sporting agent signatory to ‘best practice’ scheme!

Millden Estate, the (now former) employer of depraved gamekeeper Rhys Owen Davies, sentenced to jail earlier this month for his crimes including animal cruelty and some pretty serious firearms offences (see here), is managed for gamebird shooting by a sporting agency called BH Sporting Ltd, which is owned solely by Nicholas Baikie.

Shooting estates under the management of Mr Baikie are the subject of many discussions amongst raptor workers and his name often comes up: “Oh, it’s a Baikie estate” is heard with almost as much frequency as, “Oh, it’s an Osborne estate”. I might come back to this in a future blog.

Anyway, these two individuals are associated with the management of many, many shooting estates across Scotland and England since their time at the notorious Leadhills Estate in the early 2000s. Between 2003-2006 Osborne was listed as a Director of Leadhills Sporting Ltd, a company who held the sporting rights at Leadhills. Baikie is reported to have been one of his gamekeepers before apparently training as a land agent under Osborne (according to this court document) and then setting up his own consultancy on grouse moor management, including taking on Millden Estate in the Angus Glens, which has been on Baikie’s books now for many years.

For someone in such high demand in the grouse-shooting world, Baikie keeps a relatively low online profile. Although here’s a photo from the Perthshire Picture Agency, taken in the Angus Glens in 2014. Baikie (on the left) is wearing the Millden Estate tweed and is standing next to a Millden Estate gamekeeper, also in estate tweed and the estate’s uniform of lilac shirt and orange tie.

Now, according to the website of British Game Assurance (formerly the British Game Alliance but rebranded in the last year), BH Sporting is one of a number of sporting agents that have:

COMMITTED TO A GOAL OF OFFERING SPORTING DAYS EXCLUSIVELY ON SHOOTS AND ESTATES THAT ARE MEMBERS OF THE BRITISH GAME ASSURANCE FROM THE START OF THE 2023 SEASON. THIS WILL ENSURE THAT THE PROMOTED VENUES ARE ALL PARTICIPATING IN THE INDEPENDENTLY AUDITED ASSURANCE SCHEME, DEMONSTRATING THAT THE SHOOTING SECTOR IS ADHERING TO BEST PRACTICE AT ALL TIMES‘.

Shurely shome mishtake?

How can BH Sporting (or its sole director, Nick Baikie), be certain that any estate on which it offers shooting ‘is adhering to best practice at all times’?

This is the sporting agency that failed to notice the ‘obvious injuries‘ (quote from the Crown Office) to five of gamekeeper Davies’ dogs. Here’s a photo of two of those mutilated dogs, tied to what looks like an estate vehicle. Pretty hard to miss, I’d say:

This is also the sporting agency that failed to notice the very serious and reckless firearms offences committed by Davies at his tied cottage on Millden Estate.

This is also the sporting agency that failed to notice the three bags of dead raptors reportedly found on Millden Estate during a joint SSPCA/Police Scotland raid in October 2019 and apparently containing at least three shot buzzards.

This is also the sporting agency that failed to notice the ‘horrendous catalogue‘ of wildlife crimes uncovered over many years on Millden Estate (for which Millden Estate has repeatedly denied responsibility and for which nobody has ever been prosecuted).

Funny, all these things this sporting agency failed to notice and yet Nick Baikie was reportedly invited to show around Professor Werritty and co during the Govt-commissioned Werritty Review into grouse moor management, where Millden Estate was held as an example of ‘best practice’. Whose idea was that??!

And now we’re supposed to accept that as from the 2023 shooting season, BH Sporting will only offer shooting on estates that have demonstrated ‘best practice’? What due diligence has the British Game Alliance done on this?

Is Millden Estate registered as a British Game Assurance member? We don’t know, because the names of all the BGA-endorsed shoots were removed from the BGA website several years ago, resulting in criticism of the BGA for its lack of transparency and accuracy (here), two fairly important commodities when you’re asking the public to trust your brand, I’d have thought. But maybe that’s just me.

I’m sure it won’t be the last criticism of the BGA. In fact I know it won’t be the last, because there’s another sporting agent listed on the BGA website whose presence undermines the entire credibility of the BGA and what it claims to represent. More soon.

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.

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)

Leadhills Estate not granted out-of-season muirburn licence this year, but not for the reason you’d expect!

Regular blog readers will know that in some previous years, NatureScot has controversially granted an out-of-season muirburn licence to the notorious Leadhills Estate, permitting the burning of grouse moors in September.

