Skip to content

Who's really in charge?

In this article originally published in Farming Scotland magazine, Director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance, Jake Swindells, looks at the progress of the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill.

As part of The Scottish Government’s clear agenda to license living in rural Scotland, the Stage 1 debate of the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill took place in Parliament on 30th November. This Bill was introduced in an attempt to tackle raptor persecution and is seen as a people-pleasing piece of legislation. A good news story for the “Green-led SNP government” as one MSP described it during the debate. The Bill comprises a number of different elements including licensing shooting of any grouse, licensing of heather burning (muirburn) and a review of trapping practices.

It is abundantly clear from the Hunting with Dogs debacle that what the Scottish Government wants, the Scottish Government gets and during this debate the typical lines of “engaging with stakeholders” and being “evidence-led” were used yet again to justify more damaging and unnecessary legislation that will further strangle the few ways in which our sector can operate effectively.

Minister Gillian Martin opened the debate stating that she is happy to reassure everyone of her engagement during the process of the Bill passing to Stage 1. Minister Martin did indeed engage with rural stakeholders, but she might as well have sat with her fingers in her ears. A FOI request clearly showed that there were no commitments undertaken by her on the 8th or 9th November 2023 in relation to the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill. In effect, the Minister made her decision to ban snares without reviewing any evidence given by rural stakeholders in the committee session specifically held in parliament on the 8th. This begs the question as to why we give evidence at all if it is simply not even reviewed. She has shown little understanding of how our countryside operates and is managed and continues to fudge her contact with our representative organisations. The term ‘stakeholder engagement’ is now code for “we have ticked that box, let’s do it anyway”! The Government’s response to the Stage 1 report was only published the day before the debate on 30th November, showing little regard for enabling well-informed deliberation. The Minister also reassured MSPs that there would be plenty of time to apply for licences before the law came into force. Those using dogs to flush foxes to guns were given the same assurances, but in fact there were only two working days between the publication of the hunting guidance and application forms and the ban on more than two dogs coming into force.

Following the opening speech, rural champions Finlay Carson and Rachael Hamilton both indicated that they would not be supporting this Bill. They went on to describe it as “disproportionate” and pointed out that the Bill goes much further than what we were told was the intention behind it. Labour’s Rhoda Grant stated that Labour would support the general principles, and was also supportive of many elements, such as the need for longer-term licences and change being driven by science; she clearly stated that most grouse moors do have a positive impact on biodiversity. The Liberal Democrats’ Beatrice Wishart laid out their position, stating that they were broadly supportive of the Bill but would also support a longer-term licence for grouse shooting.

It became clear that the focus was on the good that gamekeepers do, and the debate was deflected away from the vital points of the licensing aspects of shooting and muirburn. Both Kate Forbes and Jim Fairlie spoke of the valuable contributions of gamekeepers. Whilst we have no doubt that these were genuine comments, it was a little too focussed on points that are not under contention, and this was highlighted by Stephen Kerr in a lively back-and-forth during the summing up. Labour’s Colin Smyth continued to beat the anti-shooting drum, calling for all costs to be fully recoverable by licence applicants. This was until Finlay Carson asked him as to whether he had declared his membership of The League Against Cruel Sports.

It was pointed out that trust had been lost in NatureScot to deliver a licensing system given the past and recent record of decision making. It was also announced that one licence has already been granted to allow more than 2 dogs to be used under the new Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Act, but this is not an indication of how well the system is working. It is not helpful when we are trying to ensure that NatureScot delivers a fair and practical licence as the Act stipulates, rather than how it sees fit as a government body. As it stands, anyone can play, providing it is by the rules of whoever owns the ball.

I must admit, hearing Green MSP Ariane Burgess talk about attending a REVIVE conference to discuss how best land management can be delivered reminds me of asking advice from a forum full of people with no real experience in the subject. Would one not be better off speaking to an expert on the matter rather than surrounding oneself with similarly inexperienced and strongly opinionated people? As Stephen Kerr so eloquently put it, “optics over experience leads to dangerous legislation”.

As the session closed it was more than apparent that the Scottish Government will, yet again, ram through the legislation it wants, regardless of the consequences for communities and wildlife. Gillian Martin, after months of being asked, still has no answer to what constitutes an ‘investigation’, on the basis of which NatureScot will be able to suspend or withdraw licences even where no offence has been established. We will see the same situation as we had with the Hunting with Dogs Bill where ScotGov asks us to trust it, support the passing of the Bill and all will be explained in future guidance. Well, we know how that ended!

Snaring is finished, licences will be introduced for grouse moors and heather burning, and our government will ensure that we pay for the unwanted legislation out of our own pocket. The Scottish Countryside Alliance will continue to engage with Ministers, MSP’s and civil servants and will provide evidence and reasonable solutions to issues we may face. We need to avoid the same scenario we find ourselves in with the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Act, though this is easier said than done given that the Greens seem to be holding the reins and NatureScot thinks itself more powerful than primary legislation.

Become a member

Join the Countryside Alliance

We are the most effective campaigning organisation in the countryside.

  • life Protect our way of life
  • news Access our latest news
  • insurance Benefit from insurance cover
  • magazine Receive our magazine