Gamekeepers’ group claims bill could be ‘rushed’

Alex Hogg, chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association

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The chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association has published an open letter to MSP ahead of a vote tomorrow.

Alex Hogg, a gamekeeper for more than 40 years, spoke out ahead of the final debate on the Animals and Wildlife Bill (Penalties, Protections and Powers Bill) (Scotland).

The bill provides ‘further protections’ to animals and wildlife in Scotland, said the Scottish Government.

But Mr Hogg said the bill contained ‘big amendments on contentious topics’ which were ‘only tabled on deadline day’ last week.

The Scottish Greens have said beavers are supposed to be protected in Scotland, but one fifth of the population was killed under licence last year.

And an amendment by Green MSP Alison Johnstone seeks to make mountain hares a protected species, with her online petition so far signed by 13,300 people.

Mr Hogg said some of the amendments relating to mountain hare protection, beaver licensing and tail shortening, could now be rushed through without scrutiny, or advice from land managers.

Mr Hogg said the lead committee had not had the opportunity to scrutinise the amendments or take evidence and he was fearful it would result in ‘bad law’.

‘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 seven days from them being tabled,’ Mr Hogg wrote.

He said that in order to retain populations of healthy mountain hares, ‘some population management’ was of benefit.

But opponents claim that the indigenous hares are killed to facilitate the grouse shooting industry.

Mr Hogg wrote: ‘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.

‘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.’

He said rising hare numbers would increase ticks which can spread infection, kill off young leverets, weaken birds such as the curlew and pass on Lyme Disease to those using the hills.

Any subsequent decline in hare populations would also effect Golden Eagles, which eat them as a ‘mainstay’ of their diet, said Mr Hogg.

‘Our members were due to protest at the Parliament in March,’ he wrote.

‘Had the world not been knocked sideways by coronavirus, that protest message would have been delivered.’

A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: ‘We are giving all amendments lodged under the Animal and Wildlife Penalties, Protections and Powers Bill careful consideration, and we will outline our position at the Stage Three debate tomorrow.’

The bill increases penalties for animal and wildlife crime, extends the time limit to bring prosecutions and increases the  maximum available penalties for the most serious wildlife offences to a prison sentence of five years, among other steps.