Friday, 26 June 2020

SGA STATEMENT: RSPB PRESS RELEASE ON HEN HARRIERS

Please see the SGA statement released yesterday on RSPB beginning their concerted attempt to force grouse moor licensing with the release of a story on satellite tags failing.

A Spokesman for The Scottish Gamekeepers Association said: “Until satellite tags are monitored independently of organisations which are lobbying for increased grouse moor legislation, we cannot have trust in how data is being interpreted and reported.
“When Hen Harrier Brian’s last signal was found to have been on an RSPB Reserve in Insh Marshes in the Cairngorms National Park in 2016, the bird was never located. RSPB said the last signal was only an ‘indication of where a bird had been’, not that it was killed there, and then went quiet. Why?
“A Golden Eagle tagged as part of the South of Scotland Golden Eagle project was thought to have been killed by another project eagle. It’s tag was supposedly functioning fully well but was never found, either. Why not?
“There is no evidence to suggest these 2 cases are any different in any way. They would simply not stand up, evidentially, in any court in the land.
“The SGA has a very clear wildlife crime policy and has expelled 8 members in 7 years who have been convicted of wildlife crime. We will always take a hard stance on this issue. However, we will not hang people out to dry on the basis of speculation provided by groups with clear agendas.”

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

LOCKDOWN ROUTE MAP CHARTS PATH FOR COUNTRY SPORTS SEASONS

Today, the Scottish Government published its indicative timetable for lifting further Lockdown restrictions, offering real hope that country sports seasons can take place this year.
Members can read the full route map, here: https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-scotlands-route-map-indicative-dates-remainder-phase-2-early-phase-3/
but a summary table is posted below.
Whilst overseas travel restrictions remain in place currently, the easing of lockdown restrictions on travel and accommodation, from phased dates in July, should allow for UK-based sporting activity such as deer stalking and game shooting to go ahead with social distancing and hygiene measures in place.
Local angling, which returned at Phase 1, will be opened up further to UK-based sportsmen and women with accommodation facilities and hospitality re-opening, albeit with new health and distancing requirements.
Scottish Gamekeepers Association Chairman Alex Hogg said: "Today's announcement will be a major relief to those working in our sector, who were facing the very real and daunting prospect of tens of millions of pounds potentially flooding out of businesses in small and remote rural communities due to Covid-19.
"Providing the virus remains in check, there is now a tangible hope that the sector can salvage what it can from a trying year and also help to propel economic recovery in small communities for the range of businesses and trades which benefit from shooting. This will be important because the data already shows that rural communities will be disproportionately disadvantaged by the pandemic.
"We will await to see what will happen with overseas visitors, who make up a significant chunk of clientele, but this offers some light at the end of the tunnel."


Thursday, 18 June 2020

AFTER THE VOTE- A MESSAGE FROM CHAIRMAN ALEX HOGG


There is a lot of anger, bitterness and disappointment among members today, mixed with disbelief. Everyone at the SGA shares that and is stung by yesterday’s events in Parliament.

The SGA would like to thank all of those, firstly, whose management over decades has sustained the only viable populations of mountain hares left in Scotland. 
We can take some solace in that and, at least in our own eyes, that counts for something.

Away from our moors, the hare will continue its precipitous demise, largely unnoticed and unstudied by SNH- who have done nothing to push the counting methodology they helped to formulate out to the places which were formerly hare strongholds but are no longer.

In the South West, when the grouse moors went, so did the hares. Where were the campaigners then with their fluffy bunny suits, campaign leaflets and petitions? Where was Chris Packham, ready to make another of his amazing videos? Nowhere. The mountain hare suffered a silent, unobserved demise because there weren’t any grouse moors left to campaign about.

The SGA would like to thank all those who wrote to their MSPs to make their case; a principled one. Scotland’s regional moorland groups are a credit to the industry and they worked hard to get people to see sense. Their efforts, in a less frosty political environment, would have succeeded.

The hardest thing to accept, this morning, is that the centuries of land management or practitioner knowledge, which has left Scotland today with mountain hares up to 35 times more abundant on grouse moors than other moors, was ignored. So, too, was the science in 3 published, peer reviewed papers. The truth, it seems, will not out.

