From Monday 8 October, in Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage can restrict the use of general licences to trap and shoot certain wild birds where they have good reason to believe that crimes against wild birds have taken place. General licences, as their name suggests, are licences that can be relied on (without personal application for a licence) by an owner or occupier of land or someone authorised by that person, to kill or take wild birds specified within that licence, for reasons specified and subject to a list of conditions also specified. Examples are live-trapping a carrion crow to conserve other wild birds or shooting woodpigeons to protect growing crops.
The wording of these important changes means that not only may this withdrawal of the use of a general licence be made against an individual, but can be made in relation to an area of land. Since most crimes committed against wild birds remain undetected, it follows that the most likely sanctions will be in relation to areas of land.
Of course the sanctions by SNH cannot be just on a whim; they must have evidence based on the balance of probabilities. This is the level of civil, rather than criminal, proof, and the evidence will be able to be passed from the police to SNH through an information-sharing protocol. I suspect that if this sanction is triggered by a single incident it is much more likely to be against an individual who has been seen committing a relevant crime. If against a piece of land, such as a farm or estate, the sanction is likely to be based on a recent incident backed by some degree of history of similar incidents, none of which can be pinned down to an individual but showing a clear course of criminal conduct.
The fact that withdrawal of general licences has been made retrospective to the beginning of 2014 shows that the Scottish Government and SNH are well aware of the groundswell of opinion on raptor persecution, and appreciate how difficult it is to achieve a conviction for these crimes. A few quick-time, sharp results might now begin to turn the tide. Since I’m aware of most – if not all – crimes committed in Scotland against raptors, there is no shortage to pick from since the start of 2014, and I am quietly confident that SNH and Police Scotland will not shirk from their responsibilities.
While I look forward to the results, I am not sure that this is the complete answer as I know certain estates to which the withdrawal of legitimate means of controlling corvids will be a minor inconvenience. Nevertheless if they do not fall into line then they can’t argue if a new tranche of sanctions are imposed. As an example there is one serious petition currently under way to ban driven grouse shooting, and the recent disappearance of a number of satellite-tagged hen harriers in the north of England is sure to swell the signature total even though the reason for the loss of the birds is not proved.
Speaking of England (and of course Wales) when is wildlife law there going to catch up? Wildlife law is not perfect in Scotland but it has come on leaps and bounds since we entered the 21st Century. The laws now pretty much fit the times. We have better snaring legislation, better poaching legislation (incorporated into the Wildlife and Countryside Act), better controls on banned and abused pesticides with realistic sentences, vicarious liability and now much tighter general licences. We are lucky in having our own parliament, which in the main delivers what the people want.
Nor have we any plans to repeal our hunting legislation……………..