Our rural economies are under threat - James McMillan

Country sports tourism in Scotland, including stalking, shooting and fishing, was estimated to be worth over £155 million to the Scottish economy in pre-pandemic data in 2019, supporting thousands of jobs. The economic benefit that this industry provides to rural economies in Scotland cannot be overestimated, especially during the harsh realities of recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Grouse shooting brings economic benefits

At the same time, land management in Scotland is under increasing scrutiny. There is an expectation of landowners having to deal with continuous environmental change, energy and food security requirements and the demographics of the out migration of youth and in migration of retirees. Combined, these factors mean that the sustainability of our rural economies is under threat.

For example, the first major recent study of all impacts of driven grouse shooting, carried out by Professor Simon Denny and Dr Tracey Latham-Green from the University of Northampton, stated it creates a “mosaic of income-generating activities that sustain upland communities”. The study also found that management of such estates created an “increasingly rare assemblage of plants, animals and invertebrates” which resulted in a “net gain in diversity and abundance over similar but unmanaged moorland”.

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On the legislative side of things, the Scottish Government is considering a licensing system to control grouse shooting, while there are existing powers available to specialist police officers and Crown prosecutors to tackle wildlife and environmental crime. There is a Scottish Government budget for prosecuting wildlife crimes, and only in the last few weeks six people were charged in the north-east of Scotland for poaching.

James McMillan is a Director at Anderson Strathern, heads up the firm’s Corporate Crime, Regulatory and Investigations team and is a specialist on wildlife crime.

Substantial numbers of police officers are being deployed to investigate wildlife offences and firearms licensing on estates. The issue of licensing of firearms on land and estates is sensitive, however they are often essential for control of vermin. The legal responsibilities placed upon landowners have never been more stringent in Scotland given the criminal vicarious liability offences which can be imposed for failing to take reasonable steps and ensure appropriate due diligence to avoid wildlife crime.

In 2014, a landowner in Galloway was convicted for failing to ensure that his gamekeeper did not commit a wildlife crime offence. Accordingly, the stakes are high for landowners. It is important to review situations periodically, actively monitor compliance with lease terms and place positive obligations on to property factors where appropriate. Risk registers in relation to illegal snares and traps must be updated regularly and vigilance is required in respect of rural crime in general.

A recent report by the National Farmers Union has identified some interesting trends in relation to rural crime, including the targeting of farmers’ GPS systems and the use of e-scooters to silently escape with high-value technologies which are vital for farmers.

The challenges for the rural economies are increasing and some commentators say greater licensing will intensify this burden. Because the industry is vital to the Scottish economy, it will be important to strike the right legislative balance to assist businesses while ensuring wildlife is protected.

James McMillan is a Director at Anderson Strathern, heads up the firm’s Corporate Crime, Regulatory and Investigations team and is a specialist on wildlife crime.

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