The group had a clear remit: to examine the environmental impact of grouse moor management practices such as muirburn, the use of medicated grit and mountain hare culls and to advise on the option of licensing grouse shooting businesses. The group was part of a package of measures aimed at tackling the on-going and abhorrent issue of wildlife crime, particularly raptor persecution.
The cabinet secretary’s decision to form the review group was prompted by NatureScot’s May 2017 report, which found that around a third of satellite-tagged golden eagles in Scotland disappeared in suspicious circumstances on or around grouse moors. The Government has stated repeatedly that we intend to bring an end to the illegal killing of raptors and to bring in whatever measures are necessary to achieve that. Addressing wildlife crime remains a key priority for the Government and for me personally.
The independent grouse moor management report, which is also known as the Werritty report, was published in December last year. I would like to record my thanks to Professor Werritty, the members of the review group and their advisers for undertaking their work, as well as the broad range of stakeholders who contributed their views and experience.
Grouse moor management is a complex and controversial issue. It attracts strong views and a great deal of public interest, and I do not underestimate the challenges faced by the review group. I hope that we can all agree that its report takes a comprehensive, evidence-led and balanced approach to the key issues surrounding the management of grouse moors in 21st century Scotland.
I have given full consideration to the recommendations and findings of the grouse moor management group, alongside the evidence that it gave to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee earlier this year. I have reviewed the findings from phases 1 and 2 of the Scottish Government-commissioned research on the socioeconomic and biodiversity impacts of grouse moor management. I have also taken into account the recommendations of the independent deer working group and the Committee on Climate Change’s report where they relate to relevant activities such as muirburn.
I have considered all the evidence and views put forward by stakeholders, including through meetings with, for example, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Revive coalition, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. I thank everyone who took the time to share their views with ministers and officials.
After taking into account all that evidence, I have reached the conclusion that there is a need for greater oversight of the practices associated with grouse moor management, including muirburn and the culling of mountain hares.
The key recommendation put forward in the Werritty report is that
“a licensing scheme be introduced for the shooting of grouse”.
That is a recommendation that I accept. However, although I understand why the review group recommended that such a scheme should be introduced if, after five years,
“there is no marked improvement in the ecological sustainability of grouse moor management”,
I believe that the Government needs to act sooner than that and begin developing a licensing scheme now.
As was recently published in our phase 2 research, we recognise the contribution that grouse shooting makes to the rural economy and that the majority of those who are tasked with managing land already follow best practice guidance and care deeply about the countryside and the land that they manage. I cannot, though, ignore the fact that some of the practices associated with grouse moor management, such as muirburn and the use of medicated grit, have the potential to cause serious harm to the environment if the correct procedures are not followed. Neither can I ignore the fact that, despite our many attempts to address this issue, every year, birds of prey continue to be killed or disappear in suspicious circumstances on or around grouse moors.
Since 2007, the Scottish Government has undertaken a range of measures to tackle wildlife crime, including the introduction of vicarious liability, a poisons disposal scheme and restrictions on licences for those operating on land where it is suspected that wildlife crime has taken place. The fact that raptor persecution continues in spite of all those measures suggests that, although regulation from within the grouse shooting industry can be an important factor in driving behavioural change, self-regulation alone will not be enough to end the illegal killing of raptors, and further intervention is now required.
There are many forms that a licensing scheme could take, and I do not propose to go through them all here. We will consult on the detail of the scheme in due course. The basic proposition, however, is that a licence will be required to operate a driven grouse moor business and that, if there is strong evidence of unlawful activity or serious breaches of codes of practice by that business, its licence could be withdrawn.
I recognise that that is a serious sanction, so we would take steps to ensure that no credence was given to any vexatious or malicious claims of malpractice. By introducing licensing arrangements in that way, we will bring our system closer into line with those that apply in other comparable countries, where greater regulation of shooting and hunting is the norm, in order to protect animal welfare and avoid damage to the environment and biodiversity.
When developing the licensing scheme, we will work closely with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, Scottish Land & Estates, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and others who represent those who are involved in managing and taking part in grouse shooting.
I will now turn to some of the report’s other recommendations. Muirburn is a complex issue, and the research to date suggests that it can have both beneficial and adverse effects. If it is undertaken without due consideration of all the possible consequences, it has the potential to have a serious negative impact on wildlife and the wider environment. However, it can also bring positive benefits in some cases—for example, by helping to reduce fuel loads, thereby reducing the risk of wildfires. Although I do not believe that a full ban on muirburn, which some have called for, is either necessary or warranted, I am, however, clear that additional regulation, particularly in relation to muirburn on peatland, is required.
