At least 46,985 wild animals spanning 84 species have been licensed to be killed by Scotland’s nature agency in recent years, The Ferret has found.

Data provided to The Ferret by NatureScot details the permissions given to “controllers” –  farmers, landowners and others – to kill animals between 1 June 2019 and 15 June 2023.

They included thousands of geese, gannets, gulls, ravens, goosanders and the iconic mountain hare – Scotland’s only native rabbit or hare species.

Buzzards, robins, herons and magpies were also targeted. In cases mostly relating to public health and safety, controllers were permitted to kill as many animals as required.

The Herald: A robin on bird bath

Picture: Getty

They included declining species such as oystercatchers, lapwings, starlings, curlews and rooks. 

Animal welfare and conservation groups said they were “appalled” by the “devastatingly high numbers”. NatureScot must employ greater transparency and a more evidence-based approach in the licensing process to improve animal welfare and conservation, they argued.

But a farmers’ union said the need to control certain species “goes hand-in-hand” with conservation to protect biodiversity, as well as agriculture, and argued the licensing process was “well-regulated and transparent”.

NatureScot stressed that licences permitted animals to be killed over five or ten-year periods, and did not reflect the number actually killed each year. Controllers reported having killed 24,429 animals, although data for 2023 was limited, meaning the toll is likely higher.

Killing was “a last resort” used in a minority of cases where licences were awarded and did not impact any animal’s conservation status. Changes to the licensing system had led to a rapid decrease in culls over the last decade and another review is due, NatureScot added.

Read more: Flapper Skate found washed up on Highland shore

The figures do not include numerous birds killed under general licences – which do not come with kill limits – or reflect the large number of animals allowed to be killed outwith NatureScot’s licensing system, including deer, grouse and seals.

NatureScot exists to protect, champion and improve Scotland’s natural environment. But it is also responsible for issuing licences to lethally control animals, mostly for reasons like preventing damage to livestock, animal feed, crops, food, commercial forestry and fisheries.

This includes wild birds – which are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 – and other protected species.

Animals licensed to be killed in Scotland

More geese were licensed to be killed than any other animal in recent years – 16,369. This included 4,809 barnacle geese, 1,862 pink-footed geese and 220 canada geese. Two airports were permitted to kill as many brent geese as required to secure air safety, although none were reportedly killed.

Geese are frequently killed because of the damage they do to crops, particularly when their populations swell. Scotland’s National Goose Forum was established in 2000 “to help balance agricultural and conservation interests” and minimise the economic impact of geese on farmers and crofters.

Local goose management groups also exist in Kintyre in Argyll, the Solway coast in Dumfriesshire, South Walls in Orkney and the Hebridean islands of Islay, Uist, Coll and Tiree.

The culling of Barnacle geese on Islay was previously caught on film, prompting accusations of inhumane shooting practices – an accusation refuted by NatureScot. Mass culls are allegedly founded on “poor science”, according to one 2018 study.

The Herald:

Buzzards in flight

Some 11,503 brown hares and mountain hares were killed. They are frequently targeted due to the damage they can cause to crops and trees.

Many thousands of mountain hares have previously been legally shot without a licence to prevent them spreading diseases to grouse shot for sport. However, NatureScot now prohibits this and will not grant a licence to kill the animals to prevent tick-borne disease due to a lack of “sufficiently robust” evidence.

In June 2019 we reported concerns that baby brown hares were left to starve to death after their parents were killed.

The publicly-owned Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) said it culled 78 hares in the last four years, and had only done so in the open season, in which a licence is not required.

Read more: Scots urged to take extra care to safeguard wildlife while enjoying forests

The animals are “an infrequent problem on a small number of forestry sites