The Wildlife Management & Muirburn (Scotland) Bill: Reflections on policy and politics

By Ross Macleod, Head of Policy (Scotland)

Heather moorland (Credit: Adam Smith)So, the Wildlife Management and Muirburn (Scotland) Bill has passed through Scottish Parliament, marking nearly seven years of scrutiny, originating with the implementation of the Werritty Grouse Management Review in 2017. The starting point, of course, focused on raptor persecution and extended to consider other elements of moorland management. The GWCT has provided evidence throughout this period, initially with expert witness contribution to Werritty, through the proceeds of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project and through our long record of peer-reviewed research papers covering upland conservation, predation impacts and muirburn.

We have been clear throughout that there is no place for raptor crime. The Werritty Review recognised that raptors will not necessarily be present on all upland estates because of local variation in habitat, prey abundance, and other features, but wanted to see improvement in conservation status on or around areas of managed moorland. Working with the moorland groups, we established raptor transect monitoring, which now covers 160km of managed moorland across Scotland, building insight into three key species of raptors identified by the Review: golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and hen harriers.

It is to the credit and commitment of these moorland groups that we are now approaching the fourth year of surveying. We still need sufficient data to provide a robust assessment of trends, which fluctuate from year to year dependent on a variety of features, not least the weather and successful breeding. But we are learning from this evidence, and we have increased our understanding of other raptors. This work couldn’t have happened without the support of keepers and landowners. We want this work to be of assistance to estates as they now start to apply for shoot licences.

Better regulation

Much has been said during the passage of the Bill as to the necessity for those licences. We see little point in dwelling on this debate as the regulatory framework will now be introduced. Instead, it is important that the process works efficiently, is simple for applicants, and is clear in its administration. We argued that a heavy-handed licensing process could risk, at worst, abandonment of upland management or at the least, inappropriate changes in land use without adequate research, just when we need to fully grasp and evaluate the benefits to Scotland in terms of carbon sequestration, mitigation of wildfire, conservation of upland flora and fauna (our comments on predator control restrictions in the Bill are summarised here), as well as cultural and economic aspects. The SRUC 2020 report to Scottish Government on socio-economic and biodiversity impacts of grouse shooting found no demonstrably better land use alternatives.

In this respect, we have commented in written and oral evidence that the licensing authorities are bound by ‘Better Regulation’ under the Scottish Regulators’ Code of Strategic Best Practice, which requires agencies such as NatureScot to balance enforcement with support and guidance to achieve sustainable economic outcomes. We contribute to both the Grouse and Muirburn Code Working Groups, and the Moorland Management Best Practice Guidance Group to help provide clarity on both legal and good practice requirements.

Shards of light?

For all that the licensing process has been described as a seismic change for grouse moor owners and managers, it does potentially represent an opportunity. Whilst we have commented that the passage of the grouse and muirburn legislation has been more adversarial than for instance, the current Agriculture and Rural Communities Bill (amongst other inclusions, the conflation of glue traps with grouse management always seemed opportunistic), there are parallels that are worth considering.

All land managers, whatever their interest or persuasion, will be involved in taking action to combat climate change and biodiversity loss. It is front and centre of Scottish Government – and international government thinking. So, the challenge is now to ensure that grouse managers – and the GWCT – are also viewed as part of the solution.

Best Practice with Proof

The Trust has devoted considerable time and effort into building the means of collating evidence critical to demonstration of sound management and biodiversity gain. For us, this is essential to the virtuous circle of monitoring, insight, advice and improvement that we pursue. It ventilates our research work and has been central to the development of our ‘Best Practice with Proof’ recording approach which we advocate to land managers.

This has been made far easier with the advent of mobile technology, and specifically through our use of the Epicollect5 app. It has enabled us to construct and make available a suite of recording tools covering predator control, species monitoring, muirburn ignition points, medicated grit distribution and other bespoke recording requested by clients. Over 30 upland estates in Scotland now use this facility. Our independent raptor transect surveyors also use it for raptor monitoring.

It provide two pivotal benefits. First, there is always a fund of information to demonstrate that practitioners are leading on best practice. We hope that this will eventually support the establishment of Trusted Operator status, in combination with transparency provided through accreditation such as the Wildlife Estates Scotland label. Secondly, should there be a problem or incident, there is an audit trail to confirm a history of compliance. A soon as records are uploaded by keepers and managers, there is an immediate evidence base.

