The wheels of Scottish Government have seemingly turned very slowly when it comes to fulfilling its commitment to licensing driven grouse shooting and muirburn and banning burning on deep peatland soils. As part of the Scottish Government’s approach to tackle both the climate and nature emergencies, we need urgent action on all of these issues, and specifically the introduction of new legislation in the Scottish Parliament to be included in the next Programme for Government for 2022-23. 

As far back as 1998, the late Donald Dewar MSP called the criminal killing of raptors in Scotland, “a national disgrace”. Since the advent of the Scottish Parliament successive Environment Ministers have also taken this stance, noting also the negative reputational issues for the country as a place which should be caring for important parts of its natural heritage. They committed to take firm action to address crimes against some of Scotland’s most iconic bird species, and some piecemeal improvements have been made to address this issue but time has shown that this action has not been enough to deliver the required deterrents to wildlife crime. Voluntary commitments to address this problem by game management interests have also patently failed – fine words have not translated into real action on the ground over large swathes of the Scottish uplands.  Over many years, RSPB Scotland’s Investigations team has meticulously recorded and published details of all wildlife crimes against Scotland’s birds of prey and the problem has not gone away. The Scottish public are outraged when high profile incidents occur as they do every year. The link between such criminal activity and intensive gamebird shooting management is well-documented and accepted by the Scottish Government. Now, the time has come to put in place legislation that we believe will put an end to 150 years of routine killing of our birds of prey by grouse moor managers.  

In 2020, RSPB undertook a transparent and inclusive review of its position on gamebird shooting engaging with a wide variety of stakeholders and reviewing scientific evidence. We published a series of blogs about the results, including one that I wrote back in October 2020. We have been clear and consistent since, we think that a step change is required and grouse moors must be licenced to act as a meaningful deterrent to raptor crime. As part of Scottish Government’s policies to tackle the nature and climate emergency, clearly the illegal killing of birds of prey and burning on deep peatland soils can have no place. We acknowledge and welcome that bold steps have already been taken by Scottish Government to end the mass culling of mountain hares but now these other damaging practices also have to be tackled head on.    

In July 2016, the Scottish Raptor Study Group, supported by RSPB Scotland, submitted a petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for a state regulated licensing system for gamebird hunting in Scotland, based on their members concerns at ongoing raptor persecution and increasing intensification of grouse moor management. 

The following month, RSPB Scotland published details of repeated suspicious disappearances of satellite-tagged golden eagles on grouse moors in the Monadhliath mountains of Inverness-shire. Responding to this, and previous widely-publicised incidents of illegal killing of golden eagles, Scottish Natural Heritage were tasked by the then Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham MSP to commission research to review the results of golden eagle satellite-tagging projects in Scotland.  

This review was published in May 2017. The results were damning and unequivocal, showing that about a third of 131 golden eagles that had been satellite tagged and monitored between 2004-16 had been illegally killed or had disappeared - presumed dead - in what we were described by the report author as “suspicious circumstances”.  These incidents occurred almost exclusively in areas managed for grouse shooting, and often where there had been a history of previous raptor persecution cases. 

On publication of this report, the Cabinet Secretary announced the establishment of an, “independently-led group to look at the environmental impact of grouse moor management practices such as muirburn, the use of medicated grit and mountain hare culls, and to recommend options for regulation including licensing and other measures”.  

In December 2019, the Grouse Moor Management Group, chaired by Professor Alan Werritty, published its report; amongst its 26 recommendations it advised that grouse moors should be licensed within 5 years if there was “no marked improvement in the ecological sustainability of grouse moor management, as evidenced by the breeding of golden eagles, hen harriers and peregrines on or within the vicinity of grouse moors being in favourable condition”. Incredibly, over the subsequent months, and despite COVID 19 lockdowns, birds of prey continued to be illegally killed on grouse moors. The report also recommended the licensing of all muirburn both for sporting and agricultural purposes. 

On the 26th November 2020 the Scottish Government announced its formal response through a statement by Minister for the Environment Mairi Gougeon MSP to the Scottish Parliament  

The Scottish Government indicated that amongst other measures, it would introduce a licensing system for grouse moor businesses to tackle raptor persecution, sooner than the five-year period recommended by the review group. This was widely welcomed, as was the Scottish Government commitment to licence all muirburn and implement a statutory ban on burning on peatlands.  

We have been very patient, but nearly 20 months on from this announcement, we want to see some action and delivery on these promises by the Scottish Government. Proposals must be brought forward in the forthcoming Programme for Government in autumn 2022 for the introduction of grouse moor and muirburn licensing legislation in the next Parliamentary year.   

Header image: An adult male red grouse standing in heather. Credit: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com).

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