In the latter years, when gamekeepers in Grampian saw Adam Watson trying to monitor hares from the roadside with a pair of binoculars, little did they know that this piece of work would be accepted as the work that would trumph all the years of knowledge they had, gleaned from working their patch every day from dawn til dusk. That report has since been so debunked by some scientists specifically working in this field that some have refused to use it in any subsequent work on mountain hares. The world is a funny place. Then again, land managers were walking into a situation where politics would win, nothing else.

The SGA would like to thank the free-thinking MSPs who spoke up yesterday and those who knew the subject well and were willing to back what land managers have been telling them because they have been onto the moors and seen it for themselves.

We would also like to acknowledge the pain and stress of the people who were covertly filmed carrying out legal and legitimate land management activity during this activist campaign and whose children were abused at school after the film was aired on BBC. This film formed a key part of the campaign which Alison Johnstone was commended for so highly by so many MSPs yesterday in the house. The illegal filming took place after Roseanna Cunningham told activists outside Parliament to ‘gather evidence’.

This day is not yet done. 

From today, all moorland gamekeepers have a duty to monitor the impacts of this Bill amendment on the hares themselves, the health of the hares, the condition of fragile and protected environments, the health of other moorland species, tick burdens and any woodland sites.

If they get any letters from SNH telling them their protected site is in poor condition because of hare damage, only for SNH to scurry for cover and later say they never actually advised doing anything about it, remember this and make sure you have the evidence to prove it. 

All members must continue, as they have done for 2 years, to count their hares using the new methodology and retain that data safely, with GWCT, and your own records, so it can be presented to the Scottish Parliament.

Because practitioner knowledge will get brushed aside as ‘anecdotal’ or ‘gamekeeper speak’ and because peer reviewed science will also be ignored, land managers should chart as much of the environmental, tick and disease evidence as possible using photo and video and note the timelines of change in this way.

As soon as public health advice allows, the SGA will re-organise the planned protest at Parliament. Similarly, picking up on some of the many recent conversations on this issue, the SGA will seek further discussions with stakeholders regarding the possibility, in future, of candidates being fielded in Holyrood elections which can make the case for the land working countryside and rural communities.

Despite media commentary this morning, this is not an ‘SGA political party’. The idea has been kicking around for some time for a political group, free of allegiance, to campaign only on the ticket of getting the best deal for the people in our fragile remote places, issue by issue. We are simply interested in this and will explore all opportunities further in order to try to get a better deal for our members and their networks, as is our aims. 

If anyone wishes to speak with us further on this point, please contact the office in the first instance or email info@scottishgamekeepers.co.uk

For the interest of those who watched the debate yesterday, the 19 votes in favour of rejecting Alison Johnstone's amendment came from

All the Conservative MSPs and Mike Rumbles, Liberal Democrats.

You may wish to send them a letter or email of gratitude.

Alex Hogg, June 18th, 2020.





Wednesday, 17 June 2020

SGA STATEMENT: FULL PROTECTION FOR MOUNTAIN HARES A GRAVE MISTAKE

Reacting to the vote in Scottish Parliament today (June 17th) which gave mountain hares full legal protection with little ability to manage populations:

Alex Hogg, Chairman of The Scottish Gamekeepers Association said: “A grave mistake has been made today. This is a bad law, made by people it will not impact upon.

“There will be no satisfaction in turning around in a few years and saying: ‘we told you so’ but, certainly, this is an important date in the demise of another iconic species, killed by political trade-offs and emotive campaigns.

“The views of the rural working people of the land have been ignored, here. The system has failed them. We have been in discussions for some months about a party for rural Scotland and the possibility of fielding candidates in list seats.

“Our members feel this whole process and the lack of scrutiny has been lamentable and we now need to consider all options to ensure the working countryside is represented better in Scotland today.”

Ends.

*Members pleas note, The SGA will go ahead with the previously planned protest at Scottish Parliament, as soon as public health guidance permits. Members will be notified in due course.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

OPEN LETTER: RURAL WORKER VOTES CAN'T BE TRADE-OFFS WHEN BILLS ARE PASSED

Please see below an Open Letter  which has been sent to MSPs by Alex Hogg, Chairman of The Scottish Gamekeepers Association, ahead of the final debate and vote on the Animals and Wildlife Bill at Holyrood tomorrow (Wednesday).

