Scotland field sports: at risk after policy changes

How the land lies

11 January 2017

Julia Stoddart explains how the field sports community in Scotland has been left feeling at risk after recent policy changes

The political landscape in Scotland is markedly different to other parts of the UK. While there are some clear benefits in recent changes to some policy areas, the field sports community has been left feeling at risk. Relevant policy must be unbiased and based on evidence rather than on abstract ideology, and the Scottish Association for Country Sports (SACS) continues to drive and inform a balanced, logical dialogue with policymakers on behalf of our members. Education, evidence and exemplary behaviour by those in our community are essential.

Shooting rates

Part 6 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 ends the exemption of 'shootings and deer forests' from the valuation roll. As of April 2017, rates will be charged on shooting and stalking rights. The assessors’ office is finalising the format of information-gathering forms, which will be sent out to proprietors to collect evidence for valuations.

As the assessors do not have an inherent understanding of the way the shooting world operates, they have sought guidance from SACS and other bodies. We understand that all rural land will be entered in the valuation roll, whether or not the rights are exercised, as it is the right itself that is valued.

Although the introduction of rates is unlikely to affect smaller shooting enterprises due to the scale of values and the availability of reliefs, larger enterprises will be aªected, including diversified businesses, as reliefs are cumulative. The potential negative impacts are severe, since large areas of rural Scotland revolve around the shooting community.

The Scottish government has not carried out a sustainability impact assessment on rates, despite its assertion that it is committed to supporting rural areas. If the enforcement of rates on shooting businesses that already operate on tight margins leads to the cessation of business and staff redundancies, then rural communities and tied local economies – as well as the vital conservation land management work carried out by gamekeepers – will suffer.

Wild fisheries reform

The Scottish government has long sought to reform the old laws regulating salmonid fishing in Scotland. The public has been consulted on a draft National Wild Fisheries Strategy and Bill, which contains wide-ranging proposals on everything from enforcement action and rod licences to conservation plans and the replacement of salmon fishery boards with fishery management organisations.

The implications of the new proposals are likely to affect all riparian landowners, regardless of their interest in salmon. The proposals will probably place a new burden on landowners and managers, who will have joint responsibility for the conservation status of their local waters.

Meanwhile, marine factors affecting migratory fish populations such as sea lice from commercial salmon farms, rising numbers of predatory birds and seals and the impact of large trawlers remain unaddressed by the Scottish government. This still-developing area is one to watch.

Hunting with dogs

The Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 regulates the use of dogs in the control of wild mammals such as foxes. Earlier this year, the Scottish government engaged Lord Bonomy to carry out a review of the act, following accusations from anti-hunting interests that the law was regularly being flouted. The act contains very specific exemptions that allow a full pack of hounds to be used to flush foxes, mink and other wild mammals by encouraging them to leave cover, as well as other exemptions including those for terrier work.

The review has serious implications for the control of pest species across Scotland, not least because there are far more foot packs than solely mounted hunts, which we believe are the main target of anti-hunting interests. There are areas where, due to topography, vegetation and proximity of human habitation, snaring or lamping – night shooting – of foxes is not possible.

In these circumstances, the use of hounds and terriers to work cover and flush quarry animals towards waiting guns or falconers is an essential pest control method. The Scottish government has indicated that it may wish to tighten up the law, but the current exemptions are proven to work well and the police report no problems. Land managers must have the ability to control pest species effectively, and the current review presents a threat to this ability.

Furthermore, if there is any significant restriction on the number of dogs permitted to flush a fox to guns, then shoot managers may have to be very careful about beaters flushing foxes on driven and rough days. SACS has submitted comprehensive written evidence to Lord Bonomy in support of the status quo, and at the time of writing awaits his report and recommendations.

Deer management

Deer in Scotland are an iconic, keystone species, beloved of tourists and the field sports community alike, but they also serve as an erroneous symbol for the class war that has long been the driver of radical land reform. This symbolic status is erroneous inasmuch as deer are not the sole preserve of the rich and the landed; in fact, there are far more working people who are engaged in deer management in Scotland.

Conservation NGOs and others often claim that 'there are too many deer in Scotland', but this is a categorical untruth. In fact, there are areas of Scotland where deer are locally abundant, but there are areas where there are no deer at all thanks to the eradication policies of certain landowning bodies. In between, there are areas where deer exist in well-managed balance with their habitat.

Deer can represent both an asset, in terms of stalking and ecotourism value, and a liability, in terms of pressure from the government and anti-deer interests to keep densities at or below a certain level, as well as their potential impact on forestry interests. Proprietors of stalking rights are expected to play an active role in local deer management groups. A new threat is the government-commissioned Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) review of deer management in Scotland, which will, among other things, assess the effectiveness of voluntary schemes in protecting the public interest and especially natural heritage.

