Alastair Robertson looks beyond the rumours and explores the likely future of fieldsports in an independant Scotland
I can honestly say not one person has asked me about independence,” says Robert Rattray, hand dramatically over his heart. As the head of CKD Galbraith’s sporting lets agency in Perth, Robert is someone you’d expect to be asked about the future for Scotland’s £360million fieldsports industry, should the nation vote for independence on 18 September.
His bookings are up, clients are increasingly cost-conscious, but independence? Nope. “I don’t think people, particularly in the south, have thought about it,” he says.
Certainly Sarah Troughton, chairman of the Scottish Country Sports Tourism Group (SCSTG), says fears for the future have not been on the SCSTG’s agenda. “Really, it’s not something that’s come up. I don’t say people don’t think about it, but everyone is just getting on with it.”
In theory fieldsports should be relatively safe from excessive interference, for the moment. The Scottish Government’s key environmental planks have been summarised as Timber, Tractors and Tourism, the latter of which fieldsports are a significant part supporting at least 14,000 jobs. SCSTG was set up with Government funding.
Others such as Aberdeenshire farmer Euan Webster who runs a family shoot on 1,500 acres, are less sanguine. “Independence,” he growls, “will be death by a thousand cuts.” He can do nothing about the buzzards that killed osprey chicks at his trout fishery, and protected predators have devastated his ground-nesting bird population.
Mr Webster’s is a common view among farmers, land managers and keepers plagued by incessant legislation on health and safety, the environment and animal welfare. And all the while the hills and rivers must be shared with increasing numbers of walkers, bikers and canoeists.
The fact that all this legislation comes from Brussels is no consolation. It will continue to come in the form of EU directives, whether Scotland votes for or against independence.
There is nothing in the Scottish National Party (SNP) white paper for an independent Scotland to suggest a Mugabe-style land grab. “There doesn’t need to be,” the pessimists mutter darkly.
The message to those who own land and run sporting enterprises is not to frighten the horses, according to a senior government advisor. “The vast majority of the public are agnostic, with no strong feelings as far as fieldsports are concerned,” he said. “So long as fieldsports stick to best practice then they will be accepted for the benefits they deliver (employment, access, wildlife conservation). They need to be alive to, and not dismissive of, public opinion. Don’t do anything too distasteful. Bad practice creates political difficulties.”
The most obvious example, and the hardest to deal with, is the illegal killing of birds of prey, which has become a potent publicity weapon in the hands of the RSPB and anti-shooting groups.
Yet the SNP administration has largely resisted constant demands from pressure groups to take centralised control of countryside management, while tightening rules in areas such as snaring and trapping. The Government prefers the “voluntary principle” — aka stick and carrot — or “do what we want and we’ll leave you alone”. This has the advantage of costing them and the taxpayer nothing. Deer management is still in the hands of deer management groups. Game fishing is still regulated by self-financing river boards rather than a Government agency — though that could change. Wildlife Estates Scotland (Scottish Land & Estates’ good practice accreditation scheme) was launched last year by environment minister Paul Wheelhouse, setting standards for wildlife and environmental management.
But the relatively benign SNP administration will not survive forever, with or without independence. Labour, possibly in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, is the only likely alternative in a land where Conservatives exist only with a small “c”. The first act of a new Scottish Parliament under Labour was to ban hunting. Fieldsports and landownership are easy “class” targets in a land where just 1million of the 5.2million population actually lives in the country.
The power to tax
Sporting rates, which were abolished in 1995 and which the Highland Council (among others) has been arguing for a reintroduction of, may well be brought back. With independence would come the entire panoply of tax-raising power. Land reform veterans argue fiercely for a land tax. Across the North Sea lurks a leftist Dutch government banning reared game. Sport may become very expensive. Doom merchants such as Mr Webster say: “Eventually you’ll lose heart and give up.”
What effect will this have on Scottish sporting property prices? Will sales dry up? Probably not at the top end, says Savills: “In our experience, the purchase of a Scottish property by the wealthy is a luxury and buying decisions are made on an emotional whim.”
The joke is that independence may not be a bad thing. Faced with learning how to run a real country, there may be little time, money or inclination for a Government to meddle in the countryside more than is totally and utterly necessary
It’s already different in Scotland
Tail docking on any breed is banned. Lifting the ban to bring legislation in-line with the rest of Britain is not a forgone conclusion, despite a Government- commissioned report that said: “Docking the tails of HPRs and spaniels by one-third would significantly decrease the risk of tail injury.” Yet rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead says: “We need to gain a clearer understanding of the views of interested parties before any decision is made.” Some suspect no decision until after the referendum. Failure to reverse the ban rankles with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association whose members largely voted for the SNP after Labour’s hunting ban.
Airguns are to be licensed regardless of independence. Whether this means English holidaymakers will be able to bring an arsenal of rifles and shotguns but no airgun, is unclear. The licensing of all guns is to be overhauled. Dr Colin Shedden of BASC Scotland says a system modelled on the current shotgun certificate would be workable. “Once a person has been vetted by police as suitable to own guns it would be up to that person how many rifles and shotguns they put on the certificate.” But a restriction on the number of guns one person may own is blowing in the wind.
Wildfowl may be shot with lead-loaded cartridges in Scotland, provided the birds are not over wetland. In England, lead shot is banned for wildfowl. The use of lead in soft-nosed bullets for deerstalking is likely to be banned on food safety grounds. The ban on the sale of wild geese could be lifted – Scottish Natural Heritage is running three pilot schemes to control greylag geese and create local income from meat sales.
Salmon & sea trout
A review of wild fisheries management including coarse fishing is under way. However, it will not, oddly enough, cover the effect fish farms or the coastal netting of salmon. The Faroese are threatening to start netting again if Scotland continues to allow discriminate netting. Around 80 per cent of rod-caught salmon in Scotland are now released by anglers, but all of their net-caught fish are killed.