Grouse shooting licence move sparks 'dismay'

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Licensing is to be introduced for Scottish shooting estates in a bid to make them more accountable for practices such as raptor persecution.

It comes despite strong opposition from land managers who claim it will make their businesses unprofitable.

The Scottish government said it would bring forward legislation in the next parliamentary term.

It said self-regulation of grouse moors would not be enough to end the illegal persecution of raptors.

A joint statement from rural organisations involved in grouse shooting said they were "dismayed" by the announcement, saying it would be "a seriously damaging blow to fragile rural communities".

The government announcement comes in response to the Werritty report, published in December 2019.

It was ordered after a report by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) - now called Nature Scot - concluded that a third of satellite-tagged golden eagles had disappeared suspiciously.

Its remit was also to look at grouse moor management more broadly after concerns were raised by conservationists about muirburn - where heather moorland is burnt to provide optimum habitats for game birds - and the culling of mountain hares.

Unlicensed culling of mountain hares is also being made illegal.

The report made 58 recommendations but the most controversial was the suggestion of licensing for shooting estates.

It proposed a five-year probationary period to show a "marked improvement in the ecological sustainability of grouse moor management".

Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham responded to the report at the time by saying that if a licensing scheme was required, it should be introduced earlier than suggested by the review.

The Werritty report called for a five-year probation period before making a decision like this.

That would be to give landowners a chance to prove they had got their house in order.

But ministers have decided it will be introduced sooner and that work will begin immediately.

Estates say it will be devastating for them but others argue it is just like the regulation they already have for other parts of the business.

The licensing would shift the burden of proof onto landowners when it comes to wildlife crime.

At the moment, it relies on criminal prosecutions as any kind of deterrent but it is very difficult to secure convictions.

The change would mean the estates would have to respond to claims about raptor persecution or risk losing their licence.

Conservationists say it would mean land managers are much more likely to take the issue seriously.

What has the reaction been?

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation, Scottish Countryside Alliance, Scottish Gamekeepers' Association, Scottish Association for Country Sports and Scottish Land & Estates issued a joint statement in response to the announcement.

It said: "We are dismayed that the Scottish government has not listened to the voice of some of our most fragile communities which are at the heart of a world class rural business sector."

The statement said they had already taken on huge amounts of legislation and regulation and the new scheme "threatens to engulf the sector in a blizzard of red tape that is unprecedented and out of all proportion".

It said they were not reassured by the Scottish government claims moor managers had "nothing to fear".

Scottish Gamekeepers Association chairman Alex Hogg said he was concerned about "spurious" claims against licence holders by people seeking to end grouse shooting in Scotland.

He said: "Ironically, those who lobbied so hard for licensing have no interest in seeing it being a success. For them, this was always a vehicle to agitate for a full ban. Scottish Parliament legislators should not be naive in thinking otherwise."

Mr Hogg said grouse shooting was an important element of Scottish rural life and gamekeepers should get more recognition for the many benefits they deliver.

But the Scottish Wildlife Trust welcomed the announcement.

Its spokeswoman said it would "ensure that driven grouse shooting is managed in a way that delivers better outcomes for our climate and for biodiversity".

The RSPB added that the measures were "entirely proportionate", adding it was important that any future licensing scheme for grouse moors was robust.

"Grouse moor estates who are found to be breaking wildlife protection laws should lose their right to shoot. Only this will act as a genuine deterrent to this still-widespread criminal activity," the charity added.

Scottish Conservative environment spokeswoman Liz Smith said the Scottish government had failed to honour its commitment to judge major environmental decisions on "concrete evidence".

She said the Werritty report had been explicit in saying the licensing for grouse shooting should not happen for five years but ministers ignored its advice.

"Their own research concluded just how important driven grouse shooting is to our rural economy and communities both in terms of jobs and income so this makes no sense whatsoever," Ms Smith said.

Scottish Labour welcomed the plans for a licensing system, saying it was "long overdue".

Environment spokeswoman Claudia Beamish said: "The persecution of wildlife and the illegal shooting of raptors to preserve only grouse for sport must stop and will require additional resourcing for proper enforcement."

The Scottish Lib Dems said the scheme was a positive step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Greens environment spokesman Mark Ruskell said his party was committed to ridding Scotland of grouse moors.

He said it was "outrageous that up to a fifth of Scotland's land is kept barren for a blood sport which causes enormous damage, kills other species and burns valuable peatland".