That report, conducted by a team led by Professor Werritty, recommended the licensing of grouse moors after a five year delay, if substantial change did not occur in that time. The Scottish Government has now decided that a licensing scheme will be introduced in the next session of Parliament, and work on developing it will begin immediately.
We welcome this as a milestone towards ending welfare violations on grouse moors and give credit and thanks to those who have worked for years to get us to this point. The discussion around grouse moors is a multi-faceted one and there are undoubtedly many benefits to licensing grouse shooting estates. But we are more cautious about celebrating any potential improvements to animal welfare; these will depend very much on the details of the licensing scheme, which are yet to be decided.
If the shooting organisations have disproportionate influence on the development of the scheme it could end up being nothing more than a tick-box exercise to continue operating as they are. This is a legitimate concern; although there will be a full public consultation on the licensing scheme, Mairi Gougeon, Minister of Rural Affairs and Natural Environment, hinted that industry representatives will have deeper involvement:
“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.”
All of our voices should carry equal weight during the consultation and development period. We will follow developments closely and continue to work to ensure that the licensing scheme is robust and includes measures to improve animal welfare.
So, what might those improvements be?
While there was much emphasis on the illegal killing of birds of prey in the Scottish Government’s statement, it is unclear whether the risk of losing a licence will be enough to deter this behaviour. It is hard to imagine it making a substantive difference to those who are willing and able to commit these crimes.
Meanwhile, we continue to be concerned with the suffering of the thousands of animals who are trapped and killed legally and are often forgotten in these discussions. This licensing scheme will not, unfortunately, ban snares or the worst types of traps, as we would like. However, greater regulation of trapping will be introduced as part of the new regime. This has potential to limit the worst harms caused by traps, when they are improperly set so that they catch but do not kill animals, for example. As with the scheme overall, we will work to influence the regulation of trapping towards the most robust regulation. We will also continue campaigning to have snaring and the worst trapping practices banned outright.
Mountain hare update
The legal protection granted to mountain hares, as part of the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act 2020, was one of our highlights this year. So, it was good to receive conformation of the date it will come into effect: 28 February 2021. That is the last day of the current season, thus making this the last ever open season to kill mountain hares. While we wish more could have been done for those hares still at risk this season, we are delighted that this protection has been granted. There will be a licensing system for future mountain hare killing and, as with that for grouse moors, we will do our utmost to ensure that it is stringent enough.
Perhaps the biggest benefit to animal welfare that will come of this is that is signifies a shift by the Scottish Government, in response to the mindset of the nation, to acknowledge that people cannot continue to ‘manage’ grouse moors, with all the damage that entails, unchecked. That grouse shooting should be held to the same standard as the rest of our society: to follow certain rules and show consideration of other beings.
While this seems the least tangible benefit, at least in the short term, it could be the most powerful. It could signify a weakening of the culture of ‘tradition’ and ‘sport’ that dominates much of the way we interact with wild animals, creating cracks where new ideas can grow. In some ways this decision is the continuation of an ongoing change in the cultural and political landscape that has started to put stewardship of nature on even footing with human wants and needs. The next step is to incorporate animal welfare, in the most holistic understanding of the term, into that balancing.
That could lead to the type of world we would like to live in. Where grouse are not ‘gamebirds’ and foxes are not ‘vermin’, but we understand that we are all animals, with quirks and foibles and gifts to offer the world. Where no animals are treated like playthings or nuisances, and where, in decisions affecting them, we consider them.
So, this licensing system, while not an end point by any means, gives us a new step to build on, towards that world. It is a glimpse of what is possible when people come together to effect change. And that really is worth celebrating.