Last Saturday, Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham, delivered a speech to members of the Scottish Raptor Study Group (SRSG) at their annual conference in Perthshire.
She deserves a good deal of credit, not only for giving up her Saturday morning, but particularly for her willingness to come and speak to a room full of raptor workers, many of whom have repeatedly written heated and impassioned emails to the Scottish Government in recent years, criticising its failure to effectively tackle the illegal killing of raptors. It was a challenge too far for her predecessor, former Environment Minister Dr Aileen McLeod who declined an invitation to attend, and let’s be honest, can anyone imagine Roseanna’s Westminster counterpart, Dr Therese Coffey, turning up to a Northern England Raptor Forum conference?
Roseanna began her speech in the same way she began her last speech to this group back in 2009, by thanking SRSG members for their voluntary efforts. She described this as “dedicated, high quality fieldwork” that is “genuinely appreciated by the Scottish Government“. She recognised the importance of this work, saying the information generated for the Scottish Raptor Monitoring Scheme was “essential and fundamental” to help the Government to assess the conservation status of raptor populations. That was good to hear, and is a big kick in the teeth to those organisations who seek to discredit and undermine the professionalism of the SRSG (e.g. see here), undoubtedly in an attempt to disguise the continued persecution of raptors in some areas of Scotland that is being clearly exposed by SRSG monitoring efforts.
She then spent a bit of time talking about the intrinsic value of raptors, their place as part of Scottish identity, and how they are becoming increasingly important for tourism and the revenue that can generate for local economies. She talked about some of the ‘good news’ stories such as successful reintroduction projects for white-tailed eagles and red kites (although she didn’t mention the continued persecution of red kites in northern Scotland that is still inhibiting population growth, 25 years on) and the welcome return of other species such as ospreys and buzzards. She also touched on the 15% increase in the national golden eagle population, which is a good news story, but she didn’t mention the other part of that story which is the continued absence of this species on many driven grouse moors in eastern and southern Scotland.
Then came the part we really wanted to hear – her thoughts on raptor persecution. Her opening statement received a loud, spontaneous round of applause from an appreciative audience. This is what she said:
The illegal killing of our raptors does remain a national disgrace. I run out of words to describe my contempt for the archaic attitudes still at play in some parts of Scotland. We all have to abide by the law, and we do so, most of us, all throughout our lives. All I’m asking is that everybody does the same. Sporting businesses are NO different, and the people who breach the law deserve all the opprobrium and punishment we can mete out. I have no truck with the argument that raptors damage driven grouse shooting interests. Such damage, frankly, is a business risk you have to live with and manage, but within the law. And that is what must be reiterated again, and again, and again.
She then went on to discuss vicarious liability, recognising that with only two successful prosecutions in five years this probably isn’t the ‘magic bullet’ that everyone hoped it would be when it was first introduced. And she said she thought there was a lesson in that. She feared there are no single ‘magic wands’, just a lot of work, to be done constantly, with a lot of people, over a period of time, and how it would involve some changes.
She commented on some of the changes already in place, such as the General Licence restriction (although she acknowledged this was currently being challenged via a judicial review), an acceptance of the recommendations for increased penalties for wildlife crime, and how the Government was working with Police Scotland to introduce new investigative support for these crimes.
She then repeated the importance of the recent review on game bird hunting regulations in other European countries and the forthcoming review on satellite-tagged raptors, which is due to report at the end of March and how she will “look carefully” at these reports to help inform the Government’s next moves.
All in all, this was a very positive speech. The Cabinet Secretary is not yet in a position to formally show her hand because, quite rightly, she needs to wait for the satellite tag review to be published to be able to consider its findings and put them in to context with all the other evidence at her disposal. However, she’s obviously keenly aware that raptor persecution “does remain” a national disgrace (that’s an important distinction – she’s talking about it as a current, ongoing issue, not an historical one as the game shooting industry would like everyone to believe) and she clearly acknowledges her “contempt” for this criminality.
The scene has been set. The question now is, will she be able to deliver change?