In late November 2019 Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) imposed a three-year General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate, South Lanarkshire, after receiving what it described as “clear evidence” of wildlife crimes from Police Scotland (see here, here and here).
Those alleged offences included 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 (when SNH was given the power to impose a General Licence restriction on estates or individuals in Scotland). SNH has also claimed that ‘wild birds’ nests have also been disturbed’, although there is no further detail on this. The estate has consistently denied responsibility.
[The body of a shot short-eared owl that was found shoved under some heather on Leadhills Estate in May 2017. Photo by RSPB Scotland]
The General Licence restriction was imposed on Leadhills Estate on 26 November 2019.
It lasted for just 14 days.
On 10 December 2019, a notice appeared on SNH’s website announcing that the restriction had been lifted due to an on-going appeal:
This means that Leadhills Estate can, until further notice, go back to using General Licences 1, 2 & 3 to lawfully kill hundreds if not thousands of certain bird species (e.g. crows) on the estate without having to report its activities to anybody.
Leadhills Estate is perfectly entitled to appeal SNH’s decision to impose the General Licence restriction. SNH has a clearly-explained policy on its appeals procedure, which states an appeal must be made within 14 days of SNH’s decision to impose the restriction and that appeal must be in writing. From the information available in the public domain it looks like Leadhills Estate has met this deadline.
An appeal has the immediate effect of suspending the General Licence restriction from the date SNH receives the appeal letter. SNH now has to consider the appeal and must notify the estate of the appeal outcome in writing, setting out the reasons behind the decision. SNH says it will seek do this within four weeks of receiving the appeal letter.
We’ll be monitoring this case very carefully.
There’s quite a lot of deja vu going on here. You might remember that Raeshaw Estate (Scottish Borders) was one of the first to be slapped with a General Licence restriction back in November 2015 (see here). That restriction only lasted for six days before the estate appealed (see here). The appeal failed and two and half months later the General Licence restriction was re-imposed on the estate (see here).
However, a couple of months later the General Licence restriction was suspended again when Raeshaw Estate took SNH to judicial review (see here). Raeshaw lost the judicial review when the court decided SNH had acted fairly so the General Licence restriction was re-instated on the estate, again, approximately one year later (see here). Interestingly, SNH did not backdate the restriction order so effectively Raeshaw Estate didn’t serve a full three-year restriction at all, thanks to all the legal disruption.
During this time Raeshaw employees also applied for individual licences to permit the continued killing of birds on the estate (e.g. 1,000 birds reported killed under one of these licences, see here), but then even the individual licence was revoked after SNH found ‘multiple instances of breaches of conditions of an individual licence that had been granted to cover essential management activities‘ (see here). SNH also said ‘These breaches may also constitute offences under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, so SNH has reported the details to Police Scotland‘. We’re not aware of any pending prosecution in relation to these alleged offences. And SNH chose not to extend the General Licence restriction further, in light of these breaches, even though it had the powers to do so (see here).
The link between Raeshaw Estate and Leadhills Estate, apart from them both being grouse shooting estates and the subject of a General Licence restriction for ‘clear evidence of wildlife crime’? Leading sporting agent and grouse moor ‘guru’ Mark Osborne, whose company J M Osborne & Co is believed to be involved at both estates (involved as in ‘present’, not involved as in ‘guilty of wildlife crime’ – SNH has made clear that a General Licence restriction does not infer responsibility for the commission of crimes on any individuals).
Also of interest, to us at least, is the ownership of Leadhills Estate, which has belonged to the same family (the Hopetouns) for more than 300 years, according to the estate’s website:
It’s also of great interest that not only is Leadhills Estate a member of Scottish Land & Estates (who, incidentally, have said absolutely nothing about this General Licence restriction so far), but that Lord Hopetoun is chair of Scottish Land & Estate’s Scottish Moorland Group:
If Leadhills Estate’s appeal fails and SNH re-instates the General Licence restriction, we’ll be expecting a full response from both Scottish Land & Estates and the Scottish Moorland Group.
UPDATE 9 January 2020: Decision due on General Licence restriction for Leadhills Estate (here)