Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 30 November 2023.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-11496, in the name of Gillian Martin, on the Wildlife, Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill at stage 1. I invite members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible. I advise the chamber that there is a little bit of time in hand, and I invite the minister to speak to and move the motion.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I am pleased to open today’s stage 1 debate on the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill. I thank the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee for its scrutiny of the bill, and I thank everyone who gave evidence at stage 1. I want to reassure Parliament that I have paid close attention to all of that evidence and to the committee’s views and recommendations in its stage 1 report.

The Scottish Parliament has a proud record of championing nature, wildlife and biodiversity. Therefore, although I look forward to hearing members’ views on how the bill can be improved and strengthened at stage 2, I hope that, today, we can all agree to support its general principles.

I was the convener of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee in 2020, when the independent grouse moor management group, which was led by Professor Werritty, presented its report on the environmental impact of grouse moor management practices. That report made it clear to me and my then committee colleagues that previous measures that Parliament had put in place to address raptor persecution were insufficient, and that we needed to consider further regulation of activities that are traditionally associated with grouse moor management, including muirburn, predator control and the use of medicated grit.

Sadly, since the Werritty report was published, the issue of raptor persecution has not gone away; even just last week, I read reports of missing hen harriers. On Monday, as other members will have done, I read a media report that, according to Police Scotland, a satellite-tagged golden eagle—Merrick—has come to harm in the south of Scotland, and on Tuesday we heard that a peregrine falcon has been found dead in an illegal trap in the Pentlands.

I, of course, recognise the important contribution that grouse shooting makes to the rural economy. Grouse moors can be successfully managed in a way that does not negatively impact on the environment or biodiversity, and a great many estates act responsibly. However, we need to end the blight of raptor persecution that takes place on the few estates that give the sector a bad name, and, as the Werritty review says we must

“change the culture of grouse moor management”.

The introduction of a licensing scheme for grouse is a proportionate measure to achieve the aims. It provides us with the means to take effective action against the destructive minority who continue to illegally target birds of prey, while allowing law-abiding grouse moors to operate without undue interference.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

Can the minister give us evidence that the incidents that she is talking about are related to grouse moors?

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

In my response to the committee’s report, which Ms Hamilton will have sight of, I have included an appendix that outlines in detail that evidence, which I do not have time to go through right now.

I also refer Ms Hamilton to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds report that was published last week. It outlines that there have been 35 disappearances of various raptors since 2017. The RSPB identified that quite a lot of those instances were, I am sad to say, on grouse moors.

The introduction of a licensing scheme for grouse is a proportionate measure. It will provide us with the means to take effective action against the destructive minority who continue to illegally target birds of prey and will allow law-abiding grouse moors to operate without undue interference.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Can the minister clarify whether the licensing scheme will be self-financing so that it will not have to be subsidised by the general purse?

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

The Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance will move a motion on the financial resolution after this debate. Some £500,000 per annum has been allocated. A lot of that will be for NatureScot to administer the scheme, but there will, of course, be a small fee associated with the licence as well.

I firmly believe that licensing is in the interests of the grouse moor sector in order to have it regulated in the same way as shooting estates across mainland Europe are regulated. I firmly believe that it will be good for the public reputation of the many estates that hold licences and abide by the licence conditions.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I have already taken an intervention from the member.

Introducing a statutory code of practice that will be developed in conjunction with stakeholders will allow us to build on the best practice that I know many grouse moor managers already employ.

I will move on to muirburn, which is a very complex issue. The research to date suggests that muirburn can have both beneficial and adverse effects. The provisions in the bill are therefore designed to ensure that muirburn will always be undertaken with the necessary care and expertise.

I know that everyone in the Parliament is aware of the essential role that our peatlands play in capturing carbon and enhancing biodiversity. That is why the bill includes provisions to strictly limit the making of muirburn on peatland.

However, the bill is not just about moorland management. We also have a very strong record in Parliament of promoting the highest standards of animal welfare and legislating to ensure that those standards are upheld. Accordingly, the bill addresses two key recommendations that were made by the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission: banning the use of glue traps and banning the use of snares.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I think that we can all agree that a glue-trap ban is a good thing, but can I ask that the legislation not be aimed at use of sticky gels, which are designed to deter large birds such as urban gulls from buildings but not to trap them?

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I understand the member’s interest in the matter

. As an Aberdonian who lived in Torry in my younger days, I understand that Aberdeen City Council must have measures in place. The sticky gels that Mr Stewart referred to are not covered in the bill: we are talking about the type of glue traps that permanently trap rodents or birds, which will die as a result of struggling in them. The gel that Mr Stewart referred to is the sort that makes it uncomfortable for seagulls to nest on roofs. He has my assurances in that regard.

The Parliament can no longer ignore the weight of evidence that glue traps and snares lead to unacceptable levels of suffering—not just for wild animals but for domestic animals, which can become trapped in them. I know from the response to our consultations that there is very strong support from members of the public for a comprehensive ban, and I know that there are members here today who have long been pressing the Government to take that step; indeed, quite a lot of parties had that in their manifestos for this session.

As was previously indicated to the committee, I intend, by way of amendments that will be lodged at stage 2, to introduce measures to extend the existing powers of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to aid in the proper detection and prosecution of wildlife crime.

However, I acknowledge that some animals can and do cause serious issues if they are not appropriately controlled and managed, and that that impacts on livelihoods and people’s health and wellbeing. There is, therefore, a case for continued use of humane traps as part of a responsible approach to pest control and for others knowing that those should not be tampered with.

I therefore intend to lodge amendments to make it an offence to tamper with a trap, so that there is absolutely no dubiety on the point that criminal behaviour, wherever it happens and by whomever it is committed, will not be tolerated, particularly where such interference has the potential to cause unnecessary harm to animals.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

With regard to the disturbance of traps, c an the minister clarify whether that covers all traps, including live-capture traps, live-capture traps for birds and spring traps, which are all considered to be perfectly legal?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you the time back for the interventions, minister.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I will lodge an amendment at stage 2 that will address interference, vandalism and anything that is damaging in any way to any legal traps. I have to say that my conversations with gamekeepers’ representatives were fundamental in my coming to that decision. The distress that such disturbance causes gamekeepers was palpable in those conversations, and I commend them for the testimony that they gave me.

The bill is just one of the elements of the Scottish Government’s ambitious programme to protect and restore our natural environment and improve animal welfare, but it is a vital one. Taken together, the measures in the bill will strengthen the protections for our wildlife; ensure that our grouse moors are managed in a way that enhances biodiversity and the natural environment; improve the reputation of Scottish shooting estates; and provide greater protection for our precious peatlands.

During my time in Parliament, I have long been involved in wildlife and animal health and welfare matters. I am therefore proud to lead on the bill on behalf of the Scottish Government, and to move the motion on the general principles of the bill.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I invite members who intend to participate in the debate to ensure that their request-to-speak buttons are pressed. I call Finlay Carson to speak on behalf of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

As convener of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, I am pleased to speak to the committee’s report on the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill. I thank my committee colleagues for their diligent work in scrutinising the bill, and I thank colleagues on the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee for their report and helpful conclusions and recommendations. I also thank the Finance and Public Administration Committee for the responses that it sought on the financial memorandum to the bill.

During our inquiry, many individuals and organisations gave evidence in person or in response to our calls for views, and I thank each and every one of them for their time and their contributions.

The Government states that the bill is intended

“to address raptor persecution and ensure that the management of grouse moors and related activities are undertaken in” a manner that is

“environmentally sustainable” and conscious of animal welfare. The bill contains a number of provisions. It would ban the use and purchase of glue traps; introduce licensing schemes for using certain types of wildlife traps for the killing and taking of certain birds on grouse moors; and limit muirburn, particularly on peatland, to only a very limited circumstance.

In addition, the Government has confirmed its intention to amend the bill at stage 2 to ban the use of snares and to extend the powers of the Scottish SPCA to investigate wildlife crimes. The committee notes those intentions, but a number of concerns were raised by various stakeholders, which we reflect in our report.

The committee agreed to seek greater clarity from the Government in response to those concerns about certain provisions in the bill. I thank the minister and her officials for their response to the report, which we received yesterday and which picked up on a range of issues that we had raised.

I turn to our report and recommendations. Sections 1 to 3 of the bill will create offences of using and purchasing glue traps. We heard that there is “significant and ongoing concern” regarding the animal welfare implications of the use of glue traps, which can prolong suffering and trap non-target species. The committee agreed, therefore, that all members of the public should be banned from using or purchasing glue traps.

That said, the committee also heard evidence from pest control professionals that, in settings where there is a high risk to public health, such as schools and hospitals, and where quick and effective rodent control is essential, glue traps will still be needed as a last-resort method of rodent control. We heard conflicting evidence on whether there are currently available alternatives to glue traps that would serve as an effective solution to rodent problems in those high-risk settings. One witness claimed that the rat population in some Scottish cities was almost at “pandemic levels”, so it is important that professionals have access to effective rodent control.

The committee explored the option of a licensing scheme to permit the limited use of glue traps. The minister told us that that would not be workable, as there is no accreditation scheme for pest control professionals, but the industry disagreed, citing the existence of a licensing scheme for gull management. In her response, the minister provided more detailed information about why a licensing scheme would not be workable for the professional pest control industry.

The minister also responded to a request for clarification about the available alternative forms of rodent control that would be appropriate for high-risk settings, with a letter detailing the various rodent control methods that she believed would be as effective.

In relation to the remainder of the bill, which covers the three licensing schemes—for the use of certain wildlife traps, to kill or take red grouse and to make muirburn—two overarching issues were raised by potential licence applicants in their evidence to us. I will set those out in turn before I look at the three schemes in more detail.

First, there was a concern that raptor persecution in moorland, which was given as the rationale for the proposed licensing scheme, is no longer as prevalent as it was historically. Therefore, there was a call for any licensing scheme to be proportionate and workable.

Secondly, there was a concern that a licence could be suspended by NatureScot in certain circumstances, despite NatureScot not being satisfied that a relative offence had been committed. Potential licence holders expressed strong concerns that a minor breach of licence conditions or a vexatious complaint could result in the loss of a licence and, therefore, a loss of income and, in the worst scenario, a loss of jobs. The minister and NatureScot gave reassurances that a licence would be suspended in that way only in serious circumstances. However, in our report, we asked what safeguards could be added to the bill to reflect that reassurance.

Turning to each individual licensing scheme, the committee was content with the bill’s proposal—

Photo of John Swinney John Swinney Scottish National Party

Has the committee given any consideration to what role it might perform, in the event of the bill passing, in considering the operation of the licensing arrangements to provide wider and broader satisfaction with them or in raising issues about how they are operated?