In the future, muirburn will be permitted only under licence from NatureScot, regardless of the time of year when it is undertaken, and there will be a statutory ban on burning on peatland except under licence for strictly limited purposes such as habitat restoration.
To reflect the fact that muirburn is undertaken throughout Scotland for a variety of purposes, the measures will apply to all muirburn, not just when it is undertaken in relation to grouse moor management. We will also revisit the definition of “peatland” and take expert advice on whether it should be revised and a stricter definition imposed.
Although some of the measures go further than the recommendations made by the review group, I believe that they are necessary to protect our environment, particularly our peatlands, which, as I know everyone here understands, play a crucial role in our carbon storage and climate change mitigation strategies.
Lastly, I will address some of the recommendations on medicated grit and mountain hares.
On medicated grit, which is a veterinary preparation that is used to suppress parasitic worms in grouse, the Werritty report recommended that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency should initiate a desk-based study to ascertain whether residues of the active chemical flubendazole are present in water bodies. The report also recommended that NatureScot should publish a code of practice on the use of medicated grit and that all land managers should adhere to the code to prevent any risk of contamination or of the substance reaching the human food chain. I can confirm today that the SEPA study has been concluded and that the Government will work with stakeholders to produce guidance on best management practices for the use of medicated grit. We will also convene an expert group to study how best to monitor compliance with the code of practice.
As everyone in the chamber will be aware, earlier this year, the Scottish Parliament voted to support a stage 3 amendment to the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill. The amendment, which granted full protected species status to mountain hares, meets and, in some respects, goes further than the recommendations made by the Werritty review group. The arrangements for the licensing of mountain hare control, where that is deemed necessary, are being progressed as part of the implementation work for the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020.
Turning to what happens next, the Government will shortly introduce a Scottish statutory instrument to commence the provisions in the 2020 act, which give greater protection to mountain hares. We intend that the new arrangements will come into effect at the end of February 2021. Therefore, the open season for killing mountain hares that finishes on that date will be the last such season.
If re-elected, this Government will introduce the necessary legislation in the next Parliament to license grouse moor management and to strengthen the existing legislation on muirburn, including through the introduction of a range of appropriate penalties that could be applied in cases of non-compliance. Any new legislation will, of course, be preceded by full consultation in the normal way.
The Werritty report made more than 40 recommendations, and I am conscious that I have not covered them all. We will publish a full response to all the recommendations later today, alongside SEPA’s desk-based study.
I know that the measures that I have announced today will not be welcomed by everyone. Some will be concerned at what they perceive to be interference in legitimate land management activities. No doubt, others will feel that the Government has not gone far enough. However, it is clear to me that we could not continue with the status quo. We all benefit from our natural environment and we all have a responsibility to ensure that it is not only protected but enriched.
The changes that I have announced strike what I believe to be the right balance. They are not designed to bring an end to grouse shooting. Indeed, those businesses that comply with the law should have no problems at all with licensing. Crucially, however, where there is clear evidence that that is not happening, where agreed standards are not being adhered to or where there is evidence of illegal raptor persecution, there will be a range of effective and transparent mechanisms in place to allow us to address such behaviour.
I look forward to discussing the measures with members of the Parliament and key stakeholders during the coming months.
I thank the minister for prior sight of her statement. I welcome the fact that, after a lengthy and costly delay, the Scottish Government has finally responded to this important review. There can be absolutely no doubt that its response will matter hugely for the future of our rural communities, many of which have been suffering from significant fragility in recent years and especially during the pandemic. The Scottish Government knows, too, that such communities are essential to Scotland’s green recovery and economic regeneration, and in tackling the deplorable activity of raptor crime. However, many of them will be deeply disturbed by key aspects of the Scottish Government’s response. I therefore ask the minister to respond to the following important questions.
Given that the Scottish Government has committed to basing its policy on clear evidence, why has it chosen to move against the very clear recommendation of the Werritty review that there should be a period of five years in which to collect the necessary evidence from ecological studies before any decision is made about licensing? That is surely contrary to the stated aims of the Scottish Government.
The minister has said that she has not yet decided which type of licensing scheme will be implemented. Could she give some idea of who is intended to be the licensee under the scheme? Would it be the landowner, the land occupier or the shooting tenant? That was not clear from the minister’s statement, which referred simply to a “shooting business”. That definition would have to be tightened up.
Lastly, what burden of proof would be used to revoke any licence?
I thank Liz Smith for those important questions. I will try to respond to them all.
