South Scotland

Thrashing out the future of Scotland's countryside

Hills near Langholm
Image caption Input from animal welfare groups, conservation bodies and rural industries has been sought for the new wildlife and environment legislation

Any idyllic views you may have held of the countryside might need to be revised.

Poaching gangs, bird poisoning and the use of snares are now among the key concerns in rural parts of Scotland.

Animal welfare groups, conservation organisations and countryside estates all have their own view of the best method to deal with the problems.

They got round the table with the Scottish Parliament's rural affairs committee in Langholm, in Dumfries and Galloway, this week.

It will ultimately lead to new legislation to try to balance the needs of everyone with an interest in the nation's countryside.

Among the many issues of concern is a marked rise in poaching on the outskirts of urban areas, where gangs turn up with dogs or air rifles to attack wildlife.

Alex Hogg, of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, said his members were often first on the scene of such incidents.

"A lot of them are criminals who break into farm buildings and steal what is there," he said.

Ch Supt Mike Flynn, of the Scottish SPCA, warned: "People should not be trying to apprehend these people.

"Some of them are very dangerous criminals."

Instead, their advice is to note down as much information as possible - such as vehicle licence numbers - in order to try to provide evidence which might lead to a conviction.

If there is a general consensus on the need to tackle the rise of poaching gangs, there is less agreement on the use of snares to catch foxes.

Image caption The rural affairs committee visited Langholm to hear the issues of concern in the countryside

Mr Hogg said: "If snaring is banned in Scotland, the government will have ruined the biodiversity in Scotland for the future.

"It is the last tool that we have in our tool box - has the government got something to replace it?

"The snare now has a stop on it which stops it from actually choking anything, it is a hold device."

However, that view is not shared by Libby Anderson, policy director for Advocates for Animals which backs a ban, rather than the tighter regulation of snare use.

"The cost in animal suffering is so high," she said.

She said she doubted that any regulation or development of the snares could address concerns about their indiscriminate nature.

'Bad practice'

Mr Flynn added that the Scottish SPCA was also in favour of a ban.

"It is a cheap and very man-efficient way of catching predators," he said.

"But there is a lot of bad practice goes on."

It is a similar story with the illegal poisoning of birds of prey, an issue raised by Highlands and Islands MSP Peter Peacock.

He said there had been some "pretty awful cases" in recent times.

"It resonates with the public in a way that very few other issues do," he said.

Image caption The illegal poisoning of birds of prey in Scotland can prove hard to police

Dr Colin Shedden, director of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation Scotland, said that there was no need to use such methods in order to maintain a good grouse population.

"In some areas there is a tendency towards a no-tolerance policy towards birds of prey, which is to be regretted," he said.

While Mr Hogg said anyone in his association who was caught poisoning would be thrown out.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to secure a prosecution.

Mr Flynn said he had concerns the situation could deteriorate if wildlife officers were lost in anticipated cuts in police numbers.

"It is really bad with enforcement at the moment and I can only see it getting worse," he warned.

However, at least all the bodies who can have an impact are talking to one another.

"Let's try to come to the table and try to find common sense solutions that everybody can benefit from," said Mr Hogg.

"We all want the same thing, if we can just meet around a table and thrash it out."

Now MSPs will have to try to digest that message before it becomes a law which clearly has a lot of contentious issues to address.

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