A brown bird nestled down in purple and brown heather.

As we approach the final stage of debate on the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill, Andrew Midgley, Senior Land Use Policy Officer, tell us why this is such a huge moment for Scottish nature.

On the 19th of March the Scottish Parliament will debate the Wildlife Management & Muirburn Bill for the final time before it becomes law. This is an important moment in the history of land management in Scotland because it will—assuming that the Bill passes without significant change—usher in stronger regulation of grouse shooting and burning in the uplands as well as banning the use of snares and giving enhanced powers to SSPCA officers in relation to wildlife crime.  


This is very welcome. We hope that the new licences for grouse shooting will finally provide a meaningful deterrent that will eradicate raptor persecution. The Bill will allow grouse shooting to continue but provide a mechanism that allows Ministers to remove a licence to shoot grouse where a raptor persecution incident can be linked to the management of the land. We know that this industry has been let down by a minority; there are many that adhere to good practice. We believe that the majority have nothing to fear from the change in the law, but we hope that the threat of this sanction will ensure good practice is universal and bring an end to the criminal destruction of birds of prey in our uplands.   


A new system of licences will also be introduced for muirburn—the practice of burning vegetation, usually for sporting and farming purposes. We support this approach because we believe that better regulation is required. Every year members of the public send us images of muirburn that clearly contravenes the current, largely voluntary, Muirburn Code. We see muirburn that has burned through areas being used by nesting birds, or causing nest abandonment, burning through naturally regenerating trees, burning on steep slopes and scree or on deep peat.  


This was backed up by recent research that examined the change in burning in Scotland over time. It found that there has been no decline in muirburn in Scotland between 1985 and 2022 and that one third of muirburn occurs on deep peat, in contravention of the code of practice. Indeed, this research found that there had been no decline in burning on deep peat despite the revision of the Muirburn Code in 2017, when the guidance against burning on deep peat was made more explicit.  

 Smoke billowing from an upland landscape.

A prescribed burn taking being undertaken. Credit RSPB Images 

To us, this just demonstrates that the government is doing the right and reasonable thing. It is clear that a voluntary approach to regulation is not working and it is proportionate to introduce a system of licences to ensure adherence to good practice. Muirburn will still be allowed, but with stronger regulatory oversight, which seems entirely appropriate for what is a high-risk land management activity 


This legislation has been a long time in the making. It’s now twenty-six years since the late Donald Dewar, then Secretary of State for Scotland, described the persecution of birds of prey as ‘a national disgrace’ and it has been over four years since the Grouse Moor Management Review Group suggested stronger regulation of muirburn. Let’s hope that this legislation really does represent a positive step change in upland management. 


As thoughts turn from the parliamentary process to implementation, it is going to be vital that NatureScot bring forward rigorous processes to administer the licensing regimes properly: this new law will only be as good as its implementation.  


For our part, we are committed to working with all interested parties to make sure that the legislation works in practice. We recognise that the passage of this legislation has been difficult and contentious for some and that the relationships between those with different perspectives on these issues have been challenging. We hope that once this legislation is passed we can constructively work together for the benefit of nature, rural businesses and rural communities. 

Main image: Red Grouse in Heather by Ben Andrew.