Muirburn and the need to fill evidence gaps

We note that although the Wildlife Management Bill will pass into law in time for grouse shoot licensing to cover the 2024 season, muirburn licensing is unlikely to proceed until 2025. This reflects some of the complexity around the subject, not least the original intention to restrict burning on areas of peat deeper than 40cm. Given that peat depths can change over just a few metres, it would have been enormously difficult for practitioners to demonstrate that they were following this provision.

Our Muirburn Advisory Service is designed to support estates in developing and monitoring simple, user-friendly muirburn plans. Specialist advice is available to help evaluate and manage risk of harm to the environment from muirburn activities. As muirburn licensing evolves, we will support clients to ensure that management complies with best practice and fits in with the final shape of regulation. Our services include training, planning, mapping and monitoring.

Muirburn planning and recording is also important for another reason. The 2022 report on muirburn undertaken by NatureScot, which formed part of the review for the Bill, was similar to previous reports covering carbon sequestration, muirburn or moorland management. There are acknowledged gaps in evidence. Significantly, there was no clear indication within the NatureScot report that muirburn management is damaging to deep peat. It did identify peer-reviewed evidence suggesting that muirburn conducted every 10 years can be beneficial to plant species linked to peatland formation. It also noted a role for muirburn in wildfire mitigation via management of fuel load.

The Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill does offer the scope to carry out research, which should enable us to fill specific evidence gaps around burning on peatland areas, and we will seek every opportunity to square the circle. We believe in the need for an adaptive management approach to muirburn management – in effect, learning by doing and adjustment. This isn’t solely a GWCT proposition. It is also an approach endorsed by Scottish Government, which wishes to see it exercised widely across the agricultural sector and which is central to addressing climate change and biodiversity initiatives.

In responding to Scottish Government consultations on the Bill, the GWCT highlighted the fact that intelligent use of moorland helps to maintain farming enterprises alongside carbon sequestration and biodiversity improvement. This is particularly the case where income from grouse management underwrites upland farming enterprises. It would be inequitable if there was undue restriction on research for better understanding of muirburn, particularly if upland management techniques can provide significant carbon sequestration benefits.

As a research and education charity, the GWCT has not sought to comment on more technical or legal aspects of the Bill where we have no expertise. We have, however, liaised with Scottish Land & Estates and others in the RELM Group of land management organisations, to which we provide advice. We are pleased that Scottish Government has seen fit to extend licensing for up to five years, as this at least maintains the prospect of long-term investment in our uplands. The necessity for clear evidence to suspend a licence and other related aspects were forensically argued by SL&E, and the sector owes a considerable debt to the organisation and its legal advisors for removal of some of these more draconian components in the Bill.

I’ve written in a separate blog that with over 70% of Scotland’s land area managed by farmers, keepers and other land managers, Scottish Government and its agencies need to engage with our working conservationists as a key part of solutions to climate change and biodiversity loss, rather than viewing them as problems that need to be legislated into submission. In that respect, the Wildlife Management & Muirburn Bill must now balance enforcement with support and guidance to harness environmental gains. The GWCT is at that table.



at 19:14 on 02/04/2024 by john maher

NatureScot have about as much knowledge of the importance of moorland management as dear old natural england enough said.

Wildlife Management and Muirburn Act

at 16:56 on 02/04/2024 by Nicholas Forman Hardy

It has been clear from the start that NatureScot is a political organisation and not prepared to deviate from its preconceived ideas on what is good for the Highland Management of the Hills despite the immense knowledge of those working in the hills. It is a great opportunity missed. It is as if there is no consideration for all the ground nesting birds ands waders trying to cope with 2ft of heather to nest in, no young heather for the chicks to eat, excellent cover for the vermin and a nightmare to walk in. I am always amazed how rich the Scottish Government must be to employ so many people to try and control what everyone is doing according to their licences and Wardens keeping an eye on everyone and how much money will be spent with lawyers in the years ahead. No one is going to be better off but the burghers in NatureScot and their Masters

Wildlife Management and Muirburn Act

at 14:38 on 02/04/2024 by Gary

NatureScot doesn't give the slightest consideration to their Regulators Code of Practice, they have nothing but contempt for it. When Fergus Ewing MSP, the then Minister, wrote to SNH's CEO in 2015 informing her of the new code of practice he highlighted that the code required decision making to be "targeted and enabling" which is completely ignored by the authority. This new legislation should be seen a failure on the part on NatureScot's ability to understand the issues and build bridges, and until they are held to account for their incompetence then we will see more of this discrimination and persecution of sporting interests.

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