When this is viewed in the context of Part 8 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, which gives SNH increased statutory powers over landowners who are not deemed to be managing deer in the public interest, along with the existing statutory powers in the Deer (Scotland) Act 1996, the future looks challenging for those who see deer as a vital part of the rural economy and environment. For those who view deer as a problem, increased statutory powers may be more welcome.

SACS is supporting deer managers who feel that their interests have become maligned in the face of those pursuing an ideological land reform agenda; for the Scottish government to call deer management 'sustainable', the voices of deer proponents must be heard in balance with those of others.

Vicarious Liability

Vicarious Liability was introduced by the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011, and in essence means that a landowner can be held responsible for the unlawful actions of an employee, for example, a keeper killing a protected raptor.

In practice, anyone who in a land management context is in a position to have prevented another from carrying out a wildlife crime, could be deemed liable. Most landowners are aware of this law, and have taken steps to ensure both that all employees or associated parties have been formally advised of it and that this education process has been recorded.

All landowners who control, or allow the control of, relevant pest species on their land should be aware of the General Licences. Issued in Scotland on an annual basis by Scottish Natural Heritage, there are 14 licences that allow 'authorised persons' to deal with certain bird species in ways that would otherwise be unlawful. Of particular interest to most Scottish land managers are General Licences 1, 2 and 3, which concern lethal control, generally speaking for the purposes of conservation, protection of crops or livestock and protection of public health.

Licences 1–3 can be restricted by SNH for 3 or more years where it has cause to believe that wild birds have been killed other than in accordance with the licences. Usually, police evidence will inform SNH’s decision; there is a clear protocol for SNH to use its powers, which are published on its website. No land manager wants to lose the right to protect vulnerable bird species, crops or livestock, as this would represent a significant threat to both business and biodiversity.

SNH is also now conducting a review into General Licence target species. A stakeholder consultation will be used to gather views on species that currently or potentially require control, as SNH is required to ensure that the species list is accurate, relevant and fit for purpose.

Following the Moorland Forum’s Understanding Predation project, a government-funded research scheme in which land managers including keepers worked with scientists to collate and analyse evidence of predator–prey interactions, we anticipate that species such as raven and buzzard will be hot topics of discussion.

It is unlikely that these species will be entered on to the 2017 General Licences, but the fact that the discussion will happen is a sign of progress for land managers who find the actions of these birds more damaging than those that can be controlled under the current licences. Scottish land managers can engage directly with SNH on this matter by visiting the agency’s website, or via a relevant membership organisation such as SACS.

Land managers who need to control pest species will also be concerned about potential changes to snaring and trapping regulations. Snaring in Scotland is currently highly regulated: people using snares require an operator number from the police, which can be obtained only after they have passed an accredited snaring course. The Scottish government will review snaring legislation later this year, again in response to accusations by opponents of field sports who have been supported by some MSPs.

When viewed against potential changes to the use of dogs to control pest species, the implications of further restrictions – or indeed an outright ban – on snaring are extremely worrying for land managers. There is also the threat of possible changes to Scottish trapping laws; the Agreement on International Humane Trapping Standards could potentially make the use of Fenn traps and body-grip traps unlawful, unless Scotland is granted a derogation for pest control purposes. The decision on this convoluted and opaque agreement has been postponed until 2018.


The process of 'rewilding' – an idea being driven by organisations that believe the absence of certain, long-extinct species has harmed Scotland’s ecosystems – is currently, in the field sports context, focusing on the reintroduction of beaver and lynx. Needless to say, there is a degree of animosity between proponents of rewilding and field sports interests.

There are 2 established beaver populations: one at Knapdale in Argyll, a government-authorised and funded trial reintroduction, and the other on Tayside, which was unlawful, although no prosecution has been sought by the government. The former population has remained relatively contained, while the latter has spread to a large catchment area and has led to considerable damage to farming interests as the beavers are destroying field drainage systems and trees.

The Scottish government has yet to decide whether the beavers are to be permitted to stay and, if so, whether they will receive full protection. Currently, landowners may lawfully apply appropriate lethal control to beavers, a situation that they will no doubt wish to see continue given the scale of the economic and environmental damage that the rodents can cause. We expect the government to publish its decision within the next 12 months.

The Lynx UK Trust’s proposed trial reintroduction of Eurasian lynx to sites in Kielder and the Borders has been much in the news recently, though SNH has yet to receive a licence application, indicating that any reintroduction is unlikely to happen quickly. Many stakeholders have refused to engage with the trust’s consultation due to its methods, however; for example, a lack of reply was to be taken as tacit acceptance of the trial.

Most field sports interests do not support the proposed trial, as it has not been proven that any benefits will sufficciently mitigate the significant risks associated with the introduction of an apex predator to areas where the rural economy is based on game shooting, deer stalking and sheep farming. We understand that the trust will still pursue its objectives until SNH makes a decision on any licence application.

Julia Stoddart MRICS is Head of Policy at SACS, Scotland’s largest representative field sports advocacy body

Further information