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The erosion of fieldsports in Scotland

The Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill begun the process of being debated in Parliament at the end of May. The Bill, which originally included the word grouse in the title, aims to introduce a license for the taking of any grouse, and by any means. Perhaps the thinking was that losing the word grouse would soften the approach, making the legislation more palatable, but this certainly hasn’t been the case. Whether it is driven shooting or walked-up over pointers, a licence would be required to take just one of these iconic birds.

Shooting is worth around £200 million pounds to the Scottish economy every year and is a vital source of income for many rural businesses who rely on the industry to see them through the months when tourist numbers are reduced. Cafes, hotels, fuel stations and more all benefit hugely from this injection of support during the lean months. Our government seem hell-bent on reducing this income by squeezing the fieldsports sector to within an inch of its existence. What they don’t seem to understand is that when they take what animal rights organisations have to say as gospel, it not only adversely affects the Scottish economy, but also drives the already significant wedge between the SNP and our rural communities deeper than ever. When our sector offers evidence to support our message, our government sides with loose opinion to base new legislation on.  

This isn’t just about money. The Bill also seeks to introduce a licensing scheme for the burning of heather, known as Muirburn. There are many benefits to this practice and, though the Scottish Government state that they understand these benefits, there is a persistent need to introduce so much unnecessary legislation that it will push practitioners to the point where it will simply be too onerous to do, and many species will suffer as a result. Grouse moors offer an abundance of wildlife, and it is well documented that the lack of a properly managed moor will very quickly see the demise of the likes of the Curlew, Lapwing and Golden Plover. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust stated that these key species alone fledged more than 3 times the young when moors were the subject of good management.

Muirburn will see a licensing scheme introduced so that no heather burning can take place unless NatureScot deem it necessary. A survey will have to be completed by the applicant or landowner to show that there is no other viable alternative, and that the peat depth is no deeper than 40cm, an arbitrary figure chosen by ScotGov officials only because it’s pretty close to the arbitrary figure used in England. Science at its best. Their understanding is that fire damage may occur to peat, resulting in the release of carbon into the atmosphere. A very simple test was conducted by a gamekeeper just a few years ago where he placed a Mars Bar on the ground and burned the heather over and around it. The chocolate didn’t even melt. More scientific studies have been conducted, MSP’s and Civil Servants have been taken onto the moor to see this practice first hand and written evidence has been submitted by numerous organisations over many years, yet muirburn will be restricted regardless.

Burning can also be used to prevent wildfires from spreading, but our government favours other methods, such as cutting or swiping. Not every area is accessible with a swipe and what is left behind dries out and is the perfect tinder for fires to start or spread. Sometimes I really struggle to see the joined-up thinking when legislation is created.

This Bill has many more parts to it, and another worrying consideration is the proposal to award the SSPCA further investigative powers. As it stands, the SSPCA’s jurisdiction concerns welfare aspects where animals are involved. The extent of the suggested power grant is, as yet, unknown but there are fears that a charitable organisation, with a history of bias against fieldsports, will act as jury in an arena in which they would struggle to remain impartial. Undermining the authority of Police Scotland and potentially risking contamination of evidence through lack of experience and training would certainly not be helpful in the evidence gathering process.

As this Bill progresses through three stages over the course of 2023, we will continue to present evidence where others present opinion. We will continue to work with policy makers and try to educate where necessary. We will try to ensure that those creating and shaping legislation do so being fully informed and we will do this in conjunction with our rural partner organisations.

This article first appeared in Farming Scotland magazine.

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