These licences have been controversial for several reasons, including the fact we’re in a climate emergency so setting fire to peatland vegetation doesn’t seem a particularly bright thing to do, but also because since the early 2000s Leadhills Estate has been at the centre of over 70 police investigations into alleged wildlife crime and since 2019 has been serving a three-year General Licence restriction, imposed by NatureScot, after Police Scotland provided ‘clear evidence’ of ongoing wildlife crime, including the illegal killing of a short-eared owl, two buzzards and three hen harriers that were ‘shot or caught in traps’ on Leadhills Estate since 1 January 2014 (see here) and the discovery of banned poisons on the estate in May 2019 (see here).

Why on earth NatureScot should give the estate special dispensation / privileges for anything is beyond comprehension to many of us.

[Muirburn on Leadhills Estate, South Lanarkshire. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

Here’s a recent history I’ve compiled of licence applications for out-of-season muirburning at Leadhills:

2017 – Licence issued (although apparently the estate failed to provide a licence return, which is a breach of the licence conditions).

2018 – The estate did not apply for an out-of-season muirburn licence.

2019 – Licence application made but was refused. The NatureScot assessor wrote: ‘Removing dead Molinia does not constitute a licensable purpose as burning within the muirburn season will achieve this aim and is a common management practice’. And, ‘Evidence of high Molinia not presented [in photographs]’.

2020 – Licence application made. NatureScot refused it but estate appealed and NatureScot caved in and approved the licence.

Some of you may recall that in June this year, Leadhills Estate applied once again to NatureScot for an out-of-season muirburn licence. You may also recall that I’ve spent some time chasing up NatureScot to find out if they’d granted a licence for 2021.

Here’s a summary of the FoI responses I’ve received from NatureScot about this year’s licence application:

17 June 2021 – I asked NatureScot whether a licence application had been received from Leadhills Estate.

15 July 2021 – NatureScot confirmed an application had been received (on 9 June) but said it hadn’t yet been assessed and that they were advising customers that there was a six week waiting time for applications relating to anything other than health and safety purposes.

16 July 2021 – I asked again about the status of the application.

12 August 2021 – NatureScot told me ‘the licensing team intend to assess this application in the next few days’.

1st September 2021 – I asked again about the status of the application (as this was the start date for the out-of-season licence to begin).

2nd September 2021 – NatureScot replied, ‘The licensing team is awaiting for some further information from one of our advisors before taking this further’.

15th September 2021 – I asked again about the status of the application.

16th September 2021 – NatureScot replied, ‘I have chased up licensing team but haven’t heard anything back from them yet’.

30th September 2021 – I asked again about the status of the application.

On 30th September 2021 I received the following response from NatureScot:

This licence application for out of season muirburn has lapsed as we were unable to issue a response within an appropriate timeframe. This is as a result of increased staff workload, in part due to increased levels of sick absence which has resulted in us needing to prioritise applications for public health and safety and the prevention of serious damage‘.

So, Leadhills Estate did not get an out-of-season muirburn licence this year, but only because NatureScot didn’t have the resources to deal with the application in time.

I find this astonishing, especially now that we know that at exactly the same time this muirburn licence application was being considered, NatureScot had already begun the process of notifying Leadhills Estate that it was about to impose a second General Licence restriction (in addition to the 3-year restriction Leadhills was currently serving) after Police Scotland provided more evidence to NatureScot of more wildlife crime on Leadhills Estate, including the alleged shooting of a 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), the discovery of yet another batch of banned poisons, also in July 2020 (here), and the suspicious disappearance on the estate of a satellite-tagged hen harrier (Silver) in May 2020 (here).

Sure, Leadhills Estate is entitled to apply for whatever special dispensation/privilege it wants, and as a statutory agency NatureScot is probably compelled to consider it. But let’s just set aside the fact that COP26 was due to begin just up the road a few weeks later, drawing attention to and asking commitment for tackling the climate crisis (for example, by not burning peatland grouse moors, perhaps?).

Apart from that small matter, how long should it take NatureScot to consider an application from an estate with this sort of record before concluding that NO, given the regulator has lost trust and confidence in this estate (hence NatureScot imposing TWO General Licence restrictions, FFS), an application for any special dispensation should be refused, point blank?

Leadhills Estate loses appeal over extension to General Licence restriction

Regular blog readers will be well aware that 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 a three-year General Licence restriction based on what NatureScot described as ‘clear evidence’ of raptor persecution offences, including the illegal killing of a short-eared owl, two buzzards and three hen harriers that were ‘shot or caught in traps’ on Leadhills Estate since 1 January 2014 (see here) and the discovery of banned poisons on the estate in May 2019 (see here).

That original General Licence restriction was imposed on Leadhills Estate by NatureScot in November 2019 and is valid until November 2022.