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

Yes, that was a serious consideration. We have seen the failure, in my view, of the work that NatureScot has done with the sector in relation to hunting with dogs. We asked how the committee could get involved, but there appears to be a limited opportunity for the committee to look at any proposed code of practice before it comes into effect. There were also concerns about the length of time between the code of practice coming into effect and the licensing scheme coming into force. We certainly had concerns about that.

The committee was content with the bill’s proposals for a licensing scheme for wildlife traps. The main issue that came up was the suggestion from stakeholders that the bill should include an offence for wildlife trap vandalism. Vandalism of wildlife traps is reasonably common and, as well as the serious animal welfare risks, it can prevent legal predation control and result in costs for replacing or repairing traps. The committee accepts the evidence that it heard, that trap vandalism would be covered by existing offences and that it would be difficult to obtain evidence to secure a conviction. However, land managers and the SSPCA made representations that a specific offence of trap vandalism should be recognised, because of the animal welfare consequences. I therefore welcome the minister’s commitment to lodge amendments at stage 2 to create a specific crime.

There were a number of aspects of the licensing scheme for red grouse shooting on which we made recommendations. In response to strong concerns voiced by the industry, we recommended a longer licensing period than the proposed annual scheme. I am pleased to note the minister’s agreement to that recommendation. The concern that I mentioned earlier relating to the fears that a licence could be suspended by NatureScot in certain circumstances, despite its not being satisfied that a relevant offence had been committed, were made most strongly regarding this licensing scheme.

I note that the committee’s request for a time limit for licence suspensions might have more relevance given the decision to have a longer licensing scheme. We also note the minister’s commitment on behalf of her officials and NatureScot to consultation and engagement with industry ahead of the related guidance being drawn up. That touches on the point that John Swinney raised.

Part 2 of the bill would introduce a new licensing scheme for making muirburn in Scotland and would apply more restrictions on making muirburn on ground with a peat depth greater than 40cm. The committee recognised that muirburn has, to date, been subject to limited statutory oversight and that the provisions of the bill lead on from the grouse moor management group’s recommendations for increased regulatory control. The committee noted the complex, contested and inconclusive evidence that is currently available about the impact of muirburn on biodiversity, climate and wildfire.

The committee heard evidence that a wide variety of practitioners make muirburn in a range of contexts, so we urge the Government to ensure that any licensing scheme is workable and appropriate for all, particularly crofters and other smaller practitioners, and that an effective and adaptive approach is taken for licensing on peatland as the evidence base evolves. We agree with the proposal to put the muirburn code on a statutory footing to ensure that best practice is followed.

On the definition of “peatland” as land with a peat depth greater than 40cm, which is a change from the current definition of 50cm, the committee noted the Government’s reasoning of achieving a balance among the views of a range of the stakeholders in bringing the management of peatland under greater scrutiny. We heard concerns from stakeholders about the practical challenges of measuring peat depth, especially over a significant land area. I welcome the minister’s commitment that the guidance on methodology will be published in good time, ahead of the licensing scheme coming into force, to give clarity to stakeholders.

Looking ahead to stage 2, the Government informed the committee of its intention to introduce amendments to ban the use of snares and to give additional powers to the SSPCA. On the ban on snaring, trap operators emphasised that the more modern devices, called modified cable restraints, do not have the same welfare implications as earlier snare models, and they called for the continued use of the modern devices to be permitted under licence. That issue became the focus of an evidence session that addressed animal welfare organisations’ view that those devices are, in their words, “rebranded” snares and practitioners’ view that predation would have a significant impact without their use, especially in areas where shooting is not a practical or safe alternative.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You need to wind up, Mr Carson.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

I will, Presiding Officer. I have not touched on some of the amendments but, before I finish, I would like to speak to the fact that our report did not include a view on the general principles.

As members will know, the bill contains a number of provisions spanning a wide range of wildlife and land management issues. There was a lack of detail relating to various aspects of the policy proposals, especially those on significant additional powers for the SSPCA and on snaring, which we still have not seen and will not see until stage 2. I did not feel that I could agree to the general principles of a bill on which we will see no certainty until after stage 2. While—

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

I am sorry, Presiding Officer, but this is quite an important point. Although I support—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

It should have been made earlier in your contribution, then, Mr Carson, because you are somewhat over time. If you could begin to conclude.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

I will. I agree with the general principles of the bill overall, but not with how the bill will affect those things. The committee has not taken a view, but we have presented all the arguments and our considered conclusions and recommendations to enable members to reach their own conclusions this afternoon.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

I congratulate the clerks on putting together our stage 1 recommendation report.

I will begin by explaining the significance of the brooch that I am wearing. If members can see it, they will see that it is very beautiful. Iona Macgregor, a talented young artist from Perthshire, designed it and made it for today’s debate to represent the diversity of the land uses in Scotland’s countryside sports. The grouse feathers represent the protection of rural livelihoods, the heather is for biodiversity gain and the tweed is for upland sustainability. Today, we debate all the issues in the bill that have the potential to change everything that the brooch represents.

We all agree that high standards of wildlife welfare should be paramount, and we all agree with protecting the environment. The minister has highlighted the dreadful news of the recent disappearance of a golden eagle and the death of a peregrine falcon, which has brought unanimous condemnation across the board. In the case of the peregrine falcon, there is clearly no link to a grouse moor management, but it is important that we acknowledge that it is a live police investigation and it must be allowed to run its course.

I reiterate that we absolutely condemn the persecution of raptors. It is right that the bill tackles that issue, but we must acknowledge that the bill goes way beyond that objective. By going too far, the bill has, I believe, fallen short.

The flagship recommendation of Professor Werritty’s report was to introduce a licensing scheme if there was no improvement in the populations of three key species five years after the publication of his review in 2019. However, the Government has ploughed on with introducing a licensing scheme, without monitoring raptor populations and providing that evidence.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

Will Ms Hamilton reflect on the evidence that was given to the committee by Professor Werritty and those who were involved in the grouse moor management group? They said that they were content with the fact that we are continuing with our licensing scheme.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you the time back, Ms Hamilton.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

In my opinion, there has not been enough evidence to suggest that the incidents of raptor persecution are linked specifically to grouse moors. I could rebut the evidence that the minister provided to the committee. In her response, the minister discussed areas in Scotland that are occupied—or not occupied—by some species of raptors. The existence of areas that are not occupied by raptors in some parts of Scotland does not automatically equal persecution. That lack of occupation could be because of a predator aspect, an environmental aspect or other reasons, such as food or habitat availability. With a severe lack of evidence, it is disingenuous to cast aspersions and create a licensing scheme as well as other things that are provided for in the legislation.

A recent peer-reviewed study showed that the red-listed Eurasian curlew raised nearly four times more chicks on moorland that is managed for grouse shooting than on unmanaged moorland.

In evidence to our committee, Professor Ian Newton said:

“We have no interest in reducing the area of grouse moors.”—[

Official Report

,

Rural Affairs and Islands Committee

, 13 June 2023; c 16.]

In reality, I am resigned to the fact that operating grouse moors will become a licensed activity, because it sounds as though the minister wants to plough on with that. However, there must be some movement from the minister if she wants the scheme to be “practicable and workable”.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

I certainly assent to what Ms Hamilton says. We received evidence that some species thrive in grouse moor habitats. Will she accept that that is an entirely separate matter from the question of whether a minority of grouse moors do not operate in a way that tackles raptor persecution?

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

Alasdair Allan knows that we heard evidence to suggest that raptor persecution is at a historical low. We will not tackle illegal persecution of raptors through the lens of the bill. The bill goes way beyond the scope of its intention.

According to gamekeepers, there are a number of concerns. Licence holders could lose their licence without the need to produce evidence of criminality or wrongdoing and without, in the bill’s term, NatureScot being “satisfied” that a “relevant offence” has been committed. That would expose operators to vexatious claims by those who are against country sports and seek to disrupt lawful activities through malice. I am pleased that the Government will lodge an amendment to deal with tampering of traps, for which I thank Gillian Martin.

Concerns have been raised that parts of the bill will be in contravention of the European convention on human rights. In her closing speech, we would value the minister’s categorical reassurance that that will not be the case.

The bill will require operators to renew their licences annually, which is inconsistent with the type of investment and long-term decision making that is associated with moorland management. That short-sighted provision would harm that vital socioeconomic element.

In her response to the committee’s report, the minister addressed concerns about the potential duration of the suspension of a licence, given that it is not specified in the legislation. She claims:

“This is because the maximum duration for a section 16AA licence for the taking of birds is one year. Therefore ... the maximum suspension period” could be no more than one year. Yet, a couple of pages later, the minister agrees with the committee’s recommendation to extend the licence period to three to five years.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

Given that I said that I will look at the duration of the licensing, it follows that we will look at the duration of the suspension. Does Ms Hamilton appreciate that I am taking time to look at the best duration for the licences? I have said that on various occasions to the committee.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you the time back, Ms Hamilton.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

I appreciate the minister’s confirmation of her commitment, because it is very important. At the moment, there are two conflicting statements. She must be clear about her intentions, because the proposal would affect the livelihoods of thousands of rural workers. An anti-rural rhetoric from members on the opposite benches means that there is a lack of confidence and trust from rural communities.

When political rhetoric takes precedence over evidence-based policy, we will get things wrong. That was a message that I heard loud and clear from a round table with academics this morning on the Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill. Those academics said that they believe that the Scottish Government has abandoned the view of grass-roots practitioners, which demonstrates a blatant disregard for evidence and the bill’s potential consequences. The bill, like the Scottish Government’s approach to rural-related matters, is disproportionate and disingenuous. It poses an existential threat to Scotland’s rural estates and the very wildlife that it aims to protect. Muirburn is a fine example of that.

I know that I am running out of time, but do I have a little bit of time left, Presiding Officer?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you a bit of time.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

Thank you.

I believe that the bill illogically focuses on the underground metric of peat depth to arbitrarily dictate how professional land managers can conduct overground activity. We know that muirburn is an essential tool that allows land managers to nurture wildlife, control the fuel load and reduce the risk of wildfire. We heard that point made strongly by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

I close on the issue of snaring, the banning of which is expected to be included in the Government’s approach to stage 2 of the bill. It is important that we highlight the threat that that poses to our ability to protect vulnerable and endangered species and livestock. Just because other countries are doing it does not mean that those countries are not suffering from severe declines in the population of ground-nesting birds.

The bill is an example of potentially unworkable legislation. There is a similarity with the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Act 2023, and the fact that, with lambing season round the corner, licences continue to be rejected.

The bill is illogical and disproportionate. It will affect livelihoods, it ignores rural voices and it goes much wider than its intention.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

Before

I begin my speech, I will take a moment to put on record our sadness at the passing of Alistair Darling. He was a public servant who served his country and his constituents, and he will be missed by all of us. I offer our condolences to Margaret, Calum, Anna and the rest of his family. [

Applause

.]