On her first point, about the Werritty group’s recommendation on waiting for five years before licensing, we must look at exactly what that would have entailed. As the member, and others across the chamber, will be aware, on such matters there are many on-going issues that we have been attempting to deal with for some time—I mentioned some of the measures that we have introduced since 2007—yet such problems have persisted. If we were to wait for five years, that would not take into account the fact that, after that five-year period, we then have to potentially consider all the licensing issues that we are currently considering. We must also be cognisant that that would involve making changes to primary legislation, which of course takes more time. We could therefore be looking at another eight years before being able to enact all those changes, which is just too far away. We have had such problems for a number of years—we need to do what we can to deal with them now.
As members will be aware from the evidence that was given by Professor Alan Werritty and other members of the grouse moor management group to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, that decision was not exactly unanimous. There were very particular reasons for settling on a five-year time limit.
I understand that such issues will be concerning for those who manage our land and work in the grouse shooting industry. However, I reiterate what I said in my statement: those who are already managing the land as best they can and abiding by the law—which is the majority of those affected—have nothing to fear from a licensing system. It is not designed to catch them out; its aim is to tackle the persistent issues that have remained despite all the other measures that we have put in place. To illustrate that point, I highlight the evidence that the committee took from Professor Alison Hester:
“If a land manager is currently managing their land according to the best available knowledge, which may be drawn from the codes of practice, a licensing scheme should make no change—plus or minus—because that land is already being managed as well as it can be. A change should only occur if the land is not currently being managed in the best possible way. Anyone who is managing their land well should not see any change if the licensing scheme is introduced.”—[
Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee
, 21 January 2020; c 15.]
On her other questions about the type of scheme and to whom licensing would apply, I advise Liz Smith that all such matters will form part of our considerations as we progress our proposals.
I thank the minister for prior sight of her statement. Scottish Labour has long called for a licensing system and the minister’s statement today is welcome for the sake of the nature and climate emergencies that we face and the sustainable future of rural economies.
In view of the gravity of the situation, will the minister reconsider and commit today or in the near future to bringing forward a consultation on licensing in this parliamentary session, in spite of the many other challenges? Does she agree that the estimated 1 million hectares of Scotland used as driven grouse moors are an example of the injustice inherent in Scotland’s land ownership and land use patterns?
The Scottish Government’s response to the League Against Cruel Sports report, which found that nearly half of the animals that are killed in killing devices in Scotland, such as hedgehogs and dippers, are not target animals is disappointing. Will the minister agree to look at that as part of the possibilities of licensing as we go forward?
The changes that we would need to make in order to introduce licensing would require changes to primary legislation. As members will be aware, we simply do not have the time, within what is left of this parliamentary session, to do all the work that we would need to do to bring forward such legislation.
However, I assure Claudia Beamish and all members that that does not mean that work will not start now; it will be starting now, to lay the way and prepare all the groundwork for the work that we will then need to do as part of the next parliamentary session. I want to give her an assurance on that.
I thank the minister for working with the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee on this issue and for the very welcome measures and the swift application of them that she has announced today.
For decades, people throughout Scotland have raised concerns that driven grouse moors have a destructive effect on Scotland’s biodiversity. How will those concerns be addressed by the measures that were outlined in today’s statement?
I thank Gillian Martin for that question, because I hope that the recommendations that we have announced today in response to the Werritty report will have a significant effect on supporting biodiversity. The primary objective of the Werritty report was to address the illegal killing of raptors, and if we can reduce that absolutely abhorrent crime, we can help to protect the populations of some of our rarest species and some of the most iconic species that we have in Scotland, such as the golden eagle and the hen harrier.
I do not need to tell Gillian Martin this, as she is the committee’s convener, but I know that Professor Werritty said in his evidence to the ECCLR Committee that if grouse shooting were to be licensed and that was successful, the conservation of hen harriers would be considerably enhanced.
We believe that the tighter regulation of muirburn will also protect the habitat of species such as ground-nesting birds and that tighter regulation of trapping will reduce the risk of non-target species such as dippers and red squirrels being caught. In all those ways and more, these changes will protect and nurture our precious biodiversity; I know that people across Scotland would want that.
The independent review pointed to the lack of an agreed definition of a grouse shooting business as a key barrier to proposals around licensing. Although I appreciate what the minister said about moving towards a consultation on details of the scheme, businesses have already expressed considerable concerns about these proposals and will want to know as soon as possible how they will be impacted.
Can the minister indicate, at least for now, what work has been done on identifying which businesses will be affected and, further, what discussions she will have with those businesses directly, ahead of any formal consultation?