A General Licence restriction can be imposed by NatureScot when there is sufficient evidence of wildlife crime on an estate but insufficient evidence for the police to charge a named individual. Leadhills Estate has denied all knowledge of any wildlife crime on its land.

[Chris Packham holds a dead hen harrier. This bird was caught by the leg in an illegally-set trap on the Leadhills Estate grouse moor in May 2019. The trap had been set next to the harrier’s nest and was hidden by moss. The harrier’s leg was almost severed. Unfortunately, extensive surgery could not save this bird. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

Since that original General Licence restriction was imposed on Leadhills Estate in November 2019, further alleged offences have been reported and are the subject of ongoing police investigations (see here) including 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.

In light of these latest allegations, in late September 2021 NatureScot announced that a further three-year General Licence restriction (an extension to the first one) was being imposed on Leadhills Estate (here), although it turned out that it wasn’t a three-year extension, as NatureScot had claimed, but was rather an eight-month extension because this latest restriction was running concurrently with the first restriction (see here).

In early October 2021 Leadhills Estate was reported to be considering appealing against the extended restriction (here) and shortly afterwards NatureScot removed the official notification of the extension from its website, a sure sign that an appeal was underway.

Roll on two months and the official notification has been re-posted on NatureScot’s website (here), which I take to mean that Leadhills Estate has lost its appeal and the General Licence restriction has been re-instated until it expires on 8th July 2023. This means that the estate cannot undertake certain activities (e.g. the operation of crow cage traps to kill hundreds of corvids) unless estate gamekeepers apply to NatureScot for an individual licence and NatureScot approves the application(s).

I’ll be monitoring this and will be keen to see whether individual licences are granted to gamekeepers on an estate that has had, in effect, a double General Licence restriction imposed after evidence of multiple wildlife crimes has been provided to NatureScot by Police Scotland.

Earlier this autumn I submitted an FoI to NatureScot to find out on what basis Leadhills Estate was appealing the General Licence restriction. The last time the estate appealed (against the original General Licence restriction), the grounds for appeal were laughable (see here) and were not accepted by NatureScot.

This time, NatureScot refused to release the details of the estate’s appeal because at the time the appeal was considered to be ‘live’ and it was thought that publication might affect the estate’s right to a fair hearing. I don’t know how it would have affected the estate’s appeal, given the appeal is heard in-house at NatureScot and cannot be influenced by outside commentary, but that was NatureScot’s decision.

That’s fine. Now the appeal has been dismissed and the restriction is in place, I have submitted another FoI to NatureScot and I expect the estate’s grounds for appeal to be released in to the public domain.

A response is due from NatureScot by the end of this month. I’ll keep you posted.

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

Leadhills Estate’s reaction to extended General Licence restriction

Last week I blogged about how NatureScot has extended the General Licence restriction on the notorious Leadhills Estate after receiving more evidence of wildlife crime (see here). The extension was supposedly for a further three years for alleged offences that were uncovered in July 2020, but in effect is only for eight months because it is running concurrently with the original three year restriction imposed on the estate in November 2019 (see here).

A few days after news of the restriction extension emerged, an unnamed spokesperson for Leadhills Estate has told a journalist at The Herald that the estate is ‘actively considering’ an appeal against the extended restriction and claims not to have seen the evidence behind the restriction decision. The link to the article is here but I’ve cut and pasted it below for posterity:

A sporting estate whose ban from shooting or trapping wild birds has been extended for a further two years has said it is considering an appeal against the ruling

Scottish Government conservation body NatureScot has said that the restriction on “general licenses” at the Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire will now last until 2023 after additional evidence was uncovered.

However, a spokesman for Leadhills has questioned the justification for the extra two-year prohibition, saying that it has not been shown the evidence behind the decision. 

The killing of wild birds has been prohibited on the estate since 2019 in response to police evidence of crimes against wild birds occurring on the land.

This included signs of the illegal killing of raptors, chiefly three hen harriers, one short-eared owl and two buzzards, and the illegal disturbance of a wild bird nest.

Leadhills Estate encompasses approximately 19,500 acres, mixed between farming and grouse moors. It is owned by two Trusts, the Leadhills Trust and Glengeith Trust.

The estate’s spokesman said: “The estate is extremely disappointed by this decision and is actively considering an appeal against it.

We have yet to see the evidence leading to this decision and have been requesting this information from the relevant authorities.

Without that evidence, we question the justification for such a decision, which is likely to have an impact on wildlife on the estate.”

General licences are granted to landowners or land managers to carry out actions which would otherwise be illegal, including controlling common species of wild birds to protect crops or livestock.

