Welcoming the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill

25 Mar 2024
Duncan Orr-Ewing holding red kite in hands

Image credit: Alfonso Godino

Duncan Orr-Ewing is Head of Species and Land Management at RSPB Scotland, and a member of the Scottish Leadership Team of RSPB Scotland. He has been involved in game and upland management policy issues since the early 2000s. He manages the RSPB’s UK Investigations Team which works with the Police and other enforcement agencies to prosecute and enforce wildlife protection laws.  He is also Convener of the LINK Deer Group and Chair of the Central Scotland Raptor Study Group.

The Wildlife Management and Muirburn (WMM) Bill

The 21st March 2024, and the passing of the WMM Bill by the Scottish Parliament, will go down as a momentous day for all of us who have long campaigned for a better future for both nature and climate on land managed as grouse moors in Scotland. This legislation means that Scotland is the first part of the UK to have any form of regulated gamebird hunting. This situation was simply a historical construct, and we now fall into line with other similar European countries.

My own personal experience of the appalling levels of illegal killing of bird of prey in Scotland started when I was appointed to oversee the Red Kite reintroduction programme to the Black Isle, Highland in the early 1990s. Research at that time showed that of 103 Red Kites found dead 40% had been killed illegally, mainly by direct poisoning. When compared to the English equivalent Red Kite reintroduction project, the Black Isle population stood in 2006 at 40 breeding pairs whereas in the Chilterns in England the population was a startling 300 breeding pairs. All parameters were otherwise broadly the same between the two projects.

In 2000 the DETR Raptor Working Group Report was published and made a series of important recommendations for improving the conservation prospects for birds of prey. It was originally commissioned by the UK Government to look at “the raptor problem” in relation to grouse and pheasant shooting, as well as for racing pigeon breeders. How we have now come full circle, and rather than the licensed control of raptors, we now see licensed grouse shooting!  Many of the recommendations of the DETR Working Group Report have now been implemented, and as a whole the populations of our raptor species have subsequently improved. However, the big exception has been on land managed for intensive grouse shooting, where there is good evidence to suggest that land management practices intended to produce very large grouse bags for clients to shoot have intensified since the late 1990s. These practices have pushed native raptors, especially the Hen Harrier, to the edge of extinction. In most recent years there have been less than 10 breeding pairs of Hen Harriers on Scottish grouse moors, despite very large areas of suitable habitat.  The intensive land management practices on grouse moors have involved more rotational burning; more predator control; and the widespread use of medicated grit to prevent grouse diseases. Most recently not only has the illegal killing of birds of prey come to the fore, however also the impacts of intensive grouse moor management on peatlands – our vital carbon stores – important for helping Scotland to meet its Net Zero targets. In this context the Scottish Government has initiated a significant peatland restoration programme and with a large supporting budget administered through the Peatland Action Fund.

In 2017 the Scottish Government-commissioned report on the fate of satellite tagged golden eagles was published. This showed that a third of 131 satellite tagged golden eagles marked between 2004-16 had either been illegally killed or disappeared in suspicious circumstances. The publication of this report prompted the then Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham MSP to commission the independent Grouse Moor Management Group chaired by Professor Alan Werritty. This report was finally published in 2019 and it recommended licensing of grouse shooting, and that all muirburn should be regulated, amongst other measures. Meanwhile the raptor persecution incidents on grouse moors continued unabated and as ever these crimes were hard to bring to justice.

The Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill builds on the recommendations of the “Werritty Review”, and was introduced to the Scottish Parliament on the 21st March 2023, and now one year to the day on 21st March 2024, it has been approved with a substantial majority and with cross-party political support. In my view, it will change large parts of our upland landscapes for the better and certainly enhance the populations of our key moorland breeding raptor species.

The WMM Bill introduces the following legal requirements;

  • All grouse shooting will be licensed. The facility will be in place for NatureScot to remove the licence to shoot grouse if Police Scotland and NatureScot confirm wildlife crimes have taken place on a landholding. Licensing is based on a civil rather than criminal burden of proof. We believe that this process will provide a meaningful deterrent to wildlife crime.
  • The legislation that must be complied with includes the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, Badgers Act 1992 and Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006.
  • Two new statutory Codes of Practice will be produced to cover Grouse Moor Management and Muirburn.
  • There will be a requirement to monitor and report on the status of key moorland breeding birds of prey (Golden Eagle, Hen Harrier, Peregrine and Merlin) every 5 years to assess progress with improving their populations, and to update the Scottish Parliament. The whole Bill will be reviewed in 5 years with an opportunity to make further progress on peatland conservation in particular.
  • All muirburn in Scotland will be licensed and measures put in place to protect peatlands. Anybody who wishes to practice muirburn will need to be trained. Burning plans will need to be approved by NatureScot. The muirburn Spring season will end on 31st March (rather than the 15 April as now) to protect ground nesting birds.
  • All trap operators will need to be licensed, traps will need to be identifiable to the operator, and some inhumane traps such as snares and glue traps will be banned.
  • Enhanced powers will be given to Scottish SPCA to investigate and report wildlife crime cases working alongside Police Scotland.
  • The grouse moor licence will come into force on 12 August 2024 and the start of the grouse shooting season and the muirburn provisions will likely come into force from mid-September 2025.

In the late 1990s Scotland’s first First Minister Donald Dewar MSP described the scourge of illegal raptor persecution as a “national disgrace”. It has taken us some while to improve the legislation affording protection to Scotland’s moorland raptors, many of which have faced relentless persecution for decades – and even since all raptors were afforded full legal protection in 1954. This game-changing legislation will bring many important aspects of grouse moor management into the 21st century and allow for much greater public scrutiny. This substantial progress builds on the work of many organisations and individuals who have wanted to see a better future for large parts of upland landscapes and for our iconic raptor species. I highlight in particular the often difficult work of the Scottish Raptor Study Group and RSPB Scotland Investigations team. I pay tribute here to the massive collective efforts of all involved, and welcome the steps taken now by Scottish Government through the WMM Bill to address these concerns.     

Duncan Orr-Ewing

Top image credit: Jason Rose

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