Our current licensing proposals would apply to driven grouse shooting. However, again, we need to tease out a lot of these issues and we need to look at them in more detail. I assure the member and all members across the chamber that, in formulating our response to the
Werritty report, we undertook engagement with all interested parties and such engagement will be absolutely vital to the work that we do.
I fully intend to engage with people; my officials will engage with them too, because when we are making these changes, we must of course include and hear from the people that will be affected by them. I give the member and other members the assurance that we will undertake that engagement; we will have a full consultation as part of that, so we will be taking on board all those views.
I welcome all the actions that are detailed in the minister’s statement. However, by way of clarification, will the minister outline who will oversee the licensing regime and how it will interact with criminal investigations, which are the responsibility of the police?
As I said in previous answers, we will set out our proposals for a future licensing scheme in due course. However, it is likely that NatureScot would be responsible for issuing licences and monitoring compliance with the licensing conditions. When it comes to criminal investigations or suspicions of criminal activity, Police Scotland will continue to be responsible for investigating any allegations.
I, too, welcome the Scottish Government’s announcement. I particularly welcome the introduction of a licence scheme for grouse shooting, which is a step in the right direction. However, when it comes to raptor persecution and illegal killings, what action does the Scottish Government plan to take to ensure that those responsible face penalties for their illegal actions? The killing of wild birds of prey is already illegal yet, despite widely publicised incidents, there have been zero prosecutions in Scotland. What measures can the Government take on top of licensing grouse moors to ensure the protection of our iconic wild birds of prey?
That is why we have already taken measures. Wildlife crime, by its nature and because of where it takes place, presents issues with evidence gathering, which can be difficult. It can be difficult to prove crimes. As part of our approach, we have provided extra resources to Police Scotland to enable it to better police wildlife crime as far as possible.
The member will be aware of the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020, which the Parliament passed earlier this year, in which we significantly increased the penalties for such crimes in order to recognise their seriousness. The act also provides more time to investigate some crimes and has an impact on when and how surveillance can take place. Therefore, a lot of measures have already been introduced. I believe that introducing licensing will help to complete the package so that we really can end these abhorrent crimes once and for all.
Professor Werritty writes in his report that, when he accepted the invitation to lead the review, he did not fully appreciate
“the complexity of the issues involved, the passion with which contrasting views were held nor the length of time the review would require.”
I feel that, today, the minister has achieved a very difficult balance between estates and gamekeepers, and environmental non-governmental organisations, so I thank her for that.
What can now be done to build trust and to get stakeholders together in a constructive and positive manner?
Gail Ross raises an important point. As she mentions, in the opening of the report, Professor Werritty identifies the passion and strength of feeling on both sides, which he had not fully appreciated. I am acutely aware of that as, in my role, I often have to deal with some of those complex issues. All too often, the issues are portrayed in a very black and white way when, in reality, they are never that straightforward. There is a lack of trust and understanding on both sides, and that feeds into and leads to completely polarised opinions. I genuinely hope that the measures that I have outlined will bring greater transparency, which in turn can help to build trust. The member raises a vital point that I hope we can develop and build on.
The Greens welcome the proposals on muirburn, but licensing schemes are only as effective as the aims of those who design them, and it appears that the proposed licensing scheme could end up being designed by the usual suspects, who every week take to social media to deny that there is a wildlife problem on—[
.]. That would be like putting arsonists in charge of a fire station.
Will the minister put the interests of wildlife at the centre of the design of a licensing scheme by including in the process RSPB Scotland, the SWT, the Scottish Raptor Study Group and the SSPCA? Will she ensure that any licensing scheme is linked to a statutory code of practice? Will she give clarity on the timescale for its introduction?
As I said in my response to Jamie Halcro Johnston, there will be a consultation before any licensing scheme is introduced. It is in our best interests to engage with all interested parties, and we have sought to do that throughout the process. The consultation will include those who would have to apply for a licence and those who would be responsible for operating those licences. We will take the views of all those parties into consideration.
Mark Ruskell asked about timescales. Changes to primary legislation will be required and it is not possible for us to introduce the necessary legislation in the time that we have left in the current parliamentary session. However, the work will start now. Although we cannot make the necessary changes to primary legislation just yet, that does not mean that no work will be done. We will get started on that work immediately.
Scottish Liberal Democrats have been calling for licensing of driven grouse moors, so I very much welcome the minister’s statement. There needs to be a better balance in the interests of animal welfare, the environment and biodiversity. As the minister said, that can protect responsible operators, too.
Subject to the outcome of the election, the Government says that it will legislate in the next session of Parliament, but will it consult on provisions in the remainder of the current session? Will that consultation include a draft bill?
