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General Licence restriction for wildlife crime – a wholly ineffective sanction

Just before Christmas Scottish Environment Minister Mairi Gougeon told the Environment Committee that the Scottish Government was ‘actively considering’ additional enforcement measures on wildlife crime.

As part of this discussion, she told Committee member Mark Ruskell MSP (Scottish Greens) that the Government was considering whether current measures, such as General Licence restrictions which are imposed following evidence of wildlife crime, are ‘as effective as they can be’.

The issue of General Licence restrictions had been discussed at an earlier committee hearing where we and RSPB Scotland had argued the sanction was impotent because an estate could simply apply for an individual licence to continue killing the wildlife it would have killed under the General Licence, just with a bit more paperwork to do. However, BASC had disagreed with us and defended the General Licence restriction as an effective sanction as follows:

Ross Ewing (BASC): I disagree with Ruth Tingay and Ian Thomson on the effectiveness of the restriction of general licences. It is important not to underestimate the pivotal role that general licences play on shooting estates in Scotland, where they are an integral part of what the estates do. Restricting a general licence will make it very difficult for estates to carry out an integral function.

Ruth Tingay mentioned applications for individual licences—there is a litany of species for which individual licences would need to be applied for. Moreover, an estate’s having a restriction against it reflects very badly on it, and information about that is publicly available online. I know a number of people who would probably not visit an estate that had a restriction purely on the basis that they would know that wildlife crime was probably being committed there.

The other thing to note about the restriction of general licences is that it takes place under the civil burden of proof— there is no need to surpass the criminal burden of proof, as there would be otherwise. That is a really useful tool. Currently, the police and SNH meet every three months. Perhaps if they met more regularly to review the situation, that might result in a few more restrictions being put in place. As a result, restrictions might act as more of a deterrent.


Let’s look at each of those claims in turn.

First, restricting a General Licence does NOT make it ‘very difficult for estates to carry out an integral function‘ (and that statement of ‘integral function’ deserves to be pulled apart, but this isn’t the time). As we’ve pointed out time and time again, when a General Licence restriction has been imposed based on ‘clear evidence’ of wildlife crime, the estate can simply apply to SNH for an individual licence to carry on as before but has to do a bit more paperwork by applying for the licence and then submitting a return at the end of the year, e.g. see here. That’s hardly ‘very difficult‘, is it?

BASC says, ‘There is a litany of species for which individual licences would need to be applied for‘ – this is misleading. As we’ve seen, when a General Licence restriction has been imposed an estate needn’t apply for an individual licence to continue killing each separate species – SNH will simply issue one individual licence (e.g. see here) that permits the gamekeeper and his/her named associates to kill multiple species. Again, this process is hardly ‘very difficult‘.

The BASC rep argued, ‘I know a number of people who would probably not visit an estate that had a restriction purely on the basis that they would know that wildlife crime was probably being committed there’. He may well know a number of people with principles but there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that a General Licence restriction does not deter others from visiting.

For example, here is evidence of GWCT hosting a guided tour and BBQ on ‘the renowned Corsehope Shoot‘ in June 2017, at the same time that this estate was serving a three year General Licence restriction, along with neighbouring Raeshaw Estate, following evidence of wildlife crime:

Here’s another example showing how a General Licence restriction is no deterrent to many visitors. This is a social media post on 30 January 2019 by the Edradynate Estate talking about “a belter season“, at the same time this estate was serving a three-year General Licence restriction following evidence of wildlife crime:

And it’s clear that a General Licence restriction is no deterrent for endorsement from the British Game Alliance, the game shooting industry’s own ‘assurance’ scheme, membership of which is supposed to indicate ‘rigorous and ethical standards’ although we’ve questioned this before (see here and here).

Yep, these General Licence restrictions are really hurting these estates.

BASC’s final argument about General Licence restrictions was a suggestion that if the Police and SNH met more frequently than every three months this ‘might result in a few more restrictions being put in place’. This is simply nonsense. It’s not the frequency of evidence-sharing meetings that has resulted in so few General Licence restrictions being imposed – quarterly meetings have been happening for the six years since the restriction sanction was made available to SNH.

However, the actual reasons behind decisions not to impose a General Licence restriction despite clear evidence of wildlife crime, including actual convictions, are still being kept secret by SNH because, they argue, it isn’t in the public interest to discuss them.

In these post-Werritty months we know the Scottish Government is going to have to make some big decisions about game bird management and its deep association with ongoing wildlife crime. The shooting industry will be doing its level best to maintain the status quo and limit any additional sanctions, which is what BASC is trying to do with this weak defence of General Licence restrictions.

