Eagles and other rare wildlife to benefit from landmark legislation in Scotland. Could England follow suit?

This week saw the Scottish Parliament pass a raft of measures set to herald the end of raptor persecution in the country and improve the condition of upland habitats. Why are these new laws so important and could birds of prey and other wildlife in England benefit from similar legislation?

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Adult White-tailed Eagle in flight with a blue sky background.
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A big win for wildlife

The passing of the Wildlife Management & Muirburn Bill marks a significant moment in the history of land management in Scotland and is a huge win for nature. Many organisations, with RSPB at the forefront, have been campaigning for decades to tackle crime against raptors, to better protect wildlife, and to improve the conditions of upland habitats.

Golden Eagle landing on rocks.

Action against raptor persecution in Scotland

The new legislation aims to put a stop to the illegal persecution of birds of prey, such as Golden Eagles and Hen Harriers, through the stronger regulation of grouse shooting.  

RSPB Senior Land Use Policy Officer Andrew Midgley explains: “This is very welcome. We hope that the new licences for grouse shooting will finally provide a meaningful deterrent that will eradicate raptor persecution. The Bill will allow grouse shooting to continue but provide a mechanism that allows Ministers to remove a licence to shoot grouse where a raptor persecution incident can be linked to the management of the land.  

“We know that this industry has been let down by a minority; there are many that adhere to good practice. We believe that the majority have nothing to fear from the change in the law, but we hope that the threat of this sanction will ensure good practice is universal and bring an end to the criminal destruction of birds of prey in our uplands.”  

The Bill also bans the use of snares, tightens regulations for the use of other types of wildlife traps, and gives greater investigating powers to Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in relation to wildlife crime.

A lone male Hen Harrier perched on the end of a pointed tree branch and staring over its territory.

Tighter rules around controlled burning

A new system of licences will also be introduced for muirburn—the practice of burning vegetation, usually for sporting and farming purposes. RSPB has long-backed better regulation and warmly welcome the new licencing system.  

The largely voluntary Muirburn Code was not working. Every year members of the public sent us images of muirburn that contravened the code. We saw muirburn that had burned through areas being used by nesting birds, muirburn that had caused nest abandonment, burning through naturally regenerating trees, burning on steep slopes and scree, and on deep peat – all contrary to the code. 

Burning on peat is particularly problematic. The UK’s peat uplands are globally rare ecosystems, with the potential to lock away significant amounts of carbon, a natural solution in our efforts to tackle climate change. But burning, often for agriculture or gamebird management, can cause major damage to these unique habitats.  

The new bill aims to tackle bad practice. Muirburn will still be allowed, but with stronger regulatory oversight, which seems entirely appropriate for what is a high-risk land management activity. Significantly, licenses for burning on peat will only be granted in exceptional circumstances, such as for wildfire prevention.

A working tackling the remains of a peatland fire.

What now for England’s uplands?

By passing the Wildlife Management & Muirburn Bill, the Scottish Parliament is offering a blueprint that could also herald the end of raptor persecution and improve the condition of upland habitats in England.  

Shockingly, the illegal killing of raptors remains a serious problem, with the RSPB’s latest Birdcrime report revealing the link between persecution and land managed for pheasant, partridge and grouse shooting.  

We have long been calling for the licensing of driven grouse shooting to tackle this. This week’s move by the Scottish Parliament recognises the issues and the onus is now on the UK Government to follow suit so that birds of prey can be similarly protected in England. 

The UK Government should also seek to bring in legislation to tackle destructive burning on peatlands in England. Despite having the potential to lock away carbon, just 13% of England’s peatlands are in good enough condition to do so.

A Black Grouse taking flight at sunrise.

Will the UK Government rise to the challenge?

The UK is already one of the most nature depleted countries in the world and we need to act at pace to tackle the threats faced by wildlife. But this week’s passing of the Wildlife Management & Muirburn Bill by the Scottish Parliament shows that action to protect and restore our natural world is possible.  

It is a major step forward and it demonstrates what can be done. We now need the UK Government to follow suit and take action to end raptor persecution and improve upland management in England too.

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