Most people won’t be aware of the Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill discreetly working its way through the Scottish Parliament.

It certainly hasn’t attracted the same strident criticism as the deposit return scheme; nor the palpable disquiet that surrounds highly protected marine areas; nor the eviscerating anger over the challenges of providing a satisfactory ferry service to island communities.

But the proposed Bill is – nonetheless – underpinned by the Bute House Agreement between the SNP and the Greens, which seems to have put a policy focus on rural Scotland in recent months.

The shortcomings of the Wildlife Management Bill are not dissimilar from the controversy we have become used to seeing in the news headlines.

The lack of consultation with business, for example, that appeared to somewhat mire the deposit return scheme is something that will ring true to the intended targets of the proposed legislation.

So too will the failure to act on concerns of representative organisations and trade bodies, resulting in the production of legislation that is conceptually, legally and practically flawed.

These are not issues, sadly, that are confined to single pieces of legislation. They are symptomatic of a wider sense within rural business and rural communities that their interests are considered secondary and separate to the twin crises of the climate and nature emergencies.

Businesses – and particularly rural businesses with land management interests – in fact have an indispensable role to play in meeting environmental targets set by government. They are critical delivery partners for achieving net zero and restoring nature.

And yet, the Scottish Government  is not working effectively with rural business and communities at a time when collaborative action is of paramount importance. Why?

The Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill is a prime example. The Bill is ostensibly about licensing grouse shooting to deter the persecution of raptors – something that has been a historical issue on moorland managed for grouse shooting, and has now been reduced to very low levels.

While it is true to say that no one in the sector wanted licensing, it has been willing to work constructively with the Scottish Government to produce something workable, reasonable and proportionate.

Uncontroversial expectations were communicated regularly to Ministers and officials, with membership organisations, including Scottish Land & Estates, citing the risk of disincentivising investment in moorland management should they not be met. Proactive attempts were made to set out what would and would not be workable in good faith.

Given the clear role managed moorland has to play in protecting biodiversity in a nature crisis, it would be surprising for the Scottish Government to impose legislation that would have the net impact of disincentivizing private investment in high quality conservation. And yet…

The Wildlife Management and Muirburn Bill contains provisions which expose investors to punitive sanctions through a lack of legal safeguards.

Businesses could have licences suspended without the regulator being satisfied that a relevant offence had been committed. This goes against a well-documented commitment from government to operate the licensing scheme under the civil burden of proof, which would only have seen licences suspended or revoked where it was ‘more likely than not’ that raptor persecution had been committed by a relevant person.

The notion of suspending a licence without the regulator being satisfied that a relevant offence had even been committed constitutes no burden of proof at all, and might even be unlawful. It is not difficult to see why investors in moorland management are looking at the scheme with trepidation. How can they have trust and confidence to invest when the regulator could act with such impunity, and without causal evidence of wrongdoing?

The problems are further exacerbated by the proposal to renew licences every year. This is inconsistent with the kind of long-term investment associated with moorland management (and by extension bad for business investment) and places an unduly onerous obligation on the regulator (NatureScot) – which is already extremely stretched from a resourcing perspective.

And on a related issue, the Scottish Government’s proposals for muirburn – the controlled burning of heather in cooler months – are inconsistent with expert advice from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, who have been persistently clear about the importance of muirburn for mitigating wildfire risk. Instead, the Scottish Government has sought to introduce a provision which will see muirburn considered as the tool of last resort on peatland habitats, prioritising other methods of vegetation control that have been shown to be limited with respect to wildfire mitigation.

Sadly, the inclusion of provisions like these come as no great surprise on account of the fact that the Scottish Government did not properly consult with a single business that would likely be impacted by the legislation.

This comes in spite of the fact that the Scottish Government’s guidance on producing a ‘Business and Regulatory Impact Assessment’ notes that it should engage in face-to-face discussions with 6-12 businesses on the impact of proposed legislation. Unintended consequences were, regrettably, inevitable process given this approach.

And so here we are again. Yet another initiative is on course to cause real damage in rural Scotland, arising from a failure to properly listen to and consult with business – unless the Scottish Government changes tack now.

There is still an opportunity for Ministers and officials to engage with business and properly assess the downstream consequences of their proposals. In the interest of our environment and rural communities, we very much hope they will act on it.

Ross Ewing is the Director of Moorland at Scottish Land and Estates – a membership organisation for landowners, rural businesses and rural professionals.

First published in The Scotsman on Friday 30 June 2023.