TENS of thousands of endangered birds and mammals have been killed or controlled under secretive licences given out by the Scottish Executive over the past five years.
Among the protected species that have been shot, poisoned, trapped or displaced are geese, herons, badgers, otters, pine martens and mountain hares. Many of the animals may have died or suffered needlessly, according to conservation and welfare groups.
Some campaigners allege that ministers have issued licences illegally because alternatives to killing have not been properly explored. But this has been denied by the Executive, which insists that licences are only granted “in exceptional circumstances” in accordance with the law.
Documents released under the Environmental Information Regulations show that ministers granted a total of 1650 licences to control more than 30 protected species between 2000 and 2005. Almost half of the licences were given to farmers to prevent geese from eating their crops on Islay and elsewhere.
Nearly 200 licences were granted to anglers and other fishing interests to kill goosanders, cormorants and herons to prevent them eating salmon and other fish. Hundreds more were issued to control ravens, gulls and other birds to protect livestock or ensure public health and safety.
Property owners, game keepers and farmers got more than 200 licences to control badgers, otters, bats, newts and other animals alleged to be pests. Eight licences were issued to control rare pine martens, which can eat the eggs and chicks of game birds, and eight for controlling mountain hares, blamed for spreading disease to grouse.
John Robins, campaigns consultant for the welfare group Animal Concern, said: “Our politicians should be protecting animals instead of helping people destroy them.
“It is totally wrong that the department which is supposed to protect wildlife also represents farming and fishery interests which exploit and destroy our wild habitats and the animals which inhabit them.” Robins claimed that licences to cull birds were being issued illegally, as no consideration had been given to alternatives.
Dr Elaine King, chief executive of the National Federation of Badger Groups, alleged there were “numerous examples where badger licences have been issued contrary to the spirit of the legislation”, which is likely to have caused “serious welfare problems”.
She said: “Badgers are evicted from setts simply because they are inconvenient, rather than causing a genuine problem. Unscrupulous developers also misuse the licensing system to avoid the strict rules covering protected species on building sites.”
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is also worried that some of the licences, particularly those for killing fish-eating birds, may not be justified. Andy Myles, RSPB Scotland spokesman, said: “Keeping most of the details secret will always give rise to speculation that licences are being issued willy-nilly.
“Our confidence, and that of the public, that the protection of our birds and animals is not being undermined, would be significantly boosted if the Executive were more open about the licences they issue, and their reasons for doing so.”
The Executive provided summary information on the licences on request, but has so far refused to release the names of licence-holders. And while the wildlife and habitats division has supplied reports explaining why licences were issued for particular species, the agriculture and fisheries divisions have not.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) is especially anxious about licences issued to control pine martens and mountain hares. Its policy and campaigns manager, Lisa Schneidau, said: “SWT would like assurance that any licences are granted with full priority given to species conservation.
“SWT is concerned about the mountain hare as little is known about current numbers, its distribution and its vulnerability to persecution and climate change.” Since 2001, more than 250 mountain hares have been snared and killed under licence.
The government’s conservation agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), suggested that the most visible predators of salmon sometimes received an unfair share of the blame for declining populations.
The agency’s spokesman, George Anderson, said: “SNH advises the Scottish Executive on the conservation implications, but decisions are made using additional information which we are not party to.
“I think everyone accepts that sometimes protected animals have to be disturbed, moved or culled, but this should only be when other avenues have been exhausted.”
The Executive pointed out that UK and European legislation permits the issuing of licences to control protected species “under exceptional circumstances”. This includes protecting people from bat infestations in their homes and culling gulls or other animals when they endanger public health and safety. Thirty licences have been granted to kill around 2000 gulls, pigeons, rooks and oyster-catchers around airports to reduce the risk of birds being hit by aircraft. A few licences are also issued for scientific studies, taxidermy and to allow captive falcons to take prey.
One licence is granted every August to men from the island of Lewis to kill and eat 2000 gannet chicks on the remote rocky outcrop of Sula Sgeir, in a tradition that dates back at least four centuries.
An Executive spokeswoman promised that more statistics and information on the licensing process would be published by next spring. She said: “We’re confident the licences issued by the Executive comply with the legislation.”
LICENCES FOR CONTROLLING PROTECTED SPECIES
animals / number of licences to control them 2000-05 / reasons
geese / 747 / to protect crops
fish-eating birds / 199 / to protect salmon
ravens / 199 / to protect livestock
otters, bats, newts / 105 / for public health and safety
badgers / 97 / to protect crops or property
birds / 91 / to allow pests to be poisoned
birds & other wildlife / 62 / health and safety at food premises
various / 42 / taxidermy
gulls / 33 / to prevent nuisance or to eat eggs
birds / 30 / to ensure aircraft safety
mountain hares / 8 / to protect grouse from disease
pine martens / 8 / to protect game birds and eggs
birds / 8 / killed by falcons
gannets / 6 / eaten on the Isle of Lewis
others / 15 / miscellaneous
total / 1,650
source: Scottish Executive