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Highland MSP says wildlife protection bill will shield birds of prey but responses vary – wildly

By Tom Ramage

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New rules to protect birds of prey and Scotland’s iconic natural landscapes from harm have passed their first hurdle, as MSPs voted in favour of a new bill.

Highlands and Islands MSP Ariane Burgess took part in the vote and debate on the first stage of the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill.

Speaking ahead of the debate she said: “Just this week Police Scotland said that a golden eagle missing from the Scottish Borders is likely to have come to harm. It is the latest example of the continued persecution of Scotland’s birds of prey, which this bill aims to halt.

Ariane Burgess MSP: It means protection for golden eagles and other iconic animals
Ariane Burgess MSP: It means protection for golden eagles and other iconic animals

“The majority of the Scottish public support measures in this bill. Polling shows that 76% of Scots oppose the use of wildlife traps to increase grouse numbers, and 6 in 10 are opposed to grouse shooting.

Commenting on the new powers that the Bill will give to the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Ms Burgess added: “Wildlife crime has been endemic on our grouse moors for too long. This bill will ensure protections for golden eagles and other iconic animals.

“This bill gives government the tools needed to better protect Scotland’s wildlife, ensure peatlands are restored, and that our uplands are fit for the future.”

Minister Gillian Martin today announced in the debate her intention to bring forward a Stage Two amendment to introduce a new specific offence to penalise those who wreck and interfere with legal predator control traps in the countryside. The quest for a robust measure to tackle such offences has been a long-running campaign of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association.

Association chairman Alex Hogg MBE, said: “Our members have suffered a long time because of the lack of a robust and clear offence to tackle criminal wrecking and interference with legal predator control traps.

“Today’s announcement from the minister that she intends to bring forward a specific offence at Stage Two to cover this is, therefore, warmly welcomed by everyone connected with the SGA.

Keepers' chairman Alex Hogg: warm welcome for action on wrecking of illegal traps
Keepers' chairman Alex Hogg: warm welcome for action on wrecking of illegal traps

“Not only does this represent a sensible end to a long campaign by ourselves, it is a common sense move for wildlife and for public safety as well as professional operators.

“At the SGA we will continue to advocate the benefits of professional, legal trapping for conservation and economic purposes in Scotland. This announcement assists that process by offering clarity to everyone on what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to the operation of legal and approved predator control tools in our countryside."

The Scottish Parliament voted 82-32 to allow the bill to pass at Stage 1.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation had urged all MSPs to vote against the bill.

The debate followed publication of the Rural Affairs and Islands Committee’s report into the proposed legislation. The report makes recommendations to the Scottish Government on a number of aspects of the bill:

“Ability to suspend a licence – strong concerns were expressed to the Committee by potential licence applicants around NatureScot’s power (as the licence administrator) to suspend or revoke a licence, despite it not being satisfied an offence has been committed. The Committee calls for greater reassurances that this power would not be used in response to vexatious complaints.

“On the wildlife trap licensing scheme, the Committee agrees there is a case for a specific offence of trap vandalism to be included in the bill.

BASC: Bill is a risk to a fragile rural industry
BASC: Bill is a risk to a fragile rural industry

“On the annual grouse moor licensing scheme – in response to strong representation from stakeholders, who described the idea of an annual licence of land for killing and taking of birds as ‘frankly idiotic’, the Committee recommends that the proposed licensing period should be extended.”

The committee did not agree a position on snares.

BASC remains opposed to the implementation of grouse shoot licences, muirburn licences and licences for certain traps.

In light of the Committee’s report, BASC asked MSPs to vote down the Bill, given its significant concerns over workability and infringement of basic rights within the European Convention on Human Rights.

The BASC has called for the following key amendments through extensive lobbying of MSPs:

A removal of the unworkable annual grouse shoot and muirburn licence, to be replaced with, at minimum, a 10-year licence.

A removal of the powers which would allow Scottish ministers to add further bird species to the red grouse shooting licence.

A complete overhaul of proposed powers around suspending and revoking a licence.

Significant amendments to the muirburn licence, removing the ‘last resort’ clause and amending the definition of peat depth.

BASC Scotland director Peter Clark said: “The bill is some distance away from being at all practical or workable for our members, land managers and gamekeepers.

“BASC has continually aired our concerns about how grouse shooting, muirburn and trap licensing will work in practice.

“This Bill, in its current form, poses a substantial risk to the viability of an already fragile rural economy, as well as public safety. On public safety and muirburn especially, we have grave concerns over how a muirburn licensing scheme and its overbearing powers will affect any future ability to mitigate large-scale wildfires, the risk of which is being heightened by climate change.

“We asked MSPs to vote down the bill to ensure the Scottish Government go back to the drawing board and reconsider the range of evidence presented by rural stakeholders.

“As Scotland’s largest shooting organisation, we will continue to present the facts and evidence to MSPs in the months ahead as to why this bill is fundamentally flawed.”

Edward Mountain: bill needs to go back to the drawing board
Edward Mountain: bill needs to go back to the drawing board

This evening Highland Conservative MSP Edward Mountain contended that the wildlife bill did not support the countryside.

It is suggested that the bill is being introduced to address raptor persecution and ensure that the management of grouse moors are undertaken in an environmentally sustainable and welfare conscious manner, but Mr Mountain criticised it as being "created by those who have little understanding of countryside life."

He argued that the bill dismissed the actual concerns facing those living in the countryside and insisted it was crucial that they were heard and taken into account in matters that directly impact their way of life.

He told the Parliament: “Those people in the countryside feel ignored and marginalized. Let me be clear, managing wildlife is gruelling hard work and requires balance.

“I stand here somewhat disappointed in the arguments heard in the evidence session, that have often been ill informed and based on arguments put forward by single issue pressure groups who do not promote balance”

This evening he commented: “Having spent 40 years managing the countryside, we need balance, and this bill doesn’t offer that. The bill needs to go back to the drawing board.”

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