I also take this opportunity to thank the clerks to the committee, who helped to produce the report, and everyone who provided the evidence that is included in the report. We, in the Scottish Labour Party, support the general principles of the bill, which draws from the Werritty report on grouse moor management. I know that the issue was passionately followed by Claudia Beamish, who was a member of the Scottish Parliament and instrumental in pushing for the Werritty review to be set up. Ms Beamish was pleased to see the report come to fruition and, I am sure, will be glad that the bill has been introduced.

The grouse moor management group was set up due to concerns about raptor persecution. As other members have said, persecution is on-going and must be investigated. However, we must also put on record that that appalling practice is carried out by a minority. Those responsible have been warned time and again that action would be taken if they did not change their behaviour. Their behaviour has not changed, and we are therefore forced to legislate in this area. At the same time, though, we need to be careful to balance legislation against jobs and consider rural economies that are dependent on grouse moors for their livelihoods.

I want to mention the handling of the bill. It was difficult to scrutinise a bill that came in different stages, with decisions being made after the bill had been published and when the committee was gathering evidence. It is not good practice for a Government to introduce a bill and then start amending it mid-stage 1.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I am grateful to Rhoda Grant for taking my intervention and allowing me to state that one of the reasons why we undertook the snaring consultation was that we were asked to do so by stakeholders. A particular stakeholder wanted us to look at the issue of humane cable restraints, so we undertook to provide the time for a consultation on that issue and to consider the issues that they wanted us to address in terms of a licensing scheme around that. I hope that that clarifies why that happened in that instance.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Rhoda Grant, I can give you the time back.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I accept that, but those stakeholders have been calling for those pieces of legislation for a lot longer than since the bill came to fruition.

The bill will ensure that grouse moors will be licensed. I appreciate the minister indicating that she agrees with the committee that those licences should be for longer than one year. Given that the licences can be suspended, there is no need to have one-year licences. We took evidence from organisations and stakeholders who talked about three-year or five-year licences or possibly even longer ones, if there were the right checks and balances in place to ensure that they were reviewed reasonably often. The licences could be suspended if there is bad practice and raptor persecution happening or any other illegal activity.

We have to bear in mind that the management of grouse moors has positive environmental and natural impacts, too. Members have talked about curlews, golden plovers and other bird species that flourish in moors that are managed for grouse. They enjoy the same habitats, which adds to their numbers. We need to be careful that we do not throw away the good with the bad.

I will turn to muirburn, on which the science and knowledge need to be improved. Professor Werritty said:

“the science base underpinning a lot of moorland management is incredibly fragmented, contested and incomplete”.—[

Official Report, Rural Affairs and Islands Committee,

14 June 2023; c 17.]

We heard about wildfires in evidence. Indeed, at that time, we saw what was happening in Cannich, where there was a major wildfire. Wildfires are worse when there is a large fuel load. When we were taking evidence, it was suggested that muirburn could be an essential part of moorland management. If we do not deal with the fuel load, we will have more wildfires that will have a greater environmental impact. Obviously, burning on degraded peat causes carbon release, but we also saw that, with burning on good-quality wet peat, the peat itself remains largely unscathed. Licensing will help to share that best practice, but the code of conduct and changes need to adapt with the science. We must have conservation and the restoration of the natural environment at the heart of licensing while enjoying the land management benefits that muirburn brings.

Many stakeholders talked about peat depth and how it could be measured. We cannot measure in detail every inch of the land on which we carry out muirburn, so we must ensure that there is a workable solution to how land is termed—whether it is peatland or moorland.

There were concerns about expertise. It was hoped that licensing of muirburn would ensure that practitioners were trained, but it became clear during the Cannich fire that there is a huge amount of expertise held by gamekeepers. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service made it clear that it could not have brought the fire under control without the help of neighbouring gamekeepers. We need to ensure that that expertise is protected and disseminated to all those who practise muirburn.

There was discussion about the muirburn season and how it needs to be adapted to keep up with climate change because of the earlier nesting of birds. All those regulations need to be kept in check but, more importantly, they need to follow the science.

Presiding Officer, you indicated that you would give me some time back.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You had six minutes. I have given you quite a bit of time back—I have given you more than the time that the intervention took—so you need to conclude.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

Okay. There are many other important issues that I could speak about, but I simply put on record the fact that we support the general principles of the bill and look forward to making it more workable at stage 2.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Thank you very much indeed, Ms Grant. I echo your comments about the sad passing of Alistair Darling, as well as the comments earlier in the day about the passing of our former colleague Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

I am pleased to speak for the Scottish Liberal Democrats on the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill at stage 1. As others have done, I extend my thanks to my Rural Affairs and Islands Committee colleagues and the convener for their work on stage 1, and I particularly thank the clerks for their work behind the scenes and on the stage 1 report. I also thank all the individuals and organisations that provided briefings, attended committee evidence sessions and submitted evidence to the committee.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats are broadly supportive of the bill. The Scottish Government states that the bill aims to address raptor persecution by implementing the recommendations of the independent review of grouse moor management. To that end, the bill introduces a licensing scheme for land that is used for the shooting of red grouse. Most estates are run responsibly, but there is not sufficient evidence that the situation regarding raptor persecution overall has improved since the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 was passed, so action is needed to ensure that good practice is followed.

When licensing schemes are introduced, rather than placing undue burdens on the people who must apply, they must be workable and proportionate to their aims. Scottish Liberal Democrats support licensing as a method to raise standards, but I ask the minister for an assurance that the licensing schemes in the bill will be pragmatic and focused on the stated aims.

In the bill as introduced, the licence for grouse shooting is granted for only one year. There was consensus among stakeholders that a longer licence period would be preferable. Scottish Land & Estates considers that a period of a year is inconsistent with the long-term investment and land management that are associated with moorland management for grouse shooting. NatureScot stated that a licence period of three to five years would correspond with the arrangements under similar licensing schemes. I therefore welcome the minister’s commitment to amend the bill to create a longer licence period.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

On the issue of licensing and the removal of licences, if a licence is to be removed, does Beatrice Wishart think that it is important that the estate or the landowner knows for how long the licence will be removed, so that they can ensure that the people on the ground who rely on it, whether keepers or farmers, know that they will have some security in the future?

Photo of Beatrice Wishart Beatrice Wishart Liberal Democrat

I think that clarity is key to the bill.

I turn to the other wildlife management aspects of the bill. I acknowledge the arguments for banning glue traps and snaring on animal welfare grounds. The minister has concluded that there will be a full ban on the use of snares, which will mean that there will not be a licensing scheme for any purpose, and she has indicated that there are more humane alternative methods available.

I have reflected on the evidence on humane cable restraints that the committee heard at its meeting on 8 November. People who are involved in land management indicate that such devices are a necessary tool in the box when shooting is not possible, and they express concern about the future viability of ground-nesting birds. Accordingly, I am anxious about the potential impacts on ground-nesting birds of a complete ban on snaring. I am reassured that RSPB Scotland does not use snares on its land, but I ask the Scottish Government to keep the proposed change under tight review and to assess the impact of the ban on ground-nesting birds in the long term.

I note with concern the evidence that the committee received regarding the lack of alternatives to glue traps and the potential impact on the ability of professional pest controllers to respond to rodent problems in high-risk settings such as hospitals and schools. I draw the minister’s attention to the committee’s request for the Scottish Government to provide further information about alternative forms of rodent control that are appropriate for use in settings where an enhanced public health risk exists.

I also note the minister’s response to the committee’s point that the suggested two-year transition period be set out in the bill. Although I agree that we need to stop using glue traps, because of the concerns that have been raised about the lack of alternatives in high-risk settings I ask the Scottish Government to consider delaying commencement of the relevant section until credible alternative methods of pest control are available for such situations.

The second part of the bill deals with extending the licensing requirements for muirburn. I am persuaded, on the balance of evidence, that there is a risk of negative environmental consequences if heather moorland burns out of control but that muirburn benefits heather moorland and biodiversity and is a vital part of wildfire prevention, which is something that we must acknowledge in the light of changing weather patterns. The licensing scheme for muirburn must therefore enable its use by trained practitioners.

I regret the discord around this and similar bills. Countryside stakeholders perceive bills that address wildlife and land management as creating a cumulative restrictive impact on those who work and live in rural communities. However, the issue is not one of countryside management versus environmental protection. Rather than one of the other, we must have both, for the future success and viability of our rural areas. I believe that it is key for all stakeholders to be able to voice their concerns and to engage meaningfully with the policies that affect them. I also believe that, because of the implications for nature and for people working and living in rural Scotland, that is essential.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to the open debate.

Photo of Karen Adam Karen Adam Scottish National Party

I commend the Scottish Government for its approach to the bill. The engagement of the minister, Gillian Martin, with stakeholders throughout the bill process demonstrates a commitment to creating informed and balanced legislation. That process has been particularly well navigated in the sensitive field of animal welfare. I know how sincere the minister is in her dedication to the welfare of animals.

This type of legislation, which intertwines modern environmental needs with traditional practices, is challenging but vital for Scotland, which is a nation that has a deeply rooted love and respect for animals. As a long-standing advocate for animal welfare, I welcome the general principles of the bill. It is not a mere set of regulations but represents Scotland’s commitment to safeguarding the lives and wellbeing of animals, particularly our cherished birds of prey. The bill exemplifies our collective responsibility to protect and preserve the natural world, ensuring a harmonious and respectful coexistence with wildlife.

The issue of raptor persecution demands urgent attention. Despite stringent laws, the persecution of Scotland’s majestic birds of prey, including our golden eagles, hen harriers and peregrine falcons, remains a blight on our environmental record. The alarming findings of the Whitfield and Fielding report, alongside subsequent RSPB data, highlight the urgency of the situation.

As well as protecting wildlife, the bill makes a commitment to enhancing biodiversity and strengthening environmental stewardship, particularly in areas associated with driven grouse shooting. There has been substantial debate about the management of grouse moors, and the committee heard from witnesses who spoke about the economic importance of grouse shooting. It is imperative that that is conducted responsibly and sustainably. I noted during our evidence sessions that, contrary to some opinions, the bill seeks not to condemn the practice but to evolve it, making it more fitting for a modern and conscientious world. The aim is to ensure that grouse moor management can contribute positively to our biodiversity goals and our efforts to mitigate climate change.

One aspect of the bill is the prohibition of glue traps. The potential impact that a ban on glue traps might have on public health and on business was highlighted and noted during discussions with the British Pest Control Association. Although some pest controllers may employ those traps in line with strict guidelines to minimise suffering, enforcement and oversight are still matters of concern.

