The dust has now settled on the Scottish Government’s decision to immediately set in motion a system for licensing grouse shooting, and we’ve had a little time to reflect.

Of course, this significant announcement at the end of November by Environment minister, Mairi Gougeon MSP, is very welcome. RSPB Scotland has been at the vanguard of campaigning on this issue for decades, so we are relieved that in the light of continued persecution of protected birds on our uplands this progressive, proportionate and even-handed step has been taken.

Predictably, the game shooting sector is crying foul, claiming it is unnecessary and will damage the sector and rural economies. The more extreme elements have responded with an avalanche of rancour, protestation and bitter invective. In reality, they have only themselves to blame that the Scottish Government have reached this point, and in fact they have played a significant role themselves in bringing about this action through their singular inability to self-regulate whilst continuing to deny evidence and science. They support their cause like the rope supports the hanging man.

It is over 22 years since the man who would become Scotland's first First Minister, Donald Dewar MP, rightly described raptor persecution as a “national disgrace”. His declaration was the first of a string of politicians from across the political spectrum to make similar strong statements condemning the illegal killing of Scotland's birds of prey on grouse moors, and giving various warnings to that industry to put their house in order.

But his, and the many subsequent repeated calls, were flagrantly ignored, and the illegal shooting, trapping, poisoning and destruction of raptor nests continued unabated over the following two decades.

dead buzzard on groundPoisoned buzzard, Scottish Borders, 2015

Various developments over that period have also taken place that in turn influenced the patterns of that unrestrained criminal behaviour. Satellite tagging technology became available, allowing scientists to gain a fascinating insight into the lives of birds, their migrations, important feeding and areas, and a detailed picture of where they were living. It also started to provide information where birds like golden eagles or red kites were dying. Suddenly, poisoning was much more detectable and poisoners faced a much greater risk of being caught.

Consequently, they switched their persecution methods to avoid being detected. Rather than the unpredictability of poisoning, persisting offenders found it much safer to trap or shoot them, preferably at night to further reduce the chances of being caught, and then dispose of the evidence.

So many cases have served to demonstrate this fact, not least the recovery in Spring this year of a satellite tag wrapped in lead sheeting that was found in Perthshire river. This was fitted to a golden eagle that suspiciously disappeared on a grouse moor in Strathbraan, Perthshire in 2016, never to be seen again.

Hen harriers, red kites, goshawks, golden and white-tailed eagles, buzzards and short eared owls –  have perished in large numbers at the hands of criminals in those decades – cases far too numerous to list here; and these are just the ones that were either recovered, or the ones that were tagged and disappeared in suspicious circumstances; the overwhelming litany of evidence is why the Scottish Government simply had to act, and it is why their response is entirely proportionate and balanced.

dead hen harrier in trap on ground

Trapped hen harrier, Perthshire 2019

Encouragingly, other potentially and demonstrably damaging practices associated with intensive grouse management, and which must be addressed in the public interest as part of the climate and nature emergencies, will be regulated; muirburn will be licensed, with a ban on burning on peat soils; a code of practice for the use of medicated grit will be introduced with research into the environmental impact of those chemicals; and full legal protection from mountain hares with a licensing scheme for legitimate control will be implemented.

All who care about our uplands and their wildlife will now hope that licensing of grouse shooting will bring about real, substantial change. Many of us have campaigned for better regulation of that industry, and it is important to acknowledge particularly the efforts of the volunteers from the Scottish Raptor Study Group who for decades have provided the baseline surveys of populations of birds of prey, and have witnessed destroyed nests and killed birds all too often. A 2016 SRSG Scottish Parliamentary petition calling for licensing of grouse moors attracted over 7,000 names, and was strongly supported by their verbal evidence before parliamentary committee. Dr Ruth Tingay, through her Raptor Persecution UK blog, has been an unstinting campaigner against crimes inflicted on birds of prey for a decade. More recently REVIVE, Mark Avery, Chris Packham and organisers and attendees at Hen Harrier Day events have been joined by thousands of others people, writing to their MSP’s and increasingly expressing their concern over the illegal or unsustainable management practices taking place on our moors.

But, in our opinion, the decision made by the Scottish Government to introduce licensing was only in part due to increasing public disquiet. More importantly, it was to address those that continued to wilfully ignore the will of the Scottish Parliament. Their actions have even significantly undermined the Scottish Government’s approved species reintroduction projects, for both white-tailed eagle and red kite. It is crystal clear that those who have continued to slaughter Scotland’s birds of prey have had no regard as to the consequences and for public opinion. They are fortunate indeed that licensing of their industry – measures that when introduced will be in line with hunting regulation over much of Europe - is all that they now face. Those landowners who manage gamebird sporting enterprises should have nothing to fear from these changes, provided they operate environmentally sustainably and legally.  

Before they make good on their avowal to hold demonstrations outside of Holyrood, they should look to point the self-righteous finger of blame much closer to home.

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