Yesterday, the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs and Islands Committee finally began its two-day review of changes to Phase 2 of the Wildlife Management Bill (grouse moors reform), following a two-week delay in proceedings .
For new readers, this is proposed new legislation to regulate grouse shooting and associated management practices through licensing schemes, introduced due to the continued illegal persecution of birds of prey on many Scottish grouse moors.
The Committee was joined by Environment Minister Gillian Martin MSP and some of her civil servants, and there were other MSPs present (Edward Mountain MSP (Conservative), Stephen Kerr MSP (Conservative), Colin Smyth MSP (Labour) and John Mason MSP (Conservative) SNP), none of whom were eligible to vote on the Phase 2 changes, but who were present to talk about the changes they tabled.
There were no major surprises in this first session and it soon became clear that Committee members were voting along party lines.
The Committee dealt with glue traps (nothing to do with grouse moor management, but included in the Bill as a sort of related topic in terms of wildlife management) and then got into the nitty-gritty of glue traps. wild life. There are still some changes to deal with on wildlife trapping at the start of the next session, but then we will move on to the big issues of managing grouse moors and muirburn.
I’m not going to go through each amendment in turn because I would spend hours here and, furthermore, those interested will be able to read the transcript when it is published in the next few days, but I will highlight some of the big decisions made in yesterday’s session.
The main “victory” from our perspective was the Minister’s decision to ban all snares for welfare reasons, including the cynically renamed “humane cable restraints” (renamed to make them sound less archaic). The grouse hunting industry’s aggressive campaign to try to exempt “humane cable restraints” from the ban has failed miserably. Only two Committee members opposed the ban amendment – the two Conservatives, Finlay Carson and Rachael Hamilton. It was a pattern that repeated itself throughout the process.
By the way, as an aside, I keep reading arguments from the shooting industry to justify the continued use of “humane cable restraints” because they are used by researchers and conservationists to capture wild animals, particularly foxes, for example, to attach radio collars , and the foxes are later released unharmed. Therefore, they argue, it is acceptable to use “humane cable constraints.” What they don’t explain is how long these foxes are ‘kept’ in ‘humane restraint by cable’ (trap) – I bet they don’t stay for up to 24 hours without access to food, water or shelter (which is permitted (this is the time when that a fox can currently be kept in a trap in Scotland until this bill is passed.) No self-respecting scientific ethics committee would support a research application on that basis.
Another big “victory” was an amendment tabled by Karen Adam MSP (SNP), who successfully argued that offenses committed under the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 should be considered relevant to a potential suspension or revocation of a wildlife capture license (and also for a grouse moorland management license, although this part will only be considered in the second session). This is a really important change because it means that when, for example, someone is convicted of, say, the sadistic crime of badger hunting (such as the recent conviction of the depraved Millden Estate gamekeeper Rhys Davies, employed on a partridge moor in Angus Glens), such a person should not be considered eligible to hold a grouse capture or moorland management license. I was surprised (but not really) to see that Conservatives Finlay Carson and Rachael Hamilton opposed this change.
On the issue of full cost recovery for trapping licenses (i.e. that applicants for trapping licenses should pay a fee to cover the administration of the licensing scheme by NatureScot, an amendment tabled by John Mason MSP (SNP)), Rachael Hamilton introduced a counter-amendment to remove this provision. The ensuing debate was hilarious and Rachael’s argument was confusing and, frankly, idiotic. She scolded John Mason:
“He [John Mason] nor should it respectfully castigate claims that illegal behavior has been linked to rural actors“
She then went on a politicking spree, accusing the Scottish Government of “bowing” another party (the Scottish Greens) as part of the Bute House Agreement (the political agreement shared between the Scottish Greens and the SNP), but at this stage, Jim Fairlie MSP (SNP) has heard enough. He spoke directly to her, barely suppressing his exasperation:
“By the acceptance of the interested parties themselves, this bill was introduced as a result of the persecution of birds of prey, which has been going on for decades, and the fact that the introduction of this bill will bring consequential benefits to wildlife does not require the fact that the public treasury should pay for it. Now, I’m not saying one way or another how or where I’m going to vote on this at this point, but sitting here today, you’re almost, sorry, the Member is almost trying to say that this has been tabled as a result of the Bute House, driven by the Greens. No, it’s not. It was brought forward because the persecution of kidnappers has been going on in this country for decades and the landowners responsible, or whose officials were responsible, have not ended it. So I’m afraid I will support landowners and farmworkers more than most, but on this point I’m afraid I fundamentally disagree with you“.
