The SCA was the only organisation to host events about rural affairs at this year’s conferences and our meetings asked delegates from the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and SNP to consider “Who are the real conservationists?” The conservation debate in the UK has become increasingly ideological driven and our meetings were designed to highlight the work of those who farm, fish and shoot to the preservation of the Scottish countryside.
The MSPs, candidates and delegates who attended the meetings all agreed that conservation is best done in co-operation with different groups and requires the support of local communities. Alex Stoddart from the Scottish Association for Country Sports (SACS) said that “communities are at the heart of conservation work” and there was a lot of discussion at all the meetings about policies to support rural communities such as affordable rural housing, access to high speed broadband and the need to provide local jobs.
Most delegates recognised that farmers, fisherman and gamekeepers have a role to play in conservation. Alex Fergusson (Con) MSP said that “good land management is good conservation” and Rob Gibson (SNP) MSP said he had “nothing against fishing and shooting.” Duncan Orr-Ewing from the RSPB and Helen McDade from the John Muir Trust both recognised that wildlife needs to be managed. Duncan acknowledged that predation from foxes and other generalist predators is a problem which is why “we kill things on our reserves”.
The reintroduction of species such as beaver and red kite was a more contentious subject and many attendees expressed concerns about the use of charitable or public money for these projects and the lack of consultation about the knock-on effects to farmers and other wildlife.
There was also agreement that policies affecting wildlife and land management needed to be practical which often means finding a balance. In response to a question about ‘raptor persecution’ at the SNP conference, Alex Stoddart (SACS) highlighted that the predator control carried out by gamekeepers, and paid for by shooting, had benefits to non-game species including the ground nesting hen harrier. Richard Cooke from the Association of Deer Management Groups, and Factor of the Dalhousie Estate, stressed the need to manage the deer population through sustainable stalking and culling activities. At the Liberal Democrat conference Lord Purves (LibDem) also stressed the importance of sustainability to good conservation work.
This year’s conferences took place against the background of the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill currently going through Holyrood and there was plenty of discussion about this, particularly at the SNP conferences. Rob Wilson (SNP) MSP stated that a third of Scottish estates do not make a profit and he thought that community ownership would bring investment and innovation. Alex Stoddart (SACS) said that some parts of the Bill should be welcomed but questioned whether greater community ownership was the answer to the problems faced in rural Scotland.
All of the meetings were well attended and it is clear that conservation remains a popular and emotive subject that all candidates in the May elections will have to consider.