The long-standing SGA Chairman, a gamekeeper for over 40 years, argues that the way this Bill has been handled will reduce faith in Scottish Parliament processes, that rural working peoples' interests are being traded for political gain and that voting in favour of giving full protection for the mountain hare will be a grave mistake for the conservation status of the iconic species.

Dear MSP, 

I have been a gamekeeper for over 40 years of my life. I have been attending Parliament, in my capacity as Chairman of The Scottish Gamekeepers Association since its inception.

As stakeholders, we have been involved in many Bills. We endeavour to give MSPs of all persuasions an insight into the countryside from the perspective of the working person and pass on our practical knowledge.

I am not given to writing in this way but I have found myself at a loss as to why, in the midst of a pandemic, we are in the situation where major decisions are about to be taken on key issues within 7 days from them being tabled.

I wrote to the Presiding Officer myself in order to try and understand why decisions which will impact on the daily lives of our members are being taken at Stage 3 of the Animals and Wildlife Bill. Big amendments on contentious topics such as mountain hare protection, beaver licensing and tail shortening (again) were only tabled on deadline day last week.

They will be debated for some minutes, along with a raft of other things, and will be passed one way or the other- things which will affect human beings’ lives and I think there is a duty of responsibility for all MSPs to reflect on that. 

I have real concern that the lead Committee has not even had the opportunity to scrutinise these amendments or take evidence and I am highly fearful this will result in bad law.

No matter how I look at it, and I have tried to take positives, this process has left a tainted view of how the Parliament is working today and I know, from calls I have personally received, that our rural members feel that the system is not working for them.

The mountain hare amendment is an example. There will be members in the house who think  ‘protecting’ mountain hares will be doing the right thing by the species. I can understand that motivation.

However, if this had been given more time, MSPs would have been able to question experts and land managers who know that, in order to retain populations of healthy mountain hares, some population management is both desirable and of benefit.

Today, 80 percent of the hare range is grouse moor. Outside these refuges, afforestation has fragmented their habitat and hares are in decline. 

History has already shown what happens when hares, with good populations, are not managed.

On Langholm Moor, when the gamekeepers were removed because grouse shooting became unviable, the mountain hare population crashed. It never recovered. At Langholm the mountain hare is today locally extinct through lack of management.

When hares are not managed on these upland moors, numbers build for a period then the hares die off. Mountain hares are incredibly susceptible to gut worms. When the ground becomes saturated with hares, the worm larva in the heather is ingested and disease spreads through the population with fatal consequences.

Unlike taking a proportion of the hares when they are in good health, disease related die-off means the population can take up to 15 years to reach the same level. In some cases, it doesn’t.

So, by protecting the mountain hare- as per this amendment- and foregoing any population management, there is a real danger that this rushed decision will actually worsen the conservation status of the mountain hare within a relatively short period of time rather than improve it. It will do the opposite of what it is intended to do and would not be good law.

One of our committee members, who has been working with hare populations for decades in Highland Perthshire said to me, “during the early 80’s, before we had vehicles capable of traveling in the snow, I could not get to the hill. After three consecutive winters, the population exploded. In the Spring of that year, the hares died in their hundreds. When the snow cleared the dead carcasses of the hares in the peat hags were sometimes 20-30 to each hag.”

I had another on the phone, this time a highly experienced former Edinglassie gamekeeper in Grampian. He said to me, 
“I cannot believe protection will happen. It will not achieve what people think it will.
We had a really big die off of hares in the 90s when no management was carried out. A senior hare scientist was here studying hares at the time and he asked me what I thought it was. I told him I thought it was disease. He tested for that and found I was correct. 
“It is not the Strongyle worm, which red grouse suffer from, but is of the same family. The hare numbers have never actually recovered to the levels of before, from that crash. This is a species that reacts best to the population being regularly kept at a level where disease is not an issue.”

Langholm is a warning of what happens when mountain hares are allowed to build to high density with no management. These personal accounts from other moors build on what we know.

Gamekeepers have been managing hares for over 100 years. Today, on grouse moors, the populations are either stable or increasing (Hesford et al, 2019), all these years later. The highest hare densities in Europe are found here. For being perceived to be doing so badly, it turns out that, scientifically, what we do has been very good for mountain hares. Practiced elsewhere, you would not be seeing declines.

It is a shame the Parliament will not have a proper chance to truly consider the views of the people who have more practical experience of this issue than anyone else in Scotland.