We’ll continue to put evidence in front of Ministers and MSPs to ensure the status quo is not allowed to continue.


Decision due on General Licence restriction for Leadhills Estate

On 26 November 2019 Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) imposed a three-year General Licence restriction on Leadhills Estate, South Lanarkshire, after receiving what it described as “clear evidence” of wildlife crimes from Police Scotland (see herehere and here).

Those alleged offences included the ‘illegal killing of a short-eared owl, two buzzards and three hen harriers’ that were ‘shot or caught in traps’ on Leadhills Estate since 1 January 2014 (when SNH was given the power to impose a General Licence restriction on estates or individuals in Scotland). SNH also claimed that ‘wild birds’ nests had also been disturbed’, although no further detail was provided. The estate has consistently denied responsibility and implied it was the work of ‘bird of prey activists‘.

[This adult male hen harrier was found with his leg clamped in an illegally-set spring trap next to a nest on Leadhills Estate in May 2019. His leg was almost severed and despite the valiant efforts of a world-class wildlife vet, he had to be euthanised]

The General Licence restriction was supposed to be in place for three years but it lasted only 14 days. On 10th December 2019 SNH lifted the restriction because Leadhills Estate had chosen to appeal the decision to restrict.

According to SNH policy, an appeal has the immediate effect of suspending the General Licence restriction from the date SNH receives the appeal letter. SNH then has to consider the appeal and must notify the estate of the appeal outcome in writing, setting out the reasons behind the decision. SNH policy guidelines state it will seek do this within four weeks of receiving the appeal letter.

Those four weeks are now up (Tues 7th Jan was the four week marker) although there was the Xmas break to consider so perhaps it’ll take a bit longer. Although to be frank it shouldn’t take any time at all to reach a decision. SNH has already been through an appeals procedure with the estate – as per SNH policy – when SNH first notified Leadhills that a General Licence restriction was being considered. Leadhills Estate then had an opportunity to state its case and explain why a restriction shouldn’t be made. In this case, SNH chose to crack on and imposed the restriction based on the ‘clear evidence’ of wildlife crime provided to SNH by Police Scotland. Why there now has to be a second appeal process is anyone’s guess.

Maybe it’ll catch on. Maybe suspects at a police station, having had an opportunity to defend themselves before a charge is laid, will then be given a further 14 days after the charge has been laid to appeal the charging decision all over again and by doing so can have the original charge lifted for at least four weeks while the police/CPS consider the second appeal. It’s genius.

It’s quite likely that a lot of people will be paying close attention to SNH’s decision on whether or not to reinstate the General Licence restriction at Leadhills Estate, not least grouse moor owners’ lobby group Scottish Land and Estates (SLE). Leadhills Estate is a member of SLE and Lord Hopetoun of Leadhills Estate is Chair of SLE’s Moorland Group. So far, SLE has not commented publicly on this fascinating relationship.


Scottish Gamekeepers Association silent as Government report confirms increase in raptor crime

Yesterday we blogged about how the Scottish Government’s latest annual wildlife crime report (2018) had shown that raptor persecution crimes have more than doubled since the previous year’s report (see here).

And despite the Government’s decision to publish this report when everyone had already packed up and gone home for Xmas, it still drew a headline in The Scotsman on Xmas Eve:

This reported increase in raptor persecution offences won’t have come as a surprise to blog readers – the relentless crime wave had already been reported by the RSPB’s annual Birdcrime report, back in August – see here.

The media coverage of the Birdcrime report was good, both in England and Scotland, and, unsurprisingly given the occupation of the majority of convicted offenders, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) was asked by the Independent to provide a quote about the crime increase. It included this little gem:

So, the SGA refused to comment on the increase in raptor crime because the RSPB’s figures were somehow ‘unofficial’ – despite the RSPB being the only organisation in the country to compile these figures and rigorously categorise them using a three-tier classification system which is scientifically legitimate and provides a clear indication of interpretation limitations.

Not that the SGA would be concerned about scientific legitimacy – remember this is the organisation that lobbied the Government about the so-called threat posed by sea eagles to babies and small toddlers. No, the SGA just didn’t want to acknowledge that raptor crime had doubled in the last year and if there was an opportunity to have an unveiled dig at the RSPB at the same time then all the better.

So here we are, several months later and the Scottish Government’s own report – the ‘official’ statistics – show that reported raptor persecution crimes did indeed more than double in a year.

And the SGA’s response to this news?


Just what you’d expect from an organisation purported to be a fully signed up member of the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime, eh?


