Stuart Housden's blog

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Stuart Housden's blog

Director of RSPB Scotland. Blogging on conservation topics & many of our projects.There will be an emphasis on Scotland,but the rest of the UK & work with BirdLife International will get mentions too.You can also follow me on Twitter @StuartHousden
  • Why driven grouse moors should be effectively regulated in Scotland

    RSPB Scotland calls for the licensing of driven grouse moors

    Hen harrier by Mark Hamblin (

    Birds of prey have been given full protection by the law in Scotland for many decades. There is now a significant body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence; alongside many reported cases of illegal killing of birds of prey; and documented evidence of vacant traditional territories of key raptor species; to show that they are being systematically killed in large swathes of our uplands managed for driven grouse shooting. In the absence of any improvement, and the damaging intensification of some grouse moor management practices, RSPB Scotland is now calling for driven grouse moors to be formally regulated by a cost covering licensing regime. 

    The illegal killing of our native birds of prey was described as a “national disgrace” by the late first Minister Donald Dewar MSP in 1998. The damage that this activity causes to Scotland’s international reputation, as well as to the populations of the birds of prey themselves, has been repeatedly acknowledged by successive Scottish Government Ministers.  Good wildlife protection laws are now in place, but  effective enforcement is often lacking since these crimes often take place in remote areas.

    RSPB Scotland has worked hard with land management and other partners in PAW Scotland to stamp out illegal practice, however on most driven grouse moors this message seems to fall on deaf ears. The Langholm Demonstration Project is making good progress in showing how sustainable grouse moor management might be achieved. Unfortunately the practical solutions developed at Langholm, including the successful diversionary feeding of hen harriers, have not been widely deployed by the grouse moor sector. Meanwhile, the illegal killing of hen harriers, golden eagles and other protected birds of prey continues unabated.

    Instead of delivering the modern day public expectations from sustainable land management practices, many involved with driven grouse moor management have embarked in recent years on ever more intensive practices designed to produce ever increasing grouse bags. This business model has led to burning of vulnerable peatland habitats and Caledonian pinewood regeneration; catching and medicating the iconic wild red grouse against disease;  the widespread removal of mountain hares and deer; and the construction of new and intrusive hill-tracks across wild land. These practices do not meet any definition of environmental sustainability.

    We welcome new measures introduced by the Scottish Government to bear down on the perpetrators of crime against birds of prey, including “vicarious liability”, designed to make landowners more responsible for the actions of their employees. However, we believe that the time is now long overdue for a step change in our approach. A meaningful deterrent to the persistent illegal killing of birds of prey is required. Whilst Scotland has largely unregulated gamebird hunting and limited sanctions against those who break wildlife laws, in contrast to other European countries, we believe that the entrenched cultural attitudes towards protected birds of prey will persist amongst many in the driven grouse moor sector.

    This is why we are now calling for the Scottish Government to develop a system of licensing for driven grouse moor management with effective sanctions, including the removal of sporting rights, against those who break wildlife laws. The welcome review of gamebird management practices in other similar countries that was recently commissioned by the Minister for the Environment and Climate Change should provide a platform to develop a licensing system appropriate to Scottish circumstances.  Those who do not break wildlife protection laws should have nothing to fear from such regulation, indeed this approach might be expected to help support those land managers who wish to lead the industry towards good practice.    

  • What the National Planning Framework means for nature in Scotland

    What the National Planning Framework means for nature in Scotland

    Last Monday, Scottish Ministers published the third National Planning Framework for Scotland (NPF3) and a new version of Scottish Planning Policy (SPP).  You can find both the NPF3 and the SPP here: This could be seen as a dull subject- it’s not, especially if you care about what Scotland will look like, and how it treats nature in the decades ahead.

    In very broad terms, NPF3 sets out where development should (and should not) happen whereas the SPP sets out how development should happen. They are primarily planning documents, intended to shape Scotland’s built development over the next 20-30 years.  It’s clear the NPF in particular is intended to be a bit more than that though.  It describes itself as the “...spatial expression of the Government economic strategy”.  It could therefore have a major impact on how Government spending priorities affect the natural environment and the look of places which people visit and love.  

    RSPB Scotland passionately supports planning, and  wants a strategic framework to guide where necessary infrastructure goes (and where it does not), and which sets out a clear framework for developers, the public and decision makers to follow. We and several other environmental groups had some major concerns with early drafts of the NPF3, which in our view focused heavily on delivering sustainable economic growth at the potential expense of environmental protection. 

    However during the consultation Government and the Scottish Parliament both rose to our challenges to make the balance tilt more equally between development-and protecting the best areas for wildlife.  They recognised that if these documents were to set out a vision for the sort of place we collectively want Scotland to be in 20-30 years they needed to be more than just about growth at any cost - they also needed to recognise the importance of a high quality natural environment to our future prosperity and quality of life, by protecting and enhancing our most important places, by ensuring that development is genuinely sustainable and delivered to the highest standards.

    Both documents are now quite positive - there is lots of recognition of the value of biodiversity, for example, and the positive contribution it makes to quality of life in Scotland, and the benefit it provides to tourism and our produce-like the food and drink sectors.  They are well worth looking through if you get a chance (they’re pretty readable for government policy documents too!).