The spokesman added: “There has been no commercial driven grouse shooting on the estate for several years and the moorland is managed on a care and maintenance basis.

“The estate has a zero tolerance approach to wildlife crime and has robust compliance systems in place.

“Employees are fully aware of their responsibilities with regard to the conservation of wildlife and we are confident that wildlife crimes have not been committed by anyone employed on the estate.”

ENDS

It seems very strange to me that Leadhills Estate claims to be ‘actively considering’ an appeal at this stage. If you read the protocol and process used by NatureScot when making restriction decisions (and decisions to extend the original extension), you’ll see that there are multiple opportunities for an estate to make appeals and challenge the decision, well before now (see here).

Indeed, Leadhills Estate will be very familiar with this appeal process, having gone through it when the original three-year restriction was imposed in November 2019 (and it’s well worth reading the Estate’s appeal letter for it’s comedic value – see here).

It also sounds strange that Leadhills Estate claims not to have been provided with the evidence to justify the restriction extension. Again, have a look at the decision-making process used by NatureScot, particularly this paragraph about notification:

The Head of Wildlife Management will notify the owners and occupiers of the land in respect of which a restriction is recommended (“the Affected Parties”), in writing (“the Notification”). The notification will include a summary of the evidence on which the recommendation is based and will set out the reasons, the land to which the recommended restriction would apply and the duration of the recommended restriction (“the Decision Notice”). The possibility of a restriction being imposed will also be discussed with Police Scotland to ensure there is no risk to any potential prosecutions‘.

Given how risk averse NatureScot is, and its conservative approach when it comes to dealing with General Licence restrictions, I find it very hard to believe that NatureScot staff wouldn’t have followed the protocol and process to the letter.

It couldn’t be that Leadhills Estate is just grandstanding for the press, could it?

Time will tell. I’ve requested details of the correspondence between Leadhills Estate and NatureScot via a freedom of information request.

Extension of General Licence restriction at Leadhills Estate confirmed as pitiful 8 months

Yesterday I blogged (here) about the extended General Licence restriction that has been imposed on Leadhills Estate after further evidence of wildlife crime had come to light since an original three-year restriction was imposed (to run 26 Nov 2019 – 26 Nov 2022).

[The grouse moors of Leadhills Estate. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

However, there was some confusion from the licencing agency, NatureScot, as to just how long this extension was applicable.

Robbie Kernahan, NatureScot’s s Director of Sustainable Growth was quoted in a NatureScot announcement saying ‘…there is enough evidence to suspend the general licences on this property for a further three years‘, which should have taken the restriction to November 2025 but when I looked at the actual detail of the extension on another part of the NatureScot website, the expiry date of the extension was given as 8th July 2023.

I contacted NatureScot’s licensing team this morning and asked them to clarify the apparent discrepancy. I am grateful to Licensing Manager Liz McLachlan for a prompt and clear explanation, as follows:

We have amended the statement on our web-pages as we accept there was some ambiguity in the original wording which you have picked up on. To clarify, the 3 year extension to the restriction is from the date of the most recent (additional) offence, as recorded by Police Scotland, which takes the restriction to July 2023.

For completeness the restriction is from 8 July 2020 to 8 July 2023‘.

I have looked at the amended statement from Robbie Kernahan which now reads:

In this case we have concluded that there is enough evidence to suspend the general licences on this property until 2023‘.

So effectively, this ‘three year extension’ isn’t actually a three-year extension at all. Technically it might be, but in effect it’s actually only an eight month extension because the estate is already serving the original General Licence restriction up until 26 November 2022, so imposing another restriction for the period 8 July 2020 to 26 November 2022, on top of the one already being served, is utterly pointless.

The 8-month extension from 27 November 2022 to 8 July 2023 is the only part of this ‘extended’ restriction that will have any real effect.

And apparently the estate has already served 14 months of the extension, given that it began in July 2020! Why has it taken 14 months for NatureScot to publicise this extended restriction? When was the estate notified of this further restriction? And has it made any difference whatsoever to the estate’s activities, given that the original restriction was already underway (since November 2019)?

And if this extension was in place since July 2020, then why the hell did NatureScot give Leadhills Estate special privileges last year when it granted an out-of-season muirburn licence in September 2020??

What sort of idiotic ‘sanction’ is this? An eight month General Licence restriction for the shooting of a short-eared owl, which is the alleged offence that this extension is based upon. Well that’s really going to put the fear of God up other would-be raptor killers, isn’t it?

It’s a pitiful response.