Crimes against birds of prey in Scotland double, new Government report confirms

Two days before Christmas the Scottish Government published its annual wildlife crime report, the seventh since it became a statutory obligation under the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 for Ministers to lay a report on wildlife crime at the end of every calendar year.

The current report is entitled the ‘2018’ report, but it actually refers to wildlife crimes recorded from April 2017 to March 2018.

The report can be downloaded here: wildlife-crime-scotland-2018-annual-report

The headline news is that reported raptor persecution crimes have doubled since the previous year’s report. So much for the game shooting industry’s repeated false claims then that raptor persecution is declining.

And all the more shocking that this doubling in increase took place at exactly the same time that the Werritty Review was underway – you’d think that the criminals within the grouse shooting industry would have had the sense to ease off whilst under such close scrutiny, at least until the review was completed. But no, they’re either too stupid or, more likely, too arrogant to care, knowing full well the chance of being caught and prosecuted is virtually nil.

We’ll be looking at the game shooting industry’s response to this report in later blogs.

Ian Thomson of RSPB Scotland was quoted in the press as saying the increase in reported raptor persecution crimes is of “significant concern“. He also said,

This shows very clearly that the targeting of our raptors continues unabated, particularly on intensively managed grouse moors.

The repeated and ongoing suspicious disappearance of satellite-tagged birds of prey, almost exclusively on or adjacent to areas managed for driven grouse shooting demonstrates very clearly that the Scottish Government needs to expedite the robust regulation of this industry“.

The report’s foreword has been written by Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham and it’s well worth a read as she acknowledges the crime stats are a likely underestimate of the true scale, particularly as wildlife crime on remote grouse moors is difficult to detect without witnesses. It’s an obvious point but one that does need to be repeated.

She also makes the important and significant point of discussing the ‘missing’ satellite tagged raptors (two golden eagles + six hen harriers) that vanished during this period. These missing birds are not included in the ‘official’ crime stats because without a body the police are unable to record the disappearance as a crime (which is why so many simply disappear without trace – the criminals know how to play this game) but she says of the sudden suspicious losses, “These circumstances strongly suggest that many of these incidents may be the result of illegal killing of these birds“.

The rest of the foreword makes no commitment to taking forward any specific action, which is hugely disappointing. Roseanna simply acknowledges that there’s still an ongoing issue and repeats the now familiar mantra that the Scottish Government is still committed to tackling it, but doesn’t map out how, apart from talking about increased penalties for wildlife crime, which we’ve already had to wait six years for and they’re still not here yet. Perhaps this vagueness is unsurprising given that we’re now waiting to hear the Government’s formal response to the Werritty Review and the specific actions it intends to take. Apparently we’ll learn details of that response ‘in due course‘, widely expected to be April.

The timing of the publication of this wildlife crime report was pretty poor – two days before Christmas isn’t ideal, although it did get some coverage in the Scotsman the following day on Christmas Eve. In response, Mark Ruskell MSP, the Scottish Green’s Environment spokesperson, suggested the Government was ‘trying to bury bad news’. It’s a fair point.

UPDATE 8 January 2020: Scottish Gamekeepers Association silent as Government report confirms increase in raptor crime (here)


First Hen Harrier Day event for Wales – 18 July 2020

Save the date folks – 18 July 2020 – as Hen Harrier Day arrives in Wales!

Beginning in 2014, this annual event has since spread across the UK including England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, typically taking place on the weekend before the opening of the grouse-shooting season on 12th August.

It’s brilliant to see people in Wales now stepping forward to host an event and also to see it spreading beyond August. Hen harriers are illegally killed on grouse moors year-round, not just in August, so the more opportunities there are to highlight these crimes, the better.

If you’re on social media follow the organisers of Hen Harrier Day Wales @wcrcuk for more details.


New Chairman for Scottish Land & Estates

Scottish Land and Estates (SLE), the grouse moor owners’ lobby group (amongst other things) has announced its new Chairman will be sporting estate owner Mark Tennant.

Mark will begin his new role in April 2020 when the current Chair, Lord David Johnstone, steps down.

We don’t know much about Mark other than what SLE has written in its announcement (here) but let’s be honest, he’s not exactly got big shoes to fill. His predecessor, ‘Dumfriesshire Dave’ has spent the last five years pretending everything’s fine and suggesting there’s really no need to do anything about the illegal killing of raptors on grouse moors because it’s no longer an issue, it’s mostly just the RSPB trying to smear the good name of the industry and/or ‘activists’ trying to ‘set up’ law-abiding estates. (E.g. see here, here, here, here, here). Talk about dial ‘D’ for denial.