     Highlights include:

    • The 14 “National Developments” set out in NPF3.  Most of these are defined areas where the principle of development will be supported but some are Scotland wide – such as a new walking and cycling network or electricity grid upgrades. Some of these will be environmentally challenging so RSPB Scotland will be looking to work closely with developers and the Government to avoid environmental harm.
    • A new “Presumption in favour of development that contributes to sustainable development” is set out in the SPP.  It will be interesting to see how this is interpreted by developers and planning authorities.  We think this presumption is unnecessary and could lead to some confusion.  A presumption in favour of development in isolation would be a major concern but, in practice, this will be outweighed by the need to contribute to sustainable development.  Hopefully, the need to prove that a development will contribute to sustainable development will mean a step-change in the sustainability credentials of many development proposals. And it won’t pass sustainability tests if precious wildlife sites would be destroyed.
    • The SPP sets out a revised spatial framework for onshore wind, focused on protecting designated sites but also wild land and “carbon rich soils, deep peat and priority peatland habitat”.  Improving protection for peatlands was one of our asks so it is great to see it taken up.
    • In addition to restating the protection given to designated sites, the SPP sets out that the planning system should “ benefits for biodiversity from new development where possible”.  We look forward to seeing biodiversity benefits becoming an integral part of most new developments. This is potentially an interesting steer from the Scottish Government.
    • There is strong support for habitat and green networks in the SPP and NPF3 and the Central Scotland Green Network retains its national development status in the NPF.  Delivering benefits for biodiversity is now a more explicit aim of the Central Scotland Green Network description, which is very welcome.  Our work around the Inner Forth is already starting to contribute towards these aims and its great to see it given a boost.

    All in, this is very positive from the Government.  Many other Government documents would do well to take on board some of the messages in NPF and SPP.Indeed SGRPID and the ‘Agriculture’ team are clearly not as advanced in their thinking and practise.  As with all policies though, the real test will be in the implementation and RSPB Scotland will be contributing, but also monitoring this very closely over the coming months and years.

  • Cleaner and greener farming?

    Cleaner and greener farming?

    Yellow flag iris and machair on North Uist. Photo by Genevieve Leaper.

    What to make of last week’s decisions on CAP implementation in Scotland? That’s decisions about how to spend £4.2 billion of taxpayers money, by the way[1].

    In his statement to Parliament, Cabinet Secretary, Richard Lochhead said, “The CAP must support productive agriculture. But it must also protect biodiversity, reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint, and conserve landscapes.” We couldn’t agree more. But this deal has turned out to be more about the former and little about the latter.

    Some 70% of the total CAP budget will be given to farmers through a variety of direct payments designed to support production. Most of this money will go to the more intensively managed arable and grassland regions with High Nature Value farmland i.e. that found in the hills and islands, receiving a very low share. The one glimmer of hope in this ‘production pot’ was a so-called ‘greening payment’ but, due to a combination of EU rules and lack of ambition here, the vast majority of farmers will receive this payment but will have to do very little to earn it. The only positive note is a requirement for some intensive livestock farmers to have a fertiliser plan which should encourage more efficient use of fertilisers and manures. However, given such plans generally save farmers money and make good business sense, it rather begs the question as to why we need to pay farmers to produce one?

    With so little environmental gain from production subsidies, all hope rests on the next Scotland Rural Development Programme. This will receive £1.3 billion between 2015 and 2020 and, whilst this sounds a lot, it won’t go far given the range of challenges the SRDP has to address.  This budget could have been £200 million larger if, at the end of last year, the Cabinet Secretary had decided to transfer 15% rather than 9.5% of the larger ‘production pot’ into the SRDP. But, once again, supporting productive agriculture trumped other concerns. A win there for the  NFUS.  As a result, spending on the agri-environment-climate scheme will amount to only £350 million. This is unlikely to lift Scotland from its second to bottom position on the EU league table for expenditure on such schemes or, more critically, enable the Government to meet its own environmental targets for wildlife, site condition, soils or landscape.  

    Both the farming industry and the Cabinet Secretary are keen to promote a ‘clean and green’ image of Scottish farming to buyers of its produce; just as farmers in other countries are trying to do. But the evidence shows there is significant room for improvement.  Many species of farmland birds – those that rely on crops, grasslands and features such as hedgerows – are in decline along with butterflies, bees and other farmland wildlife. A quarter of our most precious wildlife sites – those designated for their environmental importance – are in unfavourable condition as a result of inappropriate land management, including agricultural practices. At the same time, agriculture is a significant cause of water pollution and accounts for 20% of all emissions of climate warming greenhouse gases in Scotland. Take care not to over claim Mr Lochhead!

    The greatest frustration is that we know the solutions to these problems and most of them aren’t rocket science. There are many simple steps that farmers can and should take to help wildlife, improve water quality and reduce their carbon footprint. Many of these are requirements of regulation and need to be properly enforced. Other activities come with a cost and, where the market fails to reward these, it is right that Government steps in to provide funding. The decisions on CAP were the best chance the Government had to deliver that clean and green image, and get many more farmers to step up to the plate; but have they just blown it?

    [1] RSPB Scotland receives CAP funding. This money helps to support farming operations on our reserves which are vital for the conservation of birds such as corncrake, lapwing and curlew and other wildlife.