GROUSE shooting businesses in Scotland will be subject to a new licensing scheme under proposals to tackle the illegal killing of birds of prey.

Rural affairs minister Mairi Gougeon said there needs to be "greater oversight" of the practices associated with grouse moor management.

But gamekeepers reacted with fury and insisted the move will not be "easily forgotten".

They hit out at "never-ending scrutiny and inquiry driven by elite charities with big influence". 

Rural organisations called it a "seriously damaging blow to fragile rural communities".

The announcement follows the submission of a report last year by an expert group on grouse moor management, chaired by Professor Alan Werritty.

READ MORE: Campaigners say there is "nothing to fear" from licensing

Ms Gougeon told MSPs that there are "many forms that a licensing scheme could take".

She said: "I do not propose to go through them all here. We will consult on the detail of the scheme in due course.

"The basic proposition however is that a licence will be required to operate a driven grouse moor business, and that if there is strong evidence of unlawful activity or serious breaches of codes of practice by that business, then their licence could be withdrawn.

"I recognise this is a serious sanction and we would therefore take steps to ensure that no credence is given to any vexatious or malicious claims of malpractice."

MSPs previously voted to ban the unlicensed culling of mountain hares.

Ms Gougeon said muirburn - the practice of burning moorland - will also only be permitted under licence, in order to protect wildlife and habitats, regardless of the time of year it is undertaken and whether or not it is for grouse moor management or improving grazing.

There will also be a statutory ban on burning on peatland, except under licence for strictly limited purposes such as approved habitat restoration projects.

Ms Gougeon said: “The majority of those tasked with managing land already follow best practice guidance and care deeply about the countryside and the land that they manage. 

"I cannot, though, ignore the fact that some of the practices associated with grouse moor management, such as muirburn and the use of medicated grit, have the potential to cause serious harm to the environment, if the correct procedures are not followed. 

“Neither can I ignore the fact that, despite our many attempts to address this issue, every year birds of prey continue to be killed or disappear in suspicious circumstances on or around grouse moors."

But Alex Hogg, chair of the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association, said: “This decision will anger our community. It will not be easily forgotten. 

"Our members have effectively had targets painted on their backs, today.

"Our responsibility now is protect them from spurious claims sure to come their way from those seeking to end grouse shooting in Scotland and to have licences taken away.

“Ironically, those who lobbied so hard for licensing have no interest in seeing it being a success. For them, this was always a vehicle to agitate for a full ban. Scottish Parliament legislators should not be naive in thinking otherwise.

“I am angry beyond expression at the way a community of working people is being treated today in this country and the strain they and their families are constantly having to face as they cope with never-ending scrutiny and inquiry driven by elite charities with big influence over politicians and axes to grind against a people who produce so much for Scotland yet ask little back.

“If we are not to lose an important element of Scottish rural life, gamekeepers require some substantive recognition from Parliament for the many benefits they deliver and not the endless battering they perpetually experience.”

A joint statement by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, Scottish Countryside Alliance, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, Scottish Association for Country Sports and Scottish Land & Estates condemned the proposals.

They said: “We are dismayed that the Scottish Government has not listened to the voice of some of our most fragile communities which are at the heart of a world class rural business sector.

"People involved in grouse shooting have already embraced a huge amount of legislation, regulation and guidance to make sure the highest standards are met.

"This includes estates embracing many of the recommendations contained within the Werritty report. 

“Instead, the Scottish Government has paved the way for a very uncertain future for many rural people by announcing that it intends to introduce a licensing scheme for grouse moors which interferes with legitimate business activities and threatens to engulf the sector in a blizzard of red tape that is unprecedented and out of all proportion."

They added: "A one-size fits all licensing scheme will serve only to play into the hands of those who are dedicated to banning shooting altogether, regardless of the consequences for communities and the environment.

“Grouse shooting plays a vital role in rural Scotland, sustaining communities and delivering substantial economic and environmental benefits.

"It would be bad legislation if the unsubsidised private investment that underpins these benefits is put at risk by this unnecessary proposal.

"We also have serious concerns about how such a scheme would work in practice and will be seeking an urgent meeting with ministers to discuss the details.

“Every element of the Scottish economy will need as much help as possible in the foreseeable future and the proposal to introduce licensing for grouse shooting will do nothing to help achieve this."

The Scottish Tories accused the SNP of ignoring Professor Werritty's recommendation that a licensing scheme should be introduced if, after five years, "there is no marked improvement in the ecological sustainability of grouse moor management".

The party's environment spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “The SNP Government have failed to honour their commitment to judge major environmental decisions based on concrete evidence.

“Professor Werritty was explicit in his recommendation that moves to introduce licensing for grouse shooting should not happen for five years, but SNP Ministers have decided they know best and ignored that advice.

“Their own research concluded just how important driven grouse shooting is to our rural economy and communities both in terms of jobs and income so this makes no sense whatsoever.

“It is yet another SNP attack on rural Scotland which will have deeply damaging and long lasting consequences.”

The Scottish Greens accused the Government of not going far enough. 

The party's environment spokesperson Mark Ruskell said: “It’s very disappointing that after 150 years of wildlife being mass killed on Scottish moors, delays to the watered-down Werrity report and the Scottish Government dragging its heels for another year, all we have is a consultation on licencing which will be drawn up by the industry. It’s like putting arsonists in charge of a fire station."