Rachel Hamilton responded:
“Well, thanks to Jim Fairlie for that intervention. I mean, of course, the whole aim is to ensure that we catch people operating illegally and that is the most important part of this Bill, but there is no link between the persecution of birds of prey and grouse moors. There are other reasons for persecution and those reasons would be predation, intraguild predation, habitat, etc., so we can agree to disagree on that.“.
Eh?? After all the evidence presented to this Committee about the absolutely unequivocal link between the management of grouse moors and the illegal persecution of birds of prey, at this final stage of the legislation, Rachael Hamilton STILL denies that the link exists??! This is either willful blindness or embarrassing stupidity. And then describing the “reasons for persecution” as being “intraguild predation” and “habitat” – is just bullshit.
Not surprisingly, Rachael’s amendment was not supported by other Committee members (apart from Finlay Carson).
However, the issue of full cost recovery for trapping licenses was not resolved during this session because the Minister stated that her colleague, Minister for Biodiversity Lorna Slater MSP, had recently (in January) commissioned a formal review of the all Species licensing carried out by NatureScot, which will include assessment of the potential for full recovery of license costs. The review/report is expected within six months. I do not know what impact this will have on the evolution of this bill, given the Government’s stated intention to see the bill approved before the summer holidays.
Conservative MSP Edward Mountain’s amendment suggesting that the withdrawal of wildlife trapping licenses should be based on the criminal burden of proof rather than the civil burden of proof was not supported. Nor did his amendment require an exemption from the requirement for a trapping license if the applicant had (a) been born before 31 December 1983 AND (b) used traps for 10 consecutive years. To be fair to him, although I thought his amendments were untenable, he argued coherently and politely, without the sharp criticism that was evident from some of his conservative colleagues.
Labor MSP Colin Smyth did not find much support for his changes to trapping licensing, including a proposed condition that a trapping license should not be issued if its main purpose was to manage the number of wild birds (Red Grouse) available for shooting Sports . His arguments were passionate and eloquent and based on REVIVE’s campaign against ‘Kill to Kill’, but he accused the Conservatives of making false claims about the impact of their changes (it was argued that the changes would effectively introduce a ban on grouse shooting ) – they wouldn’t, and Colin announced his intention to push these changes again in Phase 3.
The Minister’s amendment to create a specific offense of interfering with a lawfully set trap was approved, with an important caveat, “unless a person has reasonable grounds to do so”. I suppose a ‘reasonable cause’ might include concern for the immediate welfare of a trapped animal in distress, although a recent case in England based on these grounds led to the prosecution of a person who released two highly distressed non-target animals. species (a hare and a deer) from traps on the Duke of Norfolk’s estate in West Sussex (see here). The person was later found not guilty of all charges. I may come back to this case in another blog because it is interesting on several levels.
I note with some amusement that several grouse hunting organizations are trumpeting what they considered to be “a significant victory” yesterday, after the Minister removed a provision from the bill that would have allowed the suspension of a trapping license on the basis on the fact that a police investigation has been launched (into alleged entrapment crimes). Some of you may remember Phase 1 discussions during evidence sessions about the definition of an ‘investigation’ and when an ‘investigation’ could be considered initiated (e.g. when does someone report an alleged crime? Or when the police issue a crime number?etc). It was a painful process that actually didn’t provide much clarity, even from the police, so for the purposes of having a watertight law, I think it was reasonable for this provision to be removed.
But is this a “significant victory” as the partridge industry claims? I do not think. I think what removing this provision actually does is provide the police and NatureScot with a much less prescriptive regime and instead allows them more discretion in assessing whether a crime has been committed and therefore whether a suspension or revocation of the license is appropriate. This seems like an own goal for the grouse shooting industry, but if they want to declare it a victory, in what appears to be a desperate attempt to appease their members amid what would otherwise be a catastrophic bill for them (in their opinion), so good luck to them.
It has been anticipated that the Committee will require two sessions to consider all the amendments in Phase 2 of this bill, although judging by the pace of yesterday’s session, I would be surprised if they got everything done in time. The second session will take place on the morning of February 21, 2024.
The Scottish Parliament has agreed to extend consideration of Phase 2 until 23 February 2024, so if they can’t finish it on the morning of the 21st, there is a small window to potentially squeeze in a new session:
You can watch yesterday’s proceedings in an archived video on Scottish Parliament TV (here) and I will publish the transcript when it is available (usually a few days after the meeting).