Full legal protection for the mountain hare will also impact the species they share a home with.
As the hare numbers initially rise, they will act as growing blood hosts for tick. 
Tick burdens kill young leverets and also give the adult hares tick borne encephalitis but they also weaken birds such as the Curlew, Britain’s biggest conservation concern, leaving them susceptible to disease and predation. 

The walkers, mountain bikers and ramblers that we want to encourage into the hills for exercise will have to run the gauntlet of more tick during this phase as they take their recreation. A few years ago our community lost a stalker to Lyme Disease. The threats are real and terrifying. These are all factors which ought to have been considered properly in good law making. It seems that won’t happen.

When hare numbers rise then fall through disease, where there is no management, expect golden eagle productivity to fall, too. The hare is the mainstay of the eagle diet. 

There are other ways instead of full legal protection to ensure hare populations are in good order.

Statutory reporting to SNH of counts and bag returns, as is common in Europe, requires no rushed legislation, passed without scrutiny. A General Licence, like that used for certain common species, would also give SNH the data it needs on populations and the option to step in or suspend management if need be. 

Gamekeepers have already been counting hares, using the new and accurate methodology and conversations were already being had with SNH over a national monitoring scheme. These are more in line with the recommendations of the Werritty report. They are sensible and proportionate.

This rushed, opportunistic, amendment, however, is not and, if it passes, truth and science will have been jettisoned along with combined centuries of practical knowledge. It is that which our members will find hardest to swallow and I believe will find difficult to forget. I can understand that feeling and I share it. 

Our members were due to protest at the Parliament in March. They wanted to send a message that interests of rural working people should not be traded so votes could be won elsewhere in the house. That is not the purpose of law making. The events of the past week will only harden that resolve. Had the world not been knocked sideways by Coronavirus, that protest message would have been delivered. It is likely that it has only been delayed.

When SNH classed the mountain hare as unfavourable/inadequate, it was not reflective of the hare’s actual status, it was because SNH did not have the data at the deadline to which they had to legally report to the EU.

All they had was a Watson report which has now been critiqued (Newey et al, 2018) as having used the least reliable method of all methods tested, to count mountain hares.

Since then, 2 published reports have shown no long term change in abundance since the 1960s and that hare densities in the North East are similar to those recorded in the 1950s. 

More papers are to be published within weeks which will show that changes in the hare’s range are NOT related to culls of hares.

In short, the data SNH lacked when reporting to the EU in 2018 about the hare’s status is available now and the reason to propose protection, as per this amendment (concern over hare culls) is technically defunct.

I apologise for the length of this letter but I hope, as a representative of the people of all of Scotland, that you will reflect on it carefully when making decisions regarding rushed legal protections for mountain hares and other late amendments which ought to have been tabled in a way which allows for scrutiny and debate.

Yours sincerely,


Alex Hogg.

Chairman. The Scottish Gamekeepers Association.

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

FULL PROTECTION FOR MOUNTAIN HARES: SGA RESPONSE

Image courtesy of SNH
Today, Green MSP Alison Johnstone lodged an amendment to the Animals and Wildlife Bill at Stage 3 requesting that mountain hares be given full legal protection.
The amendment, and others, will be debated at Holyrood next Wednesday (June 17th). The SGA will provide briefings for politicians ahead of that debate.
Commenting on the proposals today,

Scottish Gamekeepers Association Chairman Alex Hogg said: “The Werritty review of grouse moor management looked at the issue of mountain hares in depth and Scottish Government is due to respond to that report in due course.
“That is where this issue should be looked at, not thrown late into a Bill as a piece of political opportunism.
“Since seasons were brought in for mountain hares, all licences granted for culling have been given out by SNH to protect young trees. As the Green party demands more tree planting to counter climate change, it will be interesting to see how Alison Johnstone intends to protect saplings from mountain hares. She has certainly made a very forceful and compelling case for fenced forestry schemes running across upland Scotland.
“Mountain hares are controlled, in season, to protect trees and fragile habitats, to prevent disease and to manage tick populations which also have implications for human health.
“A great deal has been done by gamekeepers and estates to put into place new scientifically tested counting methodologies so that control measures are proportionate. That is the way forward and very few, if any, conservation bodies have followed suit which is perhaps telling. Complete protection will not address the key issue facing the species in Scotland today: their spiralling decline away from grouse moors which have maintained their habitats for centuries while still managing population levels.”


Gamekeepers learning how to practically apply the new counting methods (see SNH paper below). Conservation charities, many of whom have campaigned on the issue, are yet to take such a rigorous approach to counting.
*Members who feel strongly on this issue should also contact their MSPs. Your practical experience of wildlife management should be heard on these and other issues and we encourage you to communicate that practical knowledge to those who will participate in the debate. By entering your postcode into the 'Find MSPs' box in this link, you can find out how to contact your local MSP. https://www.parliament.scot/msps.aspx


Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Update From National Firearms and Explosives Licensing (Scotland)


OFFICIAL NFEL (Scotland) – Coronavirus response

The current unprecedented circumstances in respect of the Coronavirus has impacted on the ability of Police Scotland to deliver a number of business as usual functions. Our focus has been on having as many officers as possible available to front line operational policing and support our colleagues in the NHS.

On Monday 23th March, National Firearms and Explosives Licensing (Scotland) advised that interim processes required to be put in place in respect of a number of our services. Our position is now that we have reviewed our ability and capacity regarding the service we can deliver and will implement the following changes in the timescales indicated:

Variations
We will accept and process variation applications with immediate effect. Please send the necessary form and fee to your local processing centre.

New Grant Applications
From Monday 1st June we will accept grant applications which we will process to the best of our ability. Please be aware however that there are various stages in the grant process including the following:
• Completion of a GP response form completed by your doctor
• A visit to your home to assess your security arrangements

Please note that a grant application cannot be assessed or supported without both elements being completed.

With regard to the information required from your GP, on receipt of your application form you will be sent a letter which you are required to have completed by your GP. We would ask that you send this by post to your GP practice rather than personal attendance. Your GP may wish a face to face consultation prior to completing the form however this is at individual GPs discretion.
At this time, GPs may not consider completion of this form a priority and you should be prepared to accept and understand this.

Visits to your home will only be undertaken by prior arrangement with the attending officer after a risk assessment has been completed. You will be asked a series of questions including if you and any family members who reside at your address are in good health or suffering from any symptoms of Coronavirus. You will also be asked if your family members could isolate themselves in another area of your house whilst the visit takes place to facilitate physical distancing. Officers will endeavour to spend the minimum time necessary in your home.

If you are not willing or able to allow access to your home, please do not apply until you are in a position to facilitate this.

If you are content to adhere the guidelines outlined, send your application form and fee to your local processing centre. Please be prepared to accept that we may not be in a position to process your application within 16 weeks due to circumstances out-with our control.

Renewal Applications
Government advice is to avoid non-essential contact and travel and Police Scotland will continue to adhere to this. As a result, home visits undertaken by Firearms Enquiry Officers remain suspended meantime in respect of renewal applications.

If you are currently in the renewal process and have received and completed your renewal pack, you will shortly be contacted by a member of staff. If you wish to proceed with your renewal, this will be managed in the interim period remotely. You will be asked to return your completed paperwork to a processing centre or police office and we will endeavour to renew your certificate prior to expiry. If this cannot be achieved, legislative contingencies exist in the form of temporary extensions and temporary permits which will allow you to continue to possess and use your firearms. We will aim however to complete your renewal without the need to resort to this.
If your renewal is due between 1 August and 31 December 2020, you will receive your renewal pack as normal in the coming weeks and months. Please refer to this page for guidance and information as we will continue to review this dynamic situation and publish updates in relation to any changes in our process.

Change of Address/Transfers In
If you are an existing firearms or shotgun certificate holder and you require to notify us of a change of address, or are transferring into Scotland from a UK force, this will be processed and you will be communicated with directly.

Visitor Permits
We are now in a position to accept Visitor Permit applications. Please be aware however that travel restrictions currently remain in place throughout Scotland and is limited to essential journeys only. If you are considering applying, please refer to the Scottish Government website and guidance in respect of travel arrangements and social distancing before you apply. Please consider your application carefully. Where Visitor Permits have already been granted and you are unable to visit Scotland, you will not be disadvantaged and we will seek to allocate a future date or a refund if this is more preferable to you.

Please contact NFEL by email/telephone with any queries you may have. Our phone lines will only be open to receive calls between 0900hrs and 1200hrs daily.

We would be obliged if you could refrain from personal attendance at police offices meantime.