I acknowledge that some pest controllers who employ glue traps have strict policies to mitigate unnecessary and prolonged suffering, but I, along with many animal rights and veterinary organisations, still have serious and unresolved concerns about the enforcement and oversight of those policies. Instances of non-target species, including birds and domestic pets, being trapped and subjected to agony emphasise the need to outlaw those devices. I have heard horrific stories of animals chewing off their own limbs to escape traps. We cannot turn away from such agony, so I wholly welcome the Government’s plans to outlaw glue traps.

Photo of Douglas Lumsden Douglas Lumsden Conservative

Beatrice Wishart spoke earlier about possible public health issues, especially in places such as hospitals and schools, where there is no real alternative to using glue traps. Does the member share that view? Does she have any concerns about hospitals, for example?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can give you the time back for the intervention, Ms Adam.

Photo of Karen Adam Karen Adam Scottish National Party

Absolutely. That is why I took the time to meet the British Pest Control Association, away from the committee, to get absolute clarity on that. There are alternatives. They may cost a little more, but that is the issue here. We have to look at a way in which we can control pests in such areas that considers animal welfare as well.

Photo of Karen Adam Karen Adam Scottish National Party

No. I want to make some progress.

In a similar vein, the Government’s plan to ban snares has been the subject of extensive discussion. I wish to bring a personal dimension to the issue. A couple of months ago, my beautiful wee ginger tabby cat, Tabitha, went missing. Over a week passed and I feared the worst. I was at the point of rehearsing how I would broach with the kids the subject of her possibly never returning. She had never been missing for that long, and it had been almost two weeks. While I was out at a surgery, my son texted me to say that she had returned, and he sent a shocking picture. She was so thin that her bones were protruding, and she looked in shock. He said that she was incredibly thirsty and hungry. The most distressing part was that the fur round her neck was missing. Her neck was not just bald—it was raw, with open sores. My family and I were heartbroken at her state. When she was examined, we were told that the wounds inflicted on Tabitha looked like those inflicted by snares, and that such a trap might explain her absence from home for so long.

I will never forget the suffering of my animal, but I stress that my pet is no more valuable or entitled to compassion than a wild animal just because she has a name and a human family. I hope that that incident illustrates the broader implications of such traps for pets and wildlife. I am delighted that the bill sends a clear message that the inhumane treatment of animals through the use of snares is intolerable in Scotland.

Alongside those actions, the bill also introduces a comprehensive licensing regime for muirburn. That practice, if unregulated, poses risks to our delicate peatlands and diverse wildlife populations. A new licensing system will ensure that muirburn can be conducted in a manner that prioritises environmental sustainability and safety.

The bill is testament to Scotland’s resolve to protect its natural heritage and it represents our commitment to future generations. It will ensure that Scotland is a place where wildlife thrives and our rural practices are in harmony with nature. By endorsing the general principles of the bill, we are taking a significant step towards a Scotland that is an exemplar in wildlife management and environmental stewardship.

Photo of Oliver Mundell Oliver Mundell Conservative

Today, we again see an SNP-Green Government not just turning its back on rural Scotland but attacking it. We should make no mistake—the bill is another attack that is dressed up in the cloak of so-called animal welfare without the evidence to back it up. Far from protecting the countryside, this SNP-Green Government is overseeing its destruction. In the place of positive measures, all that we get is ban after ban. It is all quite sad.

The bill exposes the new reality once and for all. Rather than listening to those who get their hands and their boots dirty looking after our natural environment, the SNP now takes its direction from extremists. If members do not believe me, they need only look at the Green Party, which has been welcomed into Government with open arms. These are people who claim that they want to save the planet but who champion the wholesale industrialisation of our uplands. They seem wilfully oblivious to the impact that carpeting our uplands with Sitka spruce and wind turbines actually has on nature and the habitats that many of our most vulnerable species rely on. I say to them that, if they truly care about raptor persecution, they might start asking why it is okay for raptors to be taken out by wind turbine blades.

These are people who claim to care about our moorlands but who want to see them diminished and even abandoned, and who see no problem in forcing those who do more for biodiversity than almost anyone else out of their jobs and off the hills. Let us not kid ourselves. That is what the bill risks. The grandstanding of members in this Parliament on countryside issues that they do not understand has real-world consequences, but I guess that, if they never leave the central belt, they would not know that.

The madness goes beyond that. Even though rats are increasingly common in our urban communities in SNP Scotland, concerns about tackling rodent infestations have been ignored. How hard would it have been to agree a rethink on the modest request from pest control representatives for a glue-trap licence for professionals, even as a measure of last resort? A similarly heavy-handed approach and excessive measures are peppered throughout the bill, including vast and unnecessary delegated powers.

However, those are not the only reasons for smelling a rat. It is clear that some really nasty politics are also at play. The countryside and the people living in it are being used as a political football. Increasingly, our way of life is demonised. False divisions are stoked up. Fragile communities have never felt more abandoned and ignored. Twenty-five years into the new Scottish Parliament, life is worse for many who live in rural Scotland. Increasingly, the very viability of their communities comes into question. How can SNP MSPs who represent rural communities go along with that? Do they really want more wildfires, rodent infestations, and foxes wiping out ground-nesting birds? Are gamekeepers and land managers to be endlessly tied up in bureaucracy and dealing with vexatious reports of wrongdoing instead of actually managing the landscapes that they love and care about?

That is what the bill means in reality and what lots of the evidence points to. No doubt, those same colleagues would tell us not to worry, and will justify their support for the bill this evening by saying that it can be amended later. The problem is that we cannot trust this Government or this minister. We have recently seen the reality of how the Government’s legislate-now-license-later approach plays out, following the recent changes brought about by the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Act 2023. Political considerations are put before the practicalities. Animals are left to suffer. Foxes are out of control ahead of the lambing season. That is just not right, not good enough and not what was promised, so how on earth can any weight be placed on the assurances that we have been given in relation to the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill?

In addition, during stage 1, we saw what listening to stakeholders really means for the minister. Rural stakeholders were marched to the top of the hill, only to be ignored by the minister when she decided to go ahead and ban the use of snares and cable restraints without any licensing scheme for any purpose. That followed what seemed like a genuine request for a detailed proposal on a licensing scheme, but the game was given away by the minister when she rejected that just 24 hours after stakeholders gave evidence to the Parliament on the need for it. That would seem pretty discourteous and somewhat suggestive of predetermined thinking. However, most shockingly, a response to a freedom of information request showed that, before making that decision, the minister did not undertake any detailed consideration of the evidence that was put to the committee.

The bill is just the latest in a long line of betrayals. SNP colleagues will no doubt nod it through at decision time tonight, but we must not allow ourselves to become desensitised to what is happening. Thread by thread, the very fabric of rural Scotland is being unpicked. If we are not careful, it will be lost forever. Our country will be the poorer for it. At some point, we have to say, “no more”. Enough has to be enough.

I cannot support the general principles of such a deeply flawed and unevidenced bill; nor could anyone who claims to stand up for rural Scotland.

Photo of Kate Forbes Kate Forbes Scottish National Party

I speak as somebody who has been elected by voters in rural Scotland to stand up for them.

This summer, there were two massive wildfires in my constituency, at Cannich and at Daviot. It was reported at the time that the Cannich wildfire might be one of the largest in the United Kingdom—certainly, it raged for days. Firefighters, local farm workers, forestry land workers and gamekeepers all turned out in force to combat the fire. Anybody who has seen images and video footage of the fire will have been shocked as, mile after mile, the flames spread, fuelled by the density of bushes, heather and trees above ground, which had not been tackled in a long time.

The impact on the climate was catastrophic. Not only did the fire burn mile after mile of valuable peat, but it emitted thousands of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. The smoke was, reportedly, visible from space. It destroyed habitats and our biodiversity. Those fires are more devastating to our flora, our fauna and our net zero ambitions than any other activities on land.

The committee on which I sit has supported the general principles of the bill, but I want to unpack the importance—

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

I suggest that the member correct that. The committee did not, in fact, take a position on the general principles.

Photo of Kate Forbes Kate Forbes Scottish National Party

I thought that I heard Finlay Carson say in his comments that the committee had largely done so. I apologise. I thought that that was a quote.

I generally support the general principles of the bill, but I also hope that the Government is able to respond to people’s fears that the bill will reduce the tools that are available to combat wildfires and that it is able to commit to keeping the matter under constant review and is willing to reconsider some of the timescales and the requirements around muirburn in order to ensure that we have all the tools that we need to respond to wildfires.

In the weeks immediately after the wildfires that I described, I arranged a wildfire summit. The warning from representatives there, particularly from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, was stark. They said that we are likely to see such wildfires growing in intensity and magnitude and that we need every possible tool to control them.

In the aftermath of the fire, I spoke to several local landowners, many of whom have thriving businesses. They recalled their horror and fear as the fire crept ever closer, threatening their businesses and livelihoods. In one situation, a brand-new environmental low-carbon business in a state-of-the-art building was under threat as the fire crept closer. I saw that business only a few weeks later and the ring of charcoal around it, but it was saved—and it was saved because local gamekeepers turned up. Many had no personal or professional incentive to help—it was not their land or their livelihoods—but they turned up because they care. They care about the land, about biodiversity and about their neighbours.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

I attended a meeting that Kate Forbes was at about wildfires. One of the key things is that farmers create firebreaks. They are—exactly as she is saying—integral to protecting biodiversity and properties, but the bill could remove the people who do that.

Photo of Kate Forbes Kate Forbes Scottish National Party

I was going to go on to unpack what is critical when it comes to the bill, because it still allows for muirburn to take place. The important point that I made earlier is that the Government is able to demonstrate that gamekeepers will still have the tools that they need. Gamekeepers are trained in muirburn. I met one landowner who told me that, despite perhaps having been sceptical about gamekeepers’ practices in the past, they had been left in no doubt at all that it was gamekeepers’ unique abilities that had saved them and their business, because they had tried all other means of fighting the fire, to no avail.

Photo of Kate Forbes Kate Forbes Scottish National Party

I have taken quite a few, and I am keen to make three points that need to be articulated loud and clear by the Government.

The first point is that, if we are to control fire, we cannot allow the fuel load to build up. We cannot allow trees, bushes and heather to build up in a way that allows wildfires to literally run wild—as we saw in Cannich—because the fires are getting ever closer to people’s homes and businesses. Other approaches to reducing the fuel load, including cutting, are, of course, recommended in the bill. However, cutting leaves brash, which can then dry out and become tinder. Muirburn may, therefore, be the only tool available to reduce the fuel load.

Secondly, we must allow gamekeepers to continue to develop their experience of and expertise in carrying out muirburn, because that is the very experience and expertise that many Highland communities will increasingly depend on when wildfire breaks out.

