In 2017 the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform commissioned an independent group to look at the environmental impact of grouse moor management.
The group had a clear remit: to examine the environmental impact of grouse moor management practices such as muirburn, the use of medicated grit and mountain hare culls, and advise on the option of licensing grouse shooting businesses.
This group was part of a package of measures aimed at tackling the on-going and abhorrent issue of wildlife crime – and in particular, raptor persecution.
The Cabinet Secretary’s decision to form the review group was prompted by the report from NatureScot in May 2017, which found that around a third of satellite-tagged golden eagles in Scotland disappeared in suspicious circumstances, on or around grouse moors.
This government has stated repeatedly that we intend to bring an end to the illegal killing of raptors and to bring in whatever measures are necessary to achieve this. Addressing wildlife crime remains a key priority both for this Government, and for me personally.
The independent Grouse Moor Management report, also known as the Werritty report, was published in December last year and first of all I would like to put on record my thanks to Professor Werritty, the members of the review group and their advisors, for undertaking this work as well as the broad range of stakeholders who contributed their views and experience.
Grouse moor management is a complex and controversial issue. It attracts strong views and a great deal of public interest and I don't for one minute underestimate the challenges faced by the review group.
I hope that we can all agree that their report takes a comprehensive, evidence-led and balanced approach to the key issues surrounding the management of grouse moors in twenty-first century Scotland.
I have given full consideration to the recommendations and findings of the Grouse Moor Management Group alongside the evidence they gave to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform committee earlier this year.
I have reviewed the findings from the Phase 1 and Phase 2 Scottish Government commissioned research on the socio-economic and biodiversity impacts of grouse moor management.
I have also taken into account the recommendations of the Independent Deer Working Group and the Climate Change Committee report where they relate to relevant activities such as muirburn.
I have considered all of the evidence and views put forward by stakeholders including meetings with, for example, British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Revive coalition, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. I want to thank everyone who took the time to share their views with Ministers and with officials.
Presiding Officer, after taking into account all of this evidence I have reached the conclusion that there is a need for greater oversight of the practices associated with grouse moor management, including muirburn and the culling of mountain hares.
The key recommendation put forward in the Werritty report – is that a ‘licensing scheme be introduced for the shooting of grouse’. This is a recommendation that I accept.
However, while I the understand why the review group also recommended that such a scheme should be introduced if, after five years, ‘there is no marked improvement in the ecological sustainability of grouse moor management’, I believe that the Government needs to act sooner than this and begin developing a licensing scheme now.
As recently published in our phase 2 research, we recognise the contribution that grouse shooting makes to the rural economy.
And that the majority of those tasked with managing land already follow best practice guidance and care deeply about the countryside and land that they manage.
I cannot, though, ignore the fact that some of the practices associated with grouse moor management, such as muirburn and the use of medicated grit, have the potential to cause serious harm to the environment, if the correct procedures are not followed.
Neither can I ignore the fact that despite our many attempts to address this issue, every year birds of prey continue to be killed or disappear in suspicious circumstances on or around grouse moors.
Since 2007, the Scottish Government has undertaken a range of measures to tackle wildlife crime, including: the introduction of vicarious liability; a poisons disposal scheme and restrictions on licences for those operating on land where it is suspected that wildlife crime has taken place.
The fact that raptor persecution continues in spite of all these measures suggests that, while regulation from within the grouse shooting industry can be an important factor in driving behavioural change, self-regulation alone will not be enough to end the illegal killing of raptors, and further intervention is now required.
Now there are many forms that a licensing scheme could take.
I do not propose to go through them all here. We will consult on the detail of the scheme in due course.
The basic proposition however is that a licence will be required to operate a driven grouse moor business, and that if there is strong evidence of unlawful activity or serious breaches of codes of practice by that business, then their licence could be withdrawn.
I recognise this is a serious sanction and we would therefore take steps to ensure that no credence is given to any vexatious or malicious claims of malpractice.
In introducing licensing arrangements in this way, we are bringing our system closer into line with those that apply in other comparable countries, where greater regulation of shooting and hunting is the norm, in order to protect animal welfare and avoid damage to the environment and biodiversity.
