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The final evidence session took place on Wednesday 28 June for Stage 1 of the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill. Gillian Martin, Minister for Energy and the Environment, attended the final evidence session with the Scottish Government Bill Team. They fielded questions from the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee members on areas of the bill including raptor persecution and links to grouse moors, licensing fees, licence duration, and granting additional powers for the SSPCA.
Raptor persecution and the link with grouse moors
In 2021 there were 11 recorded cases of bird of prey crimes in Scotland, however figures were not available at the meeting on how many of these 11 cases occurred near, or on, grouse moors. The Bill Team alluded to there being an historical connection between grouse moors and raptor persecution. The Convener confirmed that a number of these cases occurred in Dumfries and Galloway, where there are no grouse moors. The Minister did not think a 75% reduction in raptor persecution levels was a significant enough figure to prevent the licensing of Grouse moors.
However, the Minister made it clear that Grouse shooting does make a significant contribution to the rural economy, providing jobs for the local population, and bringing in significant numbers of visitors each year to Scotland. Grouse moorland management practices also contributes to the biodiversity of these areas.
Term of the Licence and fees
It was made very clear at the meeting that NatureScot wants to make the licensing process as simple as possible and not onerous for applicants. The Minister supports a licence term of 3-5 years rather than an annual licence, as stated in the Bill. There was a suggestion that the licensing scheme may not be sustainable without charging a fee, given the potential large number of applicants for licences. This needs to be investigated further as the Bill progresses through to the next stage.
There was also mention of a Code of Practice which land managers would need to adhere to. If practitioners did not comply with the code of practice, then a licence could be suspended or revoked by NatureScot. It was agreed that only in exceptional egregious circumstances would NatureScot suspend or revoke a licence. i.e. if NatureScot felt the need to suspend a licence with immediate effect, because the incident was so severe.
European Court of Human Rights and suspension of licences
Does this Bill comply with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)? A scenario was put forward by Jim Fairlie, MSP, that if a sheep farmer shot and killed a golden eagle, the farmer would still be allowed to carry out their daily business but would be charged under a separate Act. In Scotland, the golden eagle is protected against killing and intentional or reckless disturbance by its listing on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981).
If this same incident took place on a grouse moor, under the terms of the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill, the business would not be allowed to operate. The licence would be suspended by NatureScot pending an official investigation by Police Scotland. The Scottish Government legal team stated that “the Scottish Government’s position is that the provisions as regards to the suspension of licences is ECHR compliant and is capable of being exercised in a way that complies with ECHR”.
Licences can only be suspended by NatureScot. This public body will have delegated powers to issue, suspend or revoke a licence. Norman Munro, from the Scottish Government Legal Team further stated “the specified circumstances are in proposed new section 16AA(8) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 as inserted by section 7(2) of the bill, which says that the licence may be modified at any time and suspended or revoked if the licensing authority is satisfied that a relevant offence has been committed or if it is not, at that time, satisfied that a relevant offence has been committed but will be so satisfied at the conclusion of the official investigation”.
Additional powers granted to the SSPCA
At Stage 2 of the Bill, the Scottish Government will lodge amendments to expand the SSPCA’s powers. These additional powers will only be given to specific individuals trained and licensed in this specialist area. The Police will always have primacy on any official investigation of a potential wildlife crime. The SSPCA will only be able to seize and submit evidence for the police investigation.
These additional powers are subject to the establishment of a protocol with the police. When the SSPCA start to gather and submit evidence to police authorities, this is considered the start of an official investigation. This implies that a licence may be suspended by NatureScot, when the SSPCA are in the process of gathering evidence of an alleged wildlife crime. Firm representations have been made by rural stakeholders and Police Scotland, opposing the extension of these powers to a charity with a bias against fieldsports. You can read the Scottish Governments proposal here.