I get that members will have varying views on estates and field sports. I am a long-standing champion of land reform and of making diverse use of our land. However, I also care enormously about land managers, because they are integral to our rural communities. Indeed, in one such community that I visited just a matter of weeks ago, the local primary school roll predominantly comprises estate workers’ children. Without them, the school will close. I do not want to see livelihoods being threatened by a reduction in investment in our rural communities.

I realise that the bill is still at stage 1, but I want to say on the record that we owe gamekeepers—some of whom are in the public gallery today—an enormous debt of gratitude. In my constituency, there are homes and businesses that would have been burned to the ground had not gamekeepers, with all their experience, turned out. We should work with them rather than against them. I know that the minister is committed to engaging with them, understanding the position and ensuring that the legislation, and the guidance that will follow it, particularly on licensing, are cognisant of their views and practices, to ensure that we are all safer because they are able to carry out their professional activities, which they should be permitted to do.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

The bill has been a long time coming. It is eight years since reports, first by RSPB Scotland and then by Scottish Natural Heritage, showed that raptor persecution is often linked to driven grouse moors. It is seven years since that conclusion prompted the Scottish Government to commission the Werritty review. It is four years since that independent review reported to the Government with clear recommendations, including that a licensing scheme be established for the shooting of grouse, and that all muirburn be subject to increased legal regulation. It is three years since the Government responded with a commitment to action.

However, many people believe that that action does not go far enough, and that the killing of an animal to protect another solely for the purpose of then killing that animal for sport—the so-called “circle of destruction” that Revive has described—is itself cruel. I am certainly on the record as saying that we cannot license cruelty. However, I recognise that the bill is not about restricting grouse shooting; it is primarily a modest proposal to license it and to regulate an inadequately regulated sector. However, we could be forgiven for thinking that it was much more, given the hysterical opposition to these modest proposals.

Licensing is not a new thing. It is what NatureScot does, professionally and robustly, on a daily basis for a variety of purposes. Law-abiding businesses have nothing to fear from licensing, and it is frankly remarkable that, before now, we have never had a licensing scheme for grouse shooting.

However, the bill, which in many respects seems unfinished, could—and should—be strengthened in many ways. I welcome the Government’s commitment to do so by lodging at stage 2 an amendment to deliver a comprehensive ban on snares. I congratulate stakeholders, including OneKind, that have championed that cause for many years.

Back in 2017, one of the first members’ debates that I brought to the chamber was on banning snares. The Government opposed a ban then. On the many later occasions on which I raised the subject, it wasted years defending cruel, unnecessary and indiscriminate behaviour. Snares and glue traps both cause immeasurable suffering to animals that have been caught in them, and their use cannot be justified. That is why the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission has recommended that both be banned. It is also why a comprehensive ban has just been introduced in Wales and why a ban exists across much of Europe. Let us get on with it in Scotland. Let us see through attempts to rebrand snares as “humane cable restraints” and through any pretence that setting a glue trap somehow makes the process any less cruel.

We should strengthen the bill’s provisions on traps—not just through licensing them and requiring training in their use, but through making it a requirement to provide data on all trapped and killed animals. We should aim to expand the types of traps that are included in the bill, through reviewing all types that are used in Scotland to assess their animal welfare impacts and the reasons for their use.

We should also ensure that licences are granted only where there is a robust reason for traps’ use, which—I am sorry—should not be to help in rearing grouse for shooting. That position is backed by the public. Independent polling by Diffley Partnership for Revive showed that, although there was support for use of traps for conservation and livestock protection, there was none for its use in enhancing grouse numbers.

I have spoken previously on the need to incorporate the international consensus principles for ethical wildlife control into our policies on wildlife management. We could start by using those principles in assessing any licence application for use of traps.

A licensing scheme also needs to be properly resourced. Given that, whenever we raise issues in this Parliament, we are always told that there is no money, the Government should make the licensing scheme in the bill fully recoverable. NatureScot is experienced in running schemes, but the addition of trapping licensing and licensing of grouse moors, as well as the burden of licensing that has been brought in by the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Act 2023, will need an expansion of licensing teams, which should be funded through the scheme.

I also have a lot of sympathy for the argument that licensing should be for longer than one year, which is a period that would be burdensome for applicants and NatureScot. A period of up to three years might be more realistic, with scope for appropriate review and updating during that time.

In the short time that I have, I want also to touch on muirburn. As I have said, the proposals are modest. There are no plans for a ban on muirburn, even on peatland, but, again, the bill can be improved. If we are to support the principle of having a muirburn season, the RSPB makes a powerful case for ending that season on 15 March in order to protect nesting birds, given that, due to climate change, several species are breeding earlier than has been the case historically, and the current suggested conclusion of the season on 15 April overlaps with nesting by eagles, curlew and red grouse.

Photo of Jim Fairlie Jim Fairlie Scottish National Party

I have some information about the concerns about nesting that the member is talking about. Golden plover could be nesting by 15 April, as could stonechat, but they will not be nesting in the areas where muirburn will be happening. Peregrines could be nesting earlier, but they are far more likely to be in crags, where there is not likely to be muirburn. The vast majority of the ground-nesting birds that we are trying to protect will not properly start nesting down until 30 April.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

There is evidence to say that the date of 15 April for a conclusion of the season overlaps with nesting by eagles, curlew and red grouse. There is a discussion to be had about whether, given the fact that we know that a lot of birds are nesting earlier because of climate change, 15 April is the most appropriate date.

The RSPB also makes a strong case for lowering the depth definition for peat to 30cm, in line with the UK peatland strategy and the peatland code.

There are many issues that I have not had time to touch on, so I look forward to contributing to discussions at stages 2 and 3 to improve a bill that still requires a lot of work. I also look forward to supporting the principles of the bill at decision time, because, at long last, the bill provides a tangible deterrent to the on-going problem of raptor persecution. It will not solve it, but it does—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

The member is winding up, I am afraid.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

I would have loved to give way to Mr Carson. I am sure that his comment would have been supportive.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Could I take this opportunity to invite Mr Smyth to refer to his entry in the register of members’ interests, which states that he is a member of the League Against Cruel Sports?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That is not a point of order, Mr Carson. It is up to members themselves to indicate that they have interests that they need to declare.

Mr Smyth, could you conclude, please?

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

I am perfectly aware of the rules around voluntary interests. Perhaps Mr Carson wants to read those rules himself before he makes such comments.

The bill will provide accountability when it comes to land management practices such as muirburn and trapping, and it will help us to begin to tackle the problem of raptor persecution. It will take a small step towards the giant leap that we still need to make in improving animal welfare.

Photo of Jim Fairlie Jim Fairlie Scottish National Party

The bill is the latest iteration of our response to the completely heinous and unacceptable practice of raptor persecution in Scotland’s countryside. The aims have undoubtedly grown in scope since the Werritty report, but that is no bad thing as long as we get the balance right with regard to protecting wildlife, tackling climate change, creating biodiversity and meeting the needs of the hard-working men and women who are the bedrock of our rural population: the farmers, the shepherds, the cattlemen, the tractormen, the keepers, the estate workers and all the associated downstream sector workers.

In the spirit of recognising those rural workers, I am delighted to be wearing a handcrafted piece from my constituent Iona Macgregor, whom Rachael Hamilton mentioned. She lives in the Logiealmond hills in the very same glen that I farmed before I came into the Parliament. I am proud to wear that today in support of all those workers, who are an essential component of our rural population. They help to keep open local schools, pubs, shops, garages and, in winter, rural roads. They are also the fourth emergency service—my colleague Kate Forbes alluded to that. We should not only discourage but actively seek to reverse depopulation in our rural communities.

There is no doubt that some areas of the bill will be contentious. The stage 2 debate will undoubtedly be an exercise in negotiation and compromise. I encourage everyone in the chamber to negotiate and compromise, because the negotiations and compromises will be with the people who are sitting in the gallery.

I very much welcome the minister’s plan to lodge an amendment to the trap tampering legislation that we talked about earlier.

I will support the general principles of the bill without hesitation, and I look forward to the stage 2 sessions in order to shape the bill so that it works in the spirit of what it sets out to do, given its functions and the acceptance of almost the entire population of this country not only that climate change and biodiversity loss are serious matters but that it is essential to manage them. However, it is sometimes very interesting to hear the outcry from people when they realise that that means that actions in their area are needed to tackle the issues. All of a sudden, the enthusiasm and agreement that we need to get something done change, usually to the point at which it is said, “Yes, we need to agree to do something, but just not here.”

With that in mind, I am heartened by the conversations with, almost to a person, the farmers, land managers and keepers, who not only accept the challenges that we face relating to climate change and biodiversity loss but are looking to actively play their part in reversing the decline and delivering for nature, the climate and—just as important—rural communities, whose very existence relies on the viable, healthy, working rural environment that we are all striving to deliver.

As a boy, I had a total preoccupation with birds—in particular, birds of prey. My favourite was the peregrine falcon. I was deeply miffed when Bob Doris, the MSP for Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn, was made the wildlife champion for the peregrine falcon.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Does the member accept that we have birds of prey in Glasgow and that we look after them very well? [

Laughter

.]

Photo of Jim Fairlie Jim Fairlie Scottish National Party

John Mason should have waited.

I questioned the validity of bold Bob Doris getting in before me to pinch my peregrine falcon from out in front of me. After all, he is a city boy, and I am a Teuchter. Surely it is only right that the country loon gets the majestic peregrine falcon to champion. However, as I sat in my office in the Parliament looking out of the window for inspiration, I was more than a bit surprised to witness a peregrine falcon flying over the buildings of our capital city. I had to concede that Bob, the city boy, was absolutely entitled to his peregrine given that peregrines are now in such rude health that they hunt city pigeons over our capital city.

Mind you, I got the curlew, which is the most iconic of moorland birds. I am delighted to be the curlew champion. Protecting all ground nesters is what the bill is all about.

I might have made light of some of the serious issues that we need to tackle and which we seek to tackle in the bill, but I am determined to work with all stakeholders as we progress through stage 2 at committee to try to find the right compromises, in the same way that we did with the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill, so that we continue to represent our rural constituencies and tackle the issues.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

Jim Fairlie talks about compromises. He has not addressed some of the other issues in the bill. In which areas is he looking for the Government to make some compromises?

Photo of Jim Fairlie Jim Fairlie Scottish National Party

There are numerous things that will be decided through compromise, conversation and quiet negotiation with the stakeholders at hand. There are many of those to get through.

Finlay Carson, Rachael Hamilton and Oliver Mundell have all said that the licensing scheme for hunting with dogs has been a disaster. I can tell them that the first licence for hunting with dogs has already been granted. It is happening today. Atholl and Breadalbane has its licence. NatureScot is working with the practitioners to ensure that they can make that work.