When developing the licensing scheme, we will work closely with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, Scottish Land and Estates, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and others representing those involved in managing and taking part in grouse shooting.
I would now like to turn to some of the other recommendations in the report.
Muirburn is a complex issue and the research to-date suggests that it can have both beneficial and adverse effects.
If it is undertaken without due consideration of all the possible consequences it has the potential to have a serious negative impact on wildlife and the wider environment.
However, it can also bring positive benefits in some cases, for example by helping to reduce fuel loads and thereby reduce the risk of wildfires.
Therefore, while I do not believe that a full ban on muirburn, as some have called for, is either necessary or warranted I am clear that further regulation, particularly when it comes to muirburn on peatland, is required.
Presiding officer, in future Muirburn will only be permitted under licence from NatureScot, regardless of the time of year it is undertaken. And there will be a statutory ban on burning on peatland, except under licence for strictly limited purposes such as habitat restoration.
And reflecting that muirburn is undertaken throughout Scotland for a variety of purposes, these measures will apply to all muirburn; not just when it is undertaken in relation to grouse moor management.
We will also revisit the current definition of peatland and take expert advice on whether it should be revised and a stricter definition imposed.
While some of these measures go further than the recommendations made by the review group, I believe they are necessary to protect our environment and in particular our peatlands, which as I know everyone here understands, play a crucial role in our carbon storage and climate change mitigation strategies.
Lastly I wish today to address some of the recommendations on medicated grit and mountain hares.
On medicated grit, which is a veterinary preparation used to suppress parasite worms in grouse, the Werritty review recommended that SEPA should initiate a desk-based study to ascertain whether residues of the active chemical, Flubendazole, are present in water bodies.
The report also recommended that NatureScot should publish a Code of Practice on the use of medicated grit and that all land managers should adhere to the Code to prevent any risk of contamination or of the substance reaching the human food chain.
I can confirm today that the SEPA study has been concluded and the Scottish Government will now work with stakeholders to produce guidance on best management practices for the use of medicated grit.
We will also convene an expert group to study how best to monitor compliance with the code of practice going forward.
As everyone in this chamber will be aware, earlier this year the Scottish Parliament voted to support a stage 3 amendment of the Animal and Wildlife Penalties, Protections and Powers (Scotland) 2020 Act.
This amendment, which granted full protected species status to mountain hares meets, and in some respects goes further, than the recommendations made by the Werritty review.
The arrangements for licensing of mountain hare control, where this is necessary, are now being taken forward as part of the implementation work for the 2020 Act.
Turning to what happens next, the Scottish Government will shortly bring forward an SSI to enact the provisions in the Animal and Wildlife, Penalties, Protections and Powers (Scotland) Act 2020, which give greater protection to mountain hares.
We intend that the new arrangements will come into effect at the end of February 2021 and so the open season for killing mountain hares, which finishes on that date, will be the last such season.
If re-elected, this Government will bring forward the necessary legislation in the next Parliament to license grouse moor management and to strengthen the existing legislation on muirburn, including a range of appropriate penalties that could be applied in cases of non-compliance.
Any new legislation will of course be preceded by full consultation in the normal way.
The Werritty review made over 40 recommendations and I am conscious that I have not been able to cover then all today.
We will publish a full response to all the recommendations in the report later today, alongside SEPA’s desk-based study on Flubendazole residues.
Presiding officer, I know that the measures I have announced today will not be welcomed by everyone.
Some will be concerned at what they perceive to be interference in legitimate land management activities.
And there will no doubt be others who feel that the Scottish Government has not gone far enough.
But it is clear to me that we could not continue with the status quo.
We all benefit from our natural environment and we all have a responsibility to ensure that it is not only protected but enriched.
The changes that I have announced today strike what I believe to be the right balance.
They are not designed to bring an end to grouse shooting. Indeed those businesses which comply with the law should have no problems at all with licensing.
But, crucially, where there is clear evidence that this is not happening, where agreed standards are not being adhered to or there is evidence of illegal raptor persecution, there will be a range of effective and transparent mechanisms in place to allow us to address that behaviour.
I look forward to discussing these measures with members of this parliament and key stakeholders over the coming months.
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