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Contempt for the countryside

Do you ever get the feeling that you are constantly swimming against the tide? In our sector it seems to be getting harder and harder to operate the way we should be doing in order to continue our responsible custodianship of what we inherited. We know we have to move with the times, and it often makes complete sense to progress when and where we can, but why is it that our government insists that we should be going backwards, under the guise of progression? Welfare. A simple word but a very useful one for justifying some pretty shocking decisions. Who can argue when welfare is the supposed reason for poor legislation being introduced? We can, that’s who.

The Scottish National Party have never really appeared to understand our rural way of life, but then again, they’ve never really tried to. Of late, it seems that they aren’t interested in gaining the rural vote, or maybe they think they just don’t need it… but will this be another nail in the coffin of a party that commits to “working with stakeholders” and “consulting with industry experts”. These words have been spoken in several rural affairs committee meetings and chamber debates, yet they are utterly empty phrases that slip off the tongues of Ministers and Senior Civil Servants so easily that it is starting to actually become offensive to many organisational representatives in Scotland.

Numerous rural or wildlife-orientated public consultations have been published over the past couple of years and, each time, Ministers and MSPs have stood in Holyrood and professed their commitment to working with those who are the experts in their field, particularly those who the proposed legislation will affect the most. This was warmly welcomed, and our sector was happy to work with the Scottish Government to assist them in shaping legislation that works. In recent weeks and months, I have been approached by numerous sources who each relay their disgust at what seems to be developing into a dictatorship. They had noticed what I had also become aware of, and they aren’t happy.

The Scottish Government commissioned an independent report by Lord Bonomy in relation to hunting with dogs. In his final findings, Lord Bonomy detailed a number of factual observations that were supportive of some elements of hunting with dogs, and these included some welfare aspects. When the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Act was passing through the parliamentary process in 2022/23, many of these findings were presented to Ministers in support of good and workable legislation. They were ignored and instead whatever was helpful to the enforcement of this poor legislation was cherry-picked from the report and utilised. I might also add that bias opinion from animal activist organisations was also preferred over facts and evidence from rural organisations. The result is a poorly created Act that now has overly restrictive equally poorly created guidance so that licenses are hard come by. Stinks of beaver legislation too, does it not? The insult to injury is that our government sneaked this in without a word to any organisation in our sector and with only a matter of days before it was to be enacted. Another promise broken since Ministers had stated that a workable process would be in place well prior to enactment so that practitioners could apply for licences in good time. Well, if one applied for a licence now, it would likely be weeks before it was granted.

We have also spent years working on improvements to traps and trapping techniques. In December 2022, I was part of a small team who assisted in compiling a report on snaring for the Scottish Government. Snares have changed significantly and, since 2012, we have been using methods and equipment that hold the target species until it is despatched. In more recent times we have voluntarily moved to Humane Cable Restraints (HCR’s), which has again come with industry improvements in both techniques and hardware. This Autumn, our government have proposed a ban on these restraints, labelling them cruel and indiscriminate, showing again the complete ignorance of how our countryside practices work. I have just today read a scientific report by Professor Stephen Harris BSc PhD DSc who states “There is no evidence that professional/highly experienced operators catch fewer non-target species than other users…” It leaves me to wonder what experience in snaring the Professor actually has. The GWCT, an independent scientific research organisation, seem to think otherwise and have also submitted evidence to parliament that has been brushed under the carpet, and they have extensive snaring and trapping experience. I have operated snares since I was a boy, long before today’s humane methods were introduced. I have been an accredited operator as a Gamekeeper and progressed to running the snaring course and accrediting others to operate. I have also been a part of the Technical Assessment Group for Traps and Snares, whose role it was to oversee welfare and progression where wildlife traps are concerned. I can tell you that, in my experience, Professor Harris is wrong. But the Scottish Government have exactly what they need, and that is to be able to say that they can draw on scientific evidence to introduce the legislation that they wish to. The SNP have an uncanny ability to cherry pick the scientific evidence that suits whilst ignoring all evidence that may be harmful to their seemingly pre-determined campaigns.

Now we look to the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill, which is currently being scrutinised in parliament. To give you an idea of where this is going, the word “grouse” was dropped from the original title early on. Now this also derived from a welfare issue, namely raptor persecution, just as the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Act derives from a wrongly perceived opinion that most were acting outside of the law. So, the basis is similar, yet we have been told that if you ask for a licence to shoot grouse, you’ll get one! If grouse shooting has to be licensed, then an easy to obtain licence is welcomed. It leaves me to wonder though as to why a licence to work with more than two dogs has been made to be almost unachievable. Could it possibly have anything to do with the Green influence overshadowing the SNP, or those animal activist organisations aligned with the Green agenda? Perhaps it’s just a red coat thing. Whatever the reason, they haven’t finished yet, but I can see that there’s dissension within the ranks and our sector is already simmering. The process has to become a fair one once more and these pre-determined outcomes must be exposed.

The Countryside Alliance is working with legal counsel to explore options to challenge our government and their agency, NatureScot, in the courts so that our members and the greater rural demographic have the representation they deserve. 

This article by Scottish Countryside Alliance Director, Jake Swindells, was originally published in Farming Scotland magazine.

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