Finally, I cannot mention the peregrine falcon today without passing comment on the perpetrators of the heinous crime that was committed in the Pentlands this week, when an illegally set pole trap was used to catch and kill one of those magnificent birds. I do not have the words in me to express my disgust at the perpetrators. I hope that, in the fullness of time, they are caught and the full force of the law is brought upon them.

Photo of Ariane Burgess Ariane Burgess Green

Earlier this month, I had the p leasure of attending the Revive coalition’s national conference. The event brought together a great number, and a wide variety, of people, many of whom live and work in rural Scotland, to ask us to consider what land management practices best serve the needs of Scotland’s people and natural world in this century, and what changes can help us in the face of the nature and climate crises.

Those are the very questions with which the committee grappled as we considered the core aspects of the bill. I thank my fellow committee members, along with the witnesses, the stakeholders and the Parliament clerks who supported us during stage 1.

I make it clear at the outset that I and the Scottish Green Party fully support the measures in the bill and, for context, so do the majority of people in Scotland. Polling from Revive shows that the majority of Scots oppose the use of wildlife traps and muirburn for the purpose of increasing grouse numbers and that six in 10 are opposed to grouse shooting.

Events just this week, as have been mentioned, further underline how vital the legislation is. On Monday, Police Scotland announced that a young golden eagle—one of the success stories of the south of Scotland translocation programme—has been missing since 18 October, when it was last located in the Scottish Borders. The police statement said:

“officers believe the bird has come to harm and are treating its disappearance as suspicious.”

Barely 24 hours later, another police appeal was issued regarding the peregrine falcon that, as Jim Fairlie mentioned, was found dead in an illegally set pole trap just outside Edinburgh.

Our protected birds of prey are not safe under the current law. RSPB Scotland’s latest “Birdcrime” report found that, in 2022, at least 64 per cent of the total incidents of raptor persecution across the UK were linked to land managed for pheasant, partridge and grouse shooting. That is the same evidential link that led the Scottish Government to consider legislative options in the previous session of Parliament.

The grouse moor licensing provisions in the bill will set basic requirements for sporting businesses to comply with, guided by a co-produced code of practice. That will ensure that the majority of businesses that currently follow the law can continue to operate above suspicion while raising the bar for those who persist in undertaking illegal management practices.

I am particularly pleased that the Government has committed to bringing forward additional provisions at stage 2 to extend the Scottish SPCA’s powers and to fully banning snares. Although the committee could not reach a consensus view on the snare proposal, I am convinced by the overwhelming evidence that we heard from the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission and others that the very real harm that is caused by snares, whether they are of a traditional or more recent design, cannot be mitigated.

A ban is warranted on the weight of the animal welfare impact alone. An animal that is caught in a snare is injured and highly stressed, exposed to the elements and other predators and denied food and water. Snares are completely indiscriminate—a fox can be trapped, but so can species such as otters, and even pets, as we heard from my colleague Karen Adam, which is not the intention. Conservation organisations spoke about the alternative approaches that they employ to protect important bird species from predation. A ban on snares will be a mark of the high regard that this country has for its iconic wildlife.

Again, I am in full support of the minister’s plans to extend the Scottish SPCA’s powers. We heard in evidence on several occasions of scenarios in which an SSPCA officer who is called to attend an injured animal that has been caught in an illegally set trap cannot investigate or seize appropriate evidence of illegal activity because the animal has died by the time that they arrive. The SSPCA’s current powers do not cover that type of situation, but the proposed extension of powers would allow evidence of wildlife crime in such circumstances to be gathered by inspectors. That change would expand our ability to bring more of those who perpetrate wildlife crimes to justice, and it would protect the reputations of businesses that abide by the law.

I will turn to other aspects of the bill in my remaining time. I agree with the proposals to require those setting wildlife traps to—

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

Will the member give way? You never give way.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Could you resume your seat for a second, Ms Burgess?

Mr Mountain, that falls well outside the courtesy and respect requirements that are on all members throughout the course of their business in the chamber.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

If I can comment, I apologise profusely if I have overstepped the mark. I would like to make an intervention.

Photo of Ariane Burgess Ariane Burgess Green

I will continue, as I am concerned about the time.

I agree with the proposals to require those setting wildlife traps to register with NatureScot, undergo training and display identification numbers on their traps.

Last but by no means least, the provision on licensing muirburn takes us a step further in responding to the climate emergency by protecting Scotland’s peatlands and their vital role of locking up carbon emissions. We have heard debate about the extent of peatlands that should be included in the licence schemes—

Photo of Ariane Burgess Ariane Burgess Green

We have heard debate about the extent of peatlands that should be included in the licence schemes—whether it should be a depth of 50cm, 40cm or 30cm—but many scientists recognise that all peat is peat and that all of it merits protection.

The proposals before us strike a balance in limiting what muirburn occurs and when, while allowing the Government to gather better data on why muirburn is practised, by whom and where.

I will take an intervention from Finlay Carson.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

Thank you for giving way. Can you tell me whether we heard any evidence of peat being damaged under controlled muirburn conditions?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Mr Carson, p lease speak through the chair. Ms Burgess, I can give you the time back for the intervention.

Photo of Ariane Burgess Ariane Burgess Green

Thank you. As I said, from my perspective, peat is peat, and we should be considering seriously whether we should be burning anywhere. I will seek further discussion with the minister at stage 2 on the proposed dates for the muirburn season to ensure that burning activity does not interfere with the bird nesting season, which occurs earlier each year due to climate change.

The Parliament must legislate for the Scotland of the future—a future that will see us grappling with the consequences of the climate and nature crises. The bill gives the Government the tools that are needed to better protect Scotland’s wildlife and ensure that peatlands are restored and our uplands are fit for the future. I am pleased to support the principles of the bill.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

Ariane Burgess is quite wrong—we legislate for the Scotland of the present. We have to deal with the present realities, which is something that the members who are proposing and supporting the bill do not seem to have a grasp of.

I would love to have heard from Karen Adam what the British Pest Control Association said was a better way of controlling the rat population, which is exponentially increasing in our cities, particularly in hospitals and other sensitive places. I tried to intervene to ask her to tell us about that, but she did not accept.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I would be delighted to hear what those better ways are.

Photo of Karen Adam Karen Adam Scottish National Party

The member says that I did not say what would be a better solution. We know that there are alternatives, but perhaps it is because we are consistently using glue traps and not the alternatives that we cannot get a better bearing on that.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I think that the

Official Report will show that Karen Adam said that she had met the British Pest Control Association outside the committee and that it told her that there were better methods, even if they were slightly more expensive. That suggested that something very specific had been shared with Karen Adam, and it should be shared with the whole chamber.

I always enjoy listening to Kate Forbes—she is an excellent speaker in the chamber, whatever position she takes. However, she gave a very political speech and said very little about the areas of the bill that I am sure, in her heart of hearts, she knows are absolutely not what rural Scotland wants.

Likewise, Jim Fairlie gave a very clever speech. For Jim Fairlie especially, it was a wonderfully clever speech, which said absolutely nothing about the things in the bill that he will know that the people in his constituency who work the land do not want.

Photo of Kate Forbes Kate Forbes Scottish National Party

That is v ery good of the member, because I appreciate that I did not let him intervene on me.

What I tried to say in my remarks—I will say it again—is that the licensing scheme cannot be onerous. If it is onerous and overly bureaucratic, we may not end up with the muirburn that we need. That is an example of an area that I would like to see some compromise on.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

That is welcome, but, of course, there are many other things in the bill.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

Of course I will give way to Jim Fairlie, because I mentioned him and he is entitled to have his say.

Photo of Jim Fairlie Jim Fairlie Scottish National Party

I thank Mr Kerr for taking an intervention. The point of my speech was to support the general principles of the bill.

However, I talked about the fact that an awful lot of negotiation is done and that there are areas of the bill that will have to be looked at, but that will be done quietly and properly, and without the yah-boo politics that seem to be going on in here.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

Jim Fairlie is in favour of the principles of the bill, but then he says that a lot of it will need to be changed. If that is the case, he cannot be in favour of the principles of the bill and he would have to vote against it, but I am sure that that will not happen, because I have been around here for long enough to know that that is not how the SNP works.

Photo of Audrey Nicoll Audrey Nicoll Scottish National Party

I am not on the committee, and I have been listening with great interest to the debate. One thing that I picked up on from the report was about

“the tension between the ‘expert’ knowledge of scientists ... and ‘local’ knowledge held by practitioners based in the field”.

In my view, the comments that Jim Fairlie made were absolutely appropriate in that there has to be discussion and consideration given by all sides.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

Of course there does. However, if somebody says that they are in favour of the principles of the bill but then says that there will be a lot of compromising and discussion—a “lot” of it—that means that a lot of the bill is not what is needed by rural Scotland. The SNP members who represent rural constituencies know that very well.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I am not sure that I will be allowed to take many more interventions—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I will not be able to give you back all the time, Mr Kerr.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

—as much as I love a good and proper debate, which we occasionally have in the chamber.

The fact is that the bill shows, writ large, the blinkered and dogmatic thinking of this Green-led SNP Government—because that is what it is. It reveals a Government that is unwilling to listen. We heard the story about how stakeholders came to my friend the convener’s committee—the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee—and gave their evidence. Less than 24 hours later, without that evidence ever being considered, everything was overturned.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

It is up to you, Mr Kerr. I can give you some of the time back, but I cannot give you all the time.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

Mr Kerr will be forgiven for not realising, because he is not on the committee, that the committee asked me to make a decision on snaring when I gave evidence the week before. I committed to giving the committee that decision, which happened the day after the stakeholders gave evidence on snaring. It was the committee that asked for that decision.

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

I was advised that the minister would say exactly that. The reality is that there were many other issues that the minister was asked to come back to the committee on for which she did not abide by its timetable. She could easily have said to the convener—who is one of the most reasonable people in Parliament, by the way—that she wanted more time to consider the evidence that had been presented the day before in the committee. [

Interruption

.]

Photo of Stephen Kerr Stephen Kerr Conservative

This is a Government that is driven less by pragmatism—in fact, it is driven not at all by pragmatism but completely by ideology. It shows itself again today as caring nothing for the views of people who live and work in rural Scotland. I think that the SNP members opposite me know that in their heart of hearts. The Government is in thrall to that ideology, and it is dangerous.

Muirburn is an essential part of managing the countryside, but the SNP-Green Government’s proposals, which aim to protect Scotland’s peatlands, are a perfect showcase of how prioritising optics over expertise leads to dangerous legislation.

The idea that somebody in Edinburgh knows better than people who have been stewards of our land for generations is downright offensive. Curiosity and rigorous fact finding before making decisions used to be a prerequisite for entering public service, but the SNP-Green Government is different. It will sit on any back bencher who dares to ask difficult questions and to be curious, but it rewards blind loyalty. If members on the Government benches continue to refuse to heed the warnings and insights of those who truly understand the matters that are before the Parliament in the bill, all of Scotland will suffer the consequences.

