What’s next for the rural sector?

In this article, Rory Kennedy, Rural Estates Partner for Chiene + Tait looks at likely upcoming regulations affecting the rural sector.

The Scottish rural sector has had to weather a barrage of legislative uncertainty in recent years. While Brexit remains an obvious focus, the Scottish Government continues to add uncertainties of its own. We are likely to see many proposed policy changes over the coming months:

 

Deer

Deer management has been the focus of a series of reports that are likely to crystallise into policy proposals later in 2019. Following on from the 2014 enquiry by the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) were tasked with a detailed review of deer management groups and their effectiveness in managing our national deer herd in the public interest.

Deer management is a contentious topic and ‘public interest’ is a deeply subjective test, with commercial forestry and rewilding interests often conflicting with field sports and related tourism interests. A possible outcome will be increased centralised influence on local management policy, however there are considerable step-in powers for SNH under the current deer legislation.

A further SNH review has been carried out on lowland deer management, which does not have the advantage of large tracts of land under common management. These findings are likely to be incorporated into wider review. SNH are also reviewing some of the practicalities of deer management and we may see legal changes to the use of thermal and night-vision equipment, minimum training requirements for stalkers, and possible restrictions on lead ammunition.

 

Grouse Moor Management

This remains a key battle ground following an SNH report suggesting eagle disappearance rates were twice as high on managed moorland. This led to the current government review group, led by Professor Alan Werrity. One of the proposals being evaluated is the introduction of licences for driven grouse shoots. With raptor crime having low detection and conviction rates, this could allow shooting to be stopped or suspended as a result of suspicion of raptor crime. This has parallels with the existing ability to suspend general licences in geographic areas of suspected wildlife crime, but it does present some very significant concerns that lowering the burden of proof standard may be open to abuse in a politically charged and emotive area. It is perfectly plausible that we may see fictitious or presumptuous claims made.

If the result is suspension of licences, this could have a catastrophic impact on a grouse shooting enterprise that will incur a year of running costs for possibly 2 months of income. As such, the principle of licencing may seem an acceptable solution but the application is fraught with legislative challenge Werrity is also considering mountain hare culling on grouse moors. However, the culling is largely necessitated by the significantly higher densities of hare on managed moor, so a total ban would be contrary to the evidence and is therefore unlikely.

 

General Licences

Following a judicial review by Wild Justice, Natural England’s (NE) panicked reaction led to the immediate restriction on general licences for the culling of carrion crows, wood pigeon and Canada

geese. The legal challenge focussed on how the current general licencing system addressed the need for an evidence-based application of culling under the European Birds Directive. The application of the directive is different in Scotland, which does not allow a direct legal comparison and NE has now returned to a largely unaltered form of the original licence. SNH will conduct a review of existing provisions over the summer; this is unlikely to impose any particularly onerous deviations from the current system.

 

Land Reform

In March 2019 the Scottish Land Commission published a report on the concentration of Scottish land ownership. The report suggested land concentration can hold back economic development in some parts of Scotland, but also that economies of scale were an advantage, and that land concretion issues extend to public bodies and NGOs. At the start of June 2019, Cabinet Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, has formally invited the Land Commissioners to progress this work but no deliverable outcomes are likely in the immediate future.

 

If you have a query about any of the issues noted above, please contact Rory Kennedy Chiene + Tait’s Rural Estates Partner at mail@chiene.co.uk or call 0131 558 5800.