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Tim Bonner: The future of Scottish grouse shooting

The Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill all but completed its journey through the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday, which means that from the Glorious Twelfth all grouse shooting North of the Border is most likely to be licensed. Like nearly everyone in rural Scotland, the Scottish Countryside Alliance believes the legislation is unnecessary, unjustified and way out of step with the priorities of rural communities, but the SNP/ Green coalition has a majority in the Scottish Parliament and once it had committed to licensing, the question was never whether the Bill would be passed, but what impact it would have.


Rural organisations, led extremely effectively by our colleagues at Scottish Land and Estates, focused on ensuring that if licensing was inevitable that it was workable and that there were adequate protections for licence holders. This is an exercise in political reality, which organisations like the Alliance have to accept, particularly in Holyrood and the Senedd where the Scottish and Welsh governments have been consistently hostile to many rural activities. 


As Winston Churchill noted “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried” and whether or not we like it, the electorate will, from time to time, return governments that are more or less friendly to our interests. That is the circle of political life and ignoring it is no more sensible than Gordon Brown’s claim that he had abolished ‘boom and bust’ or a grouse moor owner planning on a bumper breeding season every year. 


A pragmatic approach to the grouse licensing legislation meant that rural organisations were able to secure important amendments during the passage of the Bill. Those included changes which mean that a licence cannot be suspended simply on the basis that “an investigation” is initiated. NatureScot will now have to be satisfied that a relevant offence has taken place on the licensed ground by someone who is involved with shoot management on that land. 


In addition, amendments passed on Tuesday mean that moors will retain the ability to carry out muirburn both in and out of season, including for wildfire mitigation, and that the courts will be able to hear appeals against refusals and revocations of grouse shoot licences, and that the licensing authority (NatureScot) will have to state reasons for suspending, refusing or revoking a grouse shooting licence. Together these changes mean that the licensing scheme should be workable if it is administered reasonably and fairly by NatureScot. 


With the Welsh Government preparing to license the release of pheasants and partridges, and a change of government looking ever more likely at Westminster, there is much to take from the process of the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill and the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Act which preceded it. From time to time we all may have to face up to the fact that the numbers are against us, but that does not mean that we cannot influence the outcome of legislation. The law, in particular, provides safeguards against over enthusiastic legislation. With its skilful application and persuasive arguments, even the most hostile government can be persuaded to alter its route, if not to change its destination.

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