The bill, like many others pushed by the SNP-Green Government, falls shockingly short in substance and, at the same time, overreaches itself. In fact, it significantly elevates the risk of wildfires, a point that was made by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, which has warned that restricting muirburn locations could leave a larger fuel load unmanaged and heighten the risk of devastating wildfires that could harm peatlands.

I have taken a lot of interventions, and the Presiding Officer has been very generous with me. I would have liked to mention many other things, such as licensing and the idea—which I do not support—that we need to extend the SSPCA’s powers. There are many other issues, but the bottom line of my appeal to members on the Government side of the chamber is that, when we come to decision time, they vote according to what they know is right for their constituencies and not what they have been told by a chief whip.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

A s other members have pointed out, the bill deals with very disparate subjects, but its title attempts to deal with that fact honestly. No such bill will please every interest group but, in this case, it does what it says on the legislative tin.

More importantly, it is a genuine attempt to address several real concerns around animal welfare and biodiversity, while balancing those needs against the genuine interests of those who work in the countryside, pest control and other areas of the economy.

With that in mind, as a member of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee, I am happy to support the general principles of the bill and to recommend it to Parliament for further consideration. Incidentally, there is no contradiction between supporting the general principles of a bill and recommending it for further consideration.

I thank other members of the committee, the committee clerks and the many individuals and organisations who have provided us with evidence, both in person and in writing. Collectively, they have allowed the committee to produce the stage 1 report that we are debating today.

In the time that is available to me, I will not get round every aspect of the bill but a substantial part of its scope deals with wildlife crime and, in particular, the issue of raptor persecution, as the minister mentioned. Raptor persecution is, by its nature, a crime that is largely committed without human witnesses. We received significant evidence that, as a consequence, the criminal standard of evidence that currently applies in raptor persecution cases is proving hard—indeed, perhaps virtually impossible—to meet. That is true even in situations where significant concerns exist about activities on a particular landholding.

In contrast to the rather fevered contribution that we heard from Mr Mundell, RSPB Scotland’s evidence pointed to

“an overwhelming weight of peer-reviewed science, innumerable police investigations and a considerable amount of witness evidence proving that crimes against raptors are inextricably linked to grouse moor management”.

The organisation highlighted a May 2023 study that analysed data from more than140 satellite-tagged hen harriers. According to RSPB Scotland, the study revealed

“very low survival rates” and showed that

“mortality hazards due to illegal killing were higher for birds using upland areas managed for grouse shooting.”

The committee heard significant evidence that, although the vast majority of land managers—including the vast majority of grouse moor managers—are working within the law, a licensing scheme around grouse moor estates is a proportionate response to ensure that raptor persecution, where it happens, is being tackled.

As I said, in the time that is available to me, I will not speak about everything in the bill. I am sure that other members will speak about snaring and other issues. However, I will briefly mention muirburn, which is one of the other major subjects of this bill.

The committee heard evidence from a variety of sectors, including crofting, which is relevant to my area. The Scottish Crofting Federation raised questions about how any new regulation would be designed and implemented with crofting in mind, as well as estates. Whatever system we use, it will need clarity around the responsibility for applications for muirburn on common grazings and how that might impact liability. I am sure that we will return to those issues.

On another completely different subject, one of the more unlikely questions about the bill that the committee took evidence on was, as other members have alluded to, the trapping of mice and rats, and how welfare concerns can be reconciled with legitimate pest control practices, not least in the health and hospitality sectors. It is undeniable that glue traps pose significant animal welfare concerns. Their indiscriminate nature means that, as well as rodents, unintended targets can be trapped, such as small birds or other animals. The committee heard evidence of the inappropriate use of such traps by members of the public. There is a general agreement that glue traps should not be available for the general public to purchase.

The committee also heard from the pest control industry about its preference for a licensing scheme to permit the continued use of glue traps in high-risk settings where, as others have alluded to, it may be difficult to find alternative solutions. Although the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission told the committee that a couple more years should bring better solutions for those settings, it has recommended a fallback option of a fixed term—a maximum of three years—of very strict licensing schemes for pest controllers while those alternatives are being investigated.

That is, incidentally, one area of the bill where it will be interesting to see whether the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 imposes constraints on the ability of this Parliament’s legislation to have practical effect. I appreciate that I have made this point before, but it is somewhat incredible that this place, which some members have disputatiously claimed to be the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world, should require the blessing of the UK Government before it can effectively change the law on rat traps—but there you go.

As the report indicates, there are questions to which Parliament will have to return with further scrutiny and debate. I point out, for those who do not seem to understand it, that that is what happens at stage 2 of legislation. In the meantime, I am happy to support the general principles of the bill and recommend it to Parliament for further consideration.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to the closing speeches. I advise members that the time that we had in hand has now been pretty much exhausted, so I will require members to stick to their time allocations. I call Sarah Boyack, who has up to six minutes.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

I t hank everyone on the committee, and the clerks and all those who gave evidence on the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill, because it is clearly a set of legislative proposals that has generated responses with a wide range of views. It is also clear from reading the committee report that much more still needs to be done on the topics that the bill addresses. Essentially, the bill is unfinished, and the committee and Parliament will have to do a lot more work to make sure that it delivers on the ambitions that were set out by the minister in her opening remarks.

It is rare not just to see detailed submissions from such a raft of stakeholders but for the committee’s recommendations to identify a range of areas where more work needs to be done before the bill is finalised. Today has been very useful in highlighting those debates. Humane wildlife control and land management that enables rural businesses to be successful while at the same time supporting biodiversity are vital principles, but we also need to join up some of the other debates that we are having in the chamber and address the challenge that is posed by climate change and extreme weather. That means a more joined-up approach not just in policy terms but in action, to ensure that the management of our land is sustainable, whether it is dealing with increased incidence of flooding or the impact of droughts, which lead to more and more fires across land when it dries out or is degraded. Kate Forbes’s comments were quite important in highlighting that.

What I take away is that we need to involve and support land managers in managing moorlands and peatlands. That is critical if we are to support rural jobs and livelihoods, but it is also important for safety, and the long-standing contribution that we can make in relation to climate change. There is also a key issue in relation to resources, which I will come back to.

On the key aspects of the bill, Scottish Labour very much supports the principles of humane wildlife control and biodiversity and the proposals to ban glue traps, tackle raptor persecution and ban traditional snares. The committee received powerful evidence from animal welfare groups and nature conservation organisations on the need for legislation. Alasdair Allan made important points about the peer-reviewed evidence that was highlighted by RSPB Scotland. There is a key issue about not only considering existing evidence but collecting more evidence as the legislation is implemented, and as the licensing regimes are developed and implemented, because a lot more work needs to be done to make those ambitions successful.

That goes back to the point that I made about a joined-up approach to working with land managers and farmers to ensure that the implementation of the bill works. The recommendations from the grouse moor management group and the research by the national wildlife crime unit and RSPB Scotland all need to feed into the bill so that there is a pragmatic approach to the licensing that is being suggested and to ensure that that is managed as it is introduced.

It is clear from looking at the evidence that there is a major challenge in resourcing the bill’s implementation. Our police are already under huge financial pressures, so it is important that there are resources for new obligations that follow from the bill, whether for the police or NatureScot. An issue to pick up is that, although we can see merit in giving additional powers of investigation to SSPCA officers, Scottish Labour believes that, having looked at the evidence, the police have to retain primacy over wildlife crime investigations. There were concerns raised by legal stakeholders that need to be addressed. The new obligations will require more investment and additional training, with protocols being developed that are transparent and do not undermine our criminal justice system.

There have been quite a few discussions this afternoon about the licensing schemes that are being proposed. They need to be implemented successfully, and it is important that they do not create unintended consequences. Again, they must be designed effectively.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

As the bill stands, NatureScot requires nothing more than an accusation of crime to suspend a licence, and that will affect jobs and livelihoods. Does the member agree that it could also contravene article 6 of the European convention on human rights?

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

W e need to look at the evidence. There is clear evidence of wrongdoing out there, which must be challenged. Standards must be raised, but there needs to be proper and effective enforcement. The points that were made about not doing annual licensing rounds and making licences longer are the kind of details that came out in the committee evidence, and that is important. There is a lot of work to be done by the Scottish Government to ensure that, by the time we get the bill through stage 2 and into stage 3, it has been effectively amended so that it will cover the areas of uncertainty that have been highlighted by the committee.

The points that Rhoda Grant made about muirburn must be considered, because we need the new regime to be effective. It requires a joined-up approach with stakeholders—the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, land managers and NatureScot—because we critically need well-managed moorlands and peatlands that not only support biodiversity but support rural jobs. That is the discussion that has been had in the chamber today, and it needs to keep going into the committee.

We may not get unanimous agreement on the bill, but we need to use stage 2 to improve it so that we have monitoring and reviewing of the licensing regimes. There is a commitment from ministers on that to ensure that the regimes are proportionate. To address the points that Colin Smyth made, I note that the regimes are really important because they will make a difference in our communities. They will improve biodiversity, improve wildlife and stop the abuse of wildlife that we currently see. It is critical that those who implement the new regimes have the staff and resources to make them effective.

Scottish Labour will support the bill this afternoon. However, we have been listening to the comments that have been made by a range of stakeholders.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

You need to conclude.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

We support the bill’s ambitions but, in crafting amendments and thinking through how the bill will be implemented, we must listen to the evidence that has been given to the committee and that has been discussed and flagged up in the chamber today.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

I reiterate my apology for my intemperate intervention on Ariane Burgess. I will, of course, be prepared to give way to her if she wants to interrupt or make an intervention during my speech.

I declare that I have no registered interest in the moorland and muirburn aspects of the bill. However, I want to make it clear that I have an interest in what the bill aims to do, especially in relation to trapping.

For many years—probably more than 40—I have been involved in upland management. I have learned that achieving a balance is what is best for the environment. No one wants a desert, and that is often the consequence of overmanagement or undermanagement.

I will admit to getting blood on my hands from controlling and fighting moorland fires, culling deer, creating and defending habitats, and protecting lambs and ground-nesting birds from predation. I have got dirt under my fingernails and I have been covered in soot. I am proud of what I have done and what I have achieved, and I am proud of what I have achieved and led others to do.

Some of that might seem unacceptable to those who seek to make changes to the way we manage our countryside, but those are the people who have often become instant experts by reading biased briefings. Their hands are dirty from the ink on the paper of those briefings, and the blood that they have shed is from the paper cuts that they have got from turning the pages, not from working in the countryside. They have never spent freezing cold, wet nights out, waiting for foxes that steal their lambs, or spent days fighting fires. That is why people in the countryside feel ignored and marginalised.