I don’t know if it’s a result of legal limitations (e.g. can this legal sanction be lawfully applied several years after the original offence?) or if it’s a result of professional incompetence by NatureScot.

I have submitted an FoI to NatureScot to ask for details of the decision-making process in this case and will blog when I receive a response.

[Short-eared owl by Amy Lewis]

Leadhills Estate – General Licence restriction extended after police report more evidence of wildlife crime

Regular blog readers will be well aware that 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 a three-year General Licence restriction based on ‘clear evidence’ of raptor persecution offences, including the illegal killing of a short-eared owl, two buzzards and three hen harriers that were ‘shot or caught in traps’ on Leadhills Estate since 1 January 2014 (see here) and the discovery of banned poisons on the estate in May 2019 (see here).

That original General Licence restriction was imposed on Leadhills Estate by NatureScot in November 2019 and is valid until November 2022.

[Chris Packham holds a dead hen harrier. This bird was caught by the leg in an illegally-set trap on the Leadhills Estate grouse moor in May 2019. The trap had been set next to the harrier’s nest and was hidden by moss. The harrier’s leg was almost severed. Unfortunately, extensive surgery could not save this bird. Photo by Ruth Tingay]

However, since that original restriction was imposed on Leadhills Estate in November 2019, further alleged offences have been reported and are the subject of ongoing police investigations (see here) including 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 count 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.

It’s been over a year since those further alleged offences were reported and we’ve all been waiting to see whether NatureScot would impose a further General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate. Instead, the licensing team appears to have been focusing on helping out the estate by issuing it with an out-of-season muirburn licence last year (see here) and considering another application from the estate this year (see here). It really beggars belief.

Anyway, NatureScot has finally got its act together and has indeed imposed a further General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate. Here is the statement on the NatureScot website:

29 September 2021

NatureScot has extended the restriction of the use of general licences on Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire until 2023. The decision was made on the basis of additional evidence provided by Police Scotland of wildlife crime against birds.

General licences allow landowners or land managers to carry out actions which would otherwise be illegal, including controlling common species of wild birds to protect crops or livestock.

A restriction of the use of general licences was implemented on Leadhills estate in November 2019, in response to police evidence of crimes against wild birds occurring on the land. This decision extends the period of the existing restriction.

Robbie Kernahan, NatureScot’s s Director of Sustainable Growth, said: “It is hugely disappointing to have to be considering further issues of wildlife crime against wild birds and we are committed to using the tools we have available to us in tackling this. In this case we have concluded that there is enough evidence to suspend the general licences on this property for a further three years. They may still apply for individual licences, but -if granted – these will be closely monitored.

We work closely with Police Scotland and will continue to consider information they provide us on cases which may warrant restriction of general licences. The detection of wildlife crime can be difficult but new and emerging technologies along with a commitment from a range of partners to take a collective approach to these issues will help us stop this from occurring in the future.”

ENDS

NatureScot’s Robbie Kernahan is quoted here as saying the General Licence restriction will apply “for a further three years“, which should take the restriction up to November 2025.

However, when you look at the actual restriction notice on NatureScot’s website, it says the restriction will extend to July 2023.

Eh? That’s not a three-year extension. That’s only an eight-month extension. I sincerely hope this is just a typo and the date should read November 2025.

It’s good to see NatureScot finally get on with this but I have to say that given there’s a need for an extension of the original General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate, due to further evidence from Police Scotland about ongoing alleged wildlife crime there, doesn’t that demonstrate just how ineffective the General Licence restriction is as a tool for tackling wildlife crime??

I’ve written many times about the futility of this scheme, and have even presented evidence about it to a Parliamentary committee, not least because even when a General Licence restriction has been imposed, estate employees can simply apply to NatureScot for an individual licence to continue doing exactly what they were doing under the (now restricted) General Licence (e.g. see here)!

And although former Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse, who was responsible for first introducing General Licence restrictions in 2014, considered that it would work as a ‘reputational driver’ (here), I’ve previously shown with several examples how this is simply not the case (e.g. see here) and that a General Licence restriction remains an ineffective sanction.

Nevertheless, it’s all we’ve got available at the moment and on that basis I would like to see NatureScot now get on with making decisions about restrictions on a number of other estates, such as Invercauld Estate in the Cairngorms National Park where a poisoned golden eagle was found dead next to a poisoned bait earlier this year (here).

And Invercauld isn’t the only estate that should be sanctioned, is it, NatureScot?

UPDATE 30th September 2021: Extension of General Licence restriction at Leadhills Estate confirmed as pitiful 8 months (here).

UPDATE 6th October 2021: Leadhills Estate’s reaction to extended General Licence restriction (here).

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

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