I will be happy to keep Liam McArthur—and any other member who seeks that information—updated on the matter. It is not possible for me to set out in stone today when the consultation will take place, because a lot of groundwork needs to be done before we reach that stage, and we need to shape what a scheme will look like. I assure him that we will make as much progress as we can in the time that remains in the current session, and I will be more than happy to keep him updated on that work as it progresses.
I repeat that the Scottish Conservatives absolutely condemn in the strongest terms the abhorrent persecution of raptors.
The minister has stated that some of the proposed measures go further than the review group’s recommendations because she believes that they are necessary to protect our environment, but can she direct members to her scientific evidence that suggests that the review group got it wrong? Perhaps some of the same evidence also led the minister to imply that she does not see the need for a complete ban on muirburn or further restrictions on grouse moor management beyond the licensing scheme that she has announced today. Will she now categorically rule out those actions in the future?
I am sorry, but I must disagree with the way in which Finlay Carson has portrayed some of the work. I do not understand his point about the Werritty group getting it wrong or where its work contradicts the evidence that we have. I am sure that he will be aware of the phase 1 and phase 2 research that we commissioned and have published. What is good about the work of the Werritty group is the fact that it identified many of the gaps in the evidence that were there, some of which we have filled in the interim period.
All the measures that we are introducing are absolutely vital. We talk about the introduction of codes of practice and monitoring the situation, because it is vital that we are able to update those as science develops. Our recommendations on muirburn, for example, are very important, and they follow the Werritty review group’s recommendations.
In some areas, we are going a bit further than the group’s recommendations. We must ensure that definitions such as the definition of peatland—which, at the moment, is defined as having organic content of about 60 per cent and being more than 50cm in depth—are still relevant. Those are the kind of issues that we need to consider. We must ensure that all that information is kept up to date.
I assure the member that we will go through all those issues in detail as we bring forward a licensing scheme, and I reiterate that those who are already working to best practice and abiding by the law have nothing to fear from a scheme. If anything, a scheme will help, because one problem that was identified in the Werritty review and other phases of research is that we do not know where all the grouse shooting businesses are. A scheme will help us to have a better idea of where the businesses are and how they are operating, which will give us a more transparent picture of what is going on across Scotland.
I welcome the minister’s long-awaited statement. She will be aware of the killing and disappearance of birds of prey during the lockdown. Will she expand on how the measures that she has announced today will deter further raptor persecution? Will she outline when all 40 recommendations will be fully implemented and the full consultation taken forward?
Like everyone in the chamber and across Scotland, I am sure, I have been angered by the reports of killings and the disappearances of birds of prey that appear to have taken place during the lockdown. I know that we all agree that raptor persecution is completely unacceptable, but it is not only that; it is also illegal. Unfortunately, there will always be a minority of people who think that they are above the law and that the rules do not apply to them.
I believe that the proposals that I have outlined today will build on the other actions that we have taken as a Government to try to address wildlife crime, as well as sending a clear message that that kind of criminal behaviour will have consequences. A licensing regime will help to ensure that, where there is clear evidence of illegal raptor persecution, we have in place a full range of effective and transparent mechanisms that really will allow us to address that behaviour.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. On average, 26,000 mountain hares are killed in Scotland annually in the mistaken belief that it boosts grouse numbers. I am concerned that, by delaying until next March action to bring in the protection that the Parliament voted for in June, the Scottish Government has just given a green light to what could be the biggest mass killing of mountain hares ever seen.
Can the minister explain why she has given the shooting lobby that one last hurrah?
I am sorry, but I have to completely disagree with what Alison Johnstone has said. This is not about giving shooting interests one last chance. Right now, there is an open season and a closed season.
I will reiterate what I said during the debate that we had last week about biodiversity, where the same point was raised. Alison Johnstone lodged her amendment to the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill at the last minute. There was no previous discussion on it. It had not been raised before and neither the Government nor the Parliament had had a chance to scrutinise it. The Government and the Parliament agreed to the amendment, and rightly so, but we were left with a lot of the groundwork to do after the bill was passed.
I say again that we need to make sure that we have a licensing scheme that is fit for purpose and will do what we need it to do. We needed to take time to undertake the work in order to ensure that we have a licensing scheme that will work efficiently and effectively. I am sure that the member is aware of that, and she should be able to understand the reasons why it could not possibly have been implemented immediately.
I suggest to all members that they have a think about how long their questions and answers take, if they want all colleagues to get a fair shout on statements.
I ask members to take care with social distancing and mask wearing when they are leaving the chamber.