Let me be clear: managing wildlife is gruelling hard work, and it requires the striking of a balance between giving life and ending life. People in the countryside know that and accept it. I am somewhat disappointed by the arguments that I have heard during the evidence sessions, which have often been ill informed and based on arguments put forward by single-issue pressure groups that do not promote balance.

I turn to the points that have been raised in the debate. I do not believe that the minister is right in her belief that grouse moor licensing will prevent illegal raptor persecution. I believe that illegal raptor persecution is a scourge, and I have always said that. I do not think that licensing will make a difference, but I think that, because of the way in which the bill is being forced through, it will come. If the minister is to make that law—

Photo of Kate Forbes Kate Forbes Scottish National Party

I ask this question in all sincerity. What would the member suggest to the Government that it could consider as a way of ending raptor persecution?

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

I think that a huge amount has been done. On raptor persecution, which I will cover separately, the fact that there were only six incidents last year shows the huge decline that there has been. In my opinion, the fines should be increased and there should be increased policing.

To return to grouse moor licensing, I believe that the minister needs to consider making the length of a licence much longer. I think that five years should be the minimum period. A huge amount of investment is required in the countryside. In addition, I personally do not like the idea of NatureScot being judge, jury and executioner. What I have seen of NatureScot in the past indicates to me that it is not always fair, and those who fall under its clutches and are met with disapproval often do not feel that they have been treated fairly. I would be more convinced about supporting a form of licensing if I believed that NatureScot would be taken out of the equation, but I do not believe that I can be convinced, because I do not believe that NatureScot is an honest broker.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I am interested in what the member is saying. Who should be in charge of the licensing regime if not NatureScot?

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

As we know from the European courts, it is never considered a good thing to have one person responsible for issuing a licence, for regulating it and for prosecuting those who do not follow the licensing regime. I think that we need to find a new body. I do not know what the answer is.

Let me turn to raptor persecution. I believe that we will hear—indeed, many will have heard—the RSPB saying that the six birds of prey offences that were recorded in 2023 were the tip of the iceberg. They perhaps were the tip of the iceberg, and they were unacceptable, but I know from freedom of information requests that I have made to NatureScot that, in 2021, 11 birds of prey were chopped up by wind turbines, and they were the tip of the iceberg. Those birds included two golden eagles and a white-tailed sea eagle. That is unacceptable, in the same way as it is unacceptable that people persecute raptors. Oliver Mundell was right to bring up that issue.

When it comes to muirburn, I am probably one of the few people—I will take an intervention from anyone who wants to make one—who has done a considerable amount of muirburn. There are 25 pages in the muirburn code, and I think that I know them pretty well. It is a pretty good code. In fact, I have gone to arbitration over the muirburn code with NatureScot, and I won, because NatureScot did not understand it as well as I did. Abiding by the muirburn code is the right thing to do. There is no doubt in my mind that burning bits of heather that are on short peat—that is, small peat—is probably the wrong thing to do, because it is probably on higher ground.

I am conscious that I am running out of time, but I want to mention snaring before I close. I have not heard of a logical alternative to snaring. I am clear that placing live traps around the countryside does not really work. I believe that snaring works and that, if the snares are operated correctly and within the law, they should not cause suffering. I heard Karen Adam’s comment and am deeply disturbed to know that that happened. My response is that, if that had been a legal snare and had been operated within the guidance and rules that people are trained to use, that could not have happened, so someone must have done something wrong.

I believe that the argument for banning glue traps is a bad one but that the argument for banning their use by the public is a good one. Therefore, I would like to see regulation to allow professionals to use those traps. I do not accept the Government’s view that it cannot do that for the simple reason that it has done so with snaring, where there are rules and people must pass a course to be allowed to snare.

I cannot support the bill, and neither could the committee, but I know that it will be forced through by a majority of urban MSPs who have the best of intentions but have never faced some of the issues that we are discussing. Muirburn is a vital tool in our armoury to prevent wildfires, but there ain’t much heather round Edinburgh and Glasgow. Snaring might seem cruel, but is it more cruel than letting a fox or badger eat the rear end of a sheep that is in the process of lambing? Is chopping up birds of prey with wind turbines as unacceptable as poisoning and shooting them? I believe that it is.

Therefore, I cannot support the bill, because I do not believe that it supports the countryside and environment that this Parliament should support.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call the minister to wind up the debate.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

In closing the debate, I thank all the stakeholders who have engaged with me and who have contributed to the development of the bill by giving evidence. I also thank the members who have spoken in the debate. We have heard varied contributions. I enjoyed some more than others, but I will reflect on all the points that have been made.

The convener mentioned dispensation for pest controllers to use glue traps, but that is inherently problematic. I have looked into that and there is no actual accreditation. Other countries have banned glue traps: Wales did so recently, and other countries banned them years ago. I point to the example of New Zealand, which had a licensing scheme in place but never actually awarded any licences. A report that was written by pest controllers said that they had moved on from using glue traps and have not really missed them.

The convener also mentioned the suspension of licences following vexatious complaints. I have said to the committee that I will consider the relevant wording in the bill and decide whether clarity is needed regarding what an official investigation would mean. However, it is not true to say, as Rachael Hamilton did, that a licence will be suspended on the basis of an accusation. That is not true in any sphere of law. Evidence and an investigation are needed. What she said is not true and that kind of rhetoric is deeply worrying.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I will, because I mentioned the member.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

There are two standards of proof in Scotland: the civil and criminal burdens of proof. It is categorically correct to say that the bill introduces a power to punish without proof.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I whole-heartedly disagree with that. NatureScot will look at every case on its merits, working closely with Police Scotland and reacting in line with the seriousness of the potential breach of the licensing conditions.

I will move on to speak about some other contributions. Rachael Hamilton spoke about the evidence that the committee took, but did not, in answering my intervention, recognise that the committee was privileged to have Professor Werrity’s team come to talk about the benefits of a licensing scheme.

Alasdair Allan’s intervention was spot on: no one is saying that all grouse moors play host to illegal activity—far from it. I hope that I have made it clear that I know that there are estates in Scotland that do a great deal of excellent work to improve biodiversity. I have spoken on many occasions about the contribution that they make to rural life, tourism and local economies.

Ms Hamilton mentioned the human rights implications. Any ECHR implications have been carefully considered and we have been informed by the need to strike a balance between the rights of individuals and the general public interest, as always. I also point out that the Presiding Officer has ruled that the bill is ECHR-compliant.

I will move on to Rhoda Grant’s speech. I was pleased to hear of Labour’s support for the bill. Members will have seen that I raised a smile when Claudia Beamish was mentioned. I genuinely wish that she was with us in the chamber today, because she has long been a passionate campaigner for the measures that the bill proposes. I wish her well. Claudia was one of my friends in the previous session of Parliament and we worked together very well on the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee.

Rhoda Grant talked about following the science on muirburn—the muirburn season, in particular. I am following the science on that; it is something that I am actively considering. Ariane Burgess, too, mentioned the timing of the muirburn season, which is important because climate change means that the birds’ nesting seasons could be changing. I am actively looking at that.

Beatrice Wishart mentioned the importance of licensing schemes being proportionate and workable. I have taken on board—very much so—the suggestion of a longer licensing duration. Of course, the duration of the suspension of licensing will depend on decisions that we make about licence duration and a range of other factors around duration of investigations. I will work closely with NatureScot and the police wildlife crime unit on that.

I absolutely hear what was said about glue-trap alternatives. There is flexibility in relation to commencement in that regard, because the bill specifies no date and no duration. However, I draw Ms Wishart’s attention to what happened in New Zealand, which I have already mentioned.

Karen Adam talked about the sustainability of grouse shooting and its positive contribution to the natural environment when it is managed well. I absolutely agree with her, but I go back to my point that I believe that licensing will be a good thing for the whole sector.

Photo of Finlay Carson Finlay Carson Conservative

A crucial element that we really want to hear about is whether the minister will give serious consideration to bringing in proper legal safeguards against vexatious or third-party claims, which could result in a licence being suspended and, on the back of that, job losses and income losses.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I refer Mr Carson to the comments that I made on that when I was in front of the committee. That will be taken into consideration when the licensing scheme is developed. NatureScot will work with the Police Scotland wildlife crime unit on that. Vexatious allegations happen in every area of justice. It is for the police to determine whether something is without foundation and is vexatious.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

I need to move on.

Karen Adam mentioned other species that snares can catch unintentionally. The situation that her cat was put in was horrible. My parents have had such experiences as well, with their cats. However, it is not just about cats: other protected species are caught in the traps, including badgers, as is mentioned in written evidence that has been provided.

I do not want to dwell too much on Oliver Mundell’s speech—not least because I felt that it was personally attacking in a way that I found unpalatable in a parliamentarian. I reject his comments about the central belt. I am not from the central belt; I am a rural MSP. I have given stakeholders time to put forward a proposal on humane cable restraints. I say on the record again that ample time was given to those who wanted to propose a licensing scheme for humane cable restraints. Unfortunately, when it came in front of me, I did not feel that it answered significant questions about what were being proposed as the conditions of that licensing scheme. It did not meet the standard that I would have expected, given some of the arguments around banning them.

On the argument that I have not listened to evidence and that I have made a snap decision, I have to say, “My goodness—can’t you do better than that?” For goodness’ sake—I had people talk to me about humane cable restraints. Since the moment when I took on the environment portfolio, I have listened to all the evidence, I have looked at all the evidence and I have met stakeholders over a period of months.

Rightly, Kate Forbes mentioned wildfires. In her portfolio question to me yesterday, she mentioned the gamekeepers who stopped the fires at Cannich. In response, I mentioned that, when dealing with an emergency situation such as that, people would not have to have a licence for muirburn in order to put firebreaks in place.

I am glad that Colin Smyth spoke today, because his interest in the subject is long standing. He said what a lot of people have said to me: licensing should not worry anyone who is law abiding. As, I think, he said—businesses have nothing to fear.

I remember his members’ business debate on snaring, back in 2017.

Photo of Gillian Martin Gillian Martin Scottish National Party

Colin Smyth criticised the Government for hesitating, but I hope that he understands why we needed to take robust evidence. Who should members believe—Mr Mundell, who says that I made a snap decision, or Colin Smyth, who says that we are dilly-dallying?

I will wind up now. I thank everyone for their contributions and I apologise to those whom I have not had time to mention.

Photo of Rachael Hamilton Rachael Hamilton Conservative

On a point of order, Presiding Officer.

The minister has been disingenuous with regard to her consideration of the evidence that was given on humane cable restraints on 8 and 9 November. The freedom of information response specifically states that she did not consider that evidence. That is what my colleague Oliver Mundell stated in his contribution today.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

That is not a point of order, but it is now on the record.

That concludes the debate on the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill at stage 1.