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Scottish Countryside Alliance provides update on Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill

Stage 2 amendments to the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill were finalised at a meeting held on Wednesday 21 February, with Jim Fairlie as Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity, stepping in for Gillian Martin.

Emma Harper introduced amendments to increase the duration of licences for grouse shooting from one year to five years. The Conservatives tabled alternative amendments for a duration of 10 years. This was deemed too long a term by the Minister stating this would not allow for the degree of control and oversight that the Bill is seeking to put in place. A period of five years will still provide greater certainty for rural businesses, enabling them to plan ahead and invest in moorland management.

There was some to-ing and fro-ing with amendments to change the muirburn season submitted by the SNP, Greens and Labour to shorten the end of the season by two weeks and the Conservatives asking for an extension to allow for training of new practitioners to take place. Jim Fairlie backed the amendments tabled by Kate Forbes to start the season on 15 September and complete the season by 31 March, contrary to what he had originally said during the Stage 1 debate of the Bill. The Bill will allow for applications to carry out muirburn outwith the season for limited purposes such as for research, reducing the risk of wildfires, or training.

The Minister acknowledged the invaluable work of gamekeepers and land managers, working with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, to ensure any outbreaks of wildfires are brought under swift control. These actions in turn can help save hundreds of homes and businesses in rural areas.

Amendments from Stephen Kerr related to the granting of a muirburn licence within 3 months of when the application was made. He stated that NatureScot currently processes around 5,000 licences annually and additional licensing requirements from the bill will place undue stress on an already overburdened regulator.

“There is a tangible risk that muirburn licences will face undue delays in processing, potentially to the detriment of landscape resilience to wildfire risk or of habitat favourability for game and wildlife. We feel that it is vital that a provision be built into the licensing scheme that will safeguard against delays.”

These amendments were not supported by the Minister and were voted against by the committee.

Colin Smyths unhelpful comment referring to the Conservative party “wanting to maximise the level of the kill” had Rachael Hamilton calling further explanation of his comment, stating her support of rural economies and country sports pursuits. He stood by his comment by stating that “we shouldn’t be trapping purely to minimise one species, purely for the purpose of killing another species”. Unfortunately, Mr Smyth has a rather narrow opinion on grouse shooting and the other activities surrounding estate management. He does not take into account the vital work land managers and gamekeepers do for biodiversity and conservation of moorland areas, helping in the protection of iconic red-listed species such as the curlew and lapwing.

Alistair Allan has removed a provision which would have prioritised other methods of vegetation control over muirburn on peatland habitats. It was acknowledged that rural workers with the local skills and knowledge are best placed to inform what methods would be suitable in certain circumstances. NatureScot should look at practical issues arising from the use of different control methods on a case-by-case basis and give them the flexibility to licence for muirburn where it is most practicable.

Jim Fairlie removed the provisions in the Bill which would have enabled NatureScot to suspend licences without being satisfied of a relevant offence having been committed. Following significant pressure by our organisations, it has now been clarified that a suspension can only be initiated if NatureScot is satisfied that a relevant offence has taken place on the licenced ground and by someone who is directly involved with that ground and/or licence. This is a significant step forward, ensuring shooting businesses can still operate unless a relevant offence has been committed.

The Stage 3 debate has been set for Tuesday 19 March, with any final amendments required to be submitted by Tuesday 12 March. The Minister has made many promises to work with relevant MSPs on their amendments prior to the final debate. Further updates to follow. You can read the Bill as amended here.

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