It’s hard to think of a single example where Dumfriesshire Dave has inspired any confidence in the industry’s willingness, let alone ability, to clean up its act, so Mark Tennant has a bit of an open goal to get off to a good start, should he choose to take it.

According to the SLE announcement, Mark will be working ‘to help fight climate change’. Excellent. Can we expect all SLE-member grouse moor owners to commit to stopping their routine heather burning regimes, including on deep peat, in the interests of addressing the climate emergency?

What we do know about Mark, from the SLE announcement, is that his ‘family business Innes Estate in Elgin has been a member of SLE for over 40 years‘. That’s really interesting. So SLE didn’t expel the estate when the then head gamekeeper was convicted in 2007 for poisons and firearms offences, then? NOTE: there is no suggestion that those historical offences were part of a wider pattern of continued wildlife crime on the estate – as far as we are aware there are no further reports of alleged offences at this estate – we’re just interested at SLE’s apparent lack of action in response to wildlife crime.

Speaking of which, here’s something Mark could sort out for us. We’re still waiting to hear from SLE whether the Longformacus Estate (the location of a catalogue of horrific and violent wildlife crimes for which a gamekeeper was recently convicted) was, and if so still is, a member of Scottish Land & Estates? We asked SLE this specific question in August, after the Crown Office chose not to pursue a prosecution for alleged vicarious liability and SLE had until then avoided commenting on the estate’s membership status. We had a quick response from the Membership Department who told us, ‘I have forwarded on your email to our Senior Management Team who will respond in due course‘. Needless to say, silence since then.

Over to you, Mark. Was/is Longformacus Estate a member of Scottish Land & Estates?


No, Magnus, the Werritty Review does not threaten gamekeepers’ jobs, wildlife crime does

On 20th December 2019, the day after the Werritty Review was published, The Times ran this comment piece from Magnus Linklater:

The long delay in issuing the Werritty report suggests not only that the management of grouse moors in Scotland has proved far more complex an issue than was realised, but also that the balance between sporting interests and conservation is hard to achieve.

Campaigners against the sport argued that the persecution of birds of prey, the culling of mountain hares and the burning of heather, to say nothing of shooting game birds, were unacceptable practices. Proponents said that it brought employment and tourist income to rural areas, as well as funding staff to manage Scotland’s upper moorland.

Professor Werritty concludes that there is no case for banning grouse shooting and that gamekeepers perform a useful service for conservation by controlling vermin and managing the land. But he also recommends regulating estates, issuing licences that will require extensive paperwork and extra cost.

Legislation already provides powers to crack down on the persecution of birds of prey.

As a trustee of an estate that once boasted large numbers of grouse, but is now virtually empty, I know gamekeepers are all too aware of the penalties for breaking the law. Introducing more rules is unlikely to improve the situation and will add to the cost of running these vast areas so beloved by hill-walkers.

Without the income to manage the hills, they would become overrun by predators, such as foxes and crows, which kill not only grouse but wading birds, such as curlew and lapwing.

It is one of the great ironies of the countryside that gamekeepers, so vilified by campaigners, are in fact guardians of the wildlife diversity that is so important to rural Scotland. They too are an endangered species and they too deserve protection.


The piece contains all the usual tired, and frankly, now embarrassing rhetoric that we’ve learned to expect from someone with a long-held vested interest in grouse shooting and we had been planning to take his claims apart, sentence by sentence, as we, and others, have done many times before (e.g. see here, here, here, here, here, here, here). Fortunately, someone else has done it for us and far more succinctly to boot.

This straight-to-the-point riposte was published in The Times three days after Linklater’s offering:

Guardians of the Land

Magnus Linklater (Dec 20) laments the fate of “endangered” gamekeepers due to proposed licensing for grouse shoots.  Their peril is as a result of their own actions in illegally wiping out birds of prey, inextricably linked to management of driven grouse shooting. Many behave themselves but it is the bad apples among them who blight their industry. This could not happen without the shooting estates condoning such criminal behaviour. Licensing is their reward. David Landsman, Aberdeen.

David Landsman is absolutely spot on (apart from his estimation of crime scale – it’s massive). It’s not the Werritty recommendation of estate licensing that threatens gamekeepers’ jobs – that’s just a ridiculous suggestion from Linklater designed to portray gamekeepers as innocent victims.

No, it’s the continued illegal killing of birds of prey by many of those gamekeepers (note, many but not all of them), and the subsequent denials and cover-ups by estate owners and their representative bodies that is bringing such pressure to bear on the industry.

They’ve had 65 years to understand that it’s a crime to shoot, trap and poison birds of prey and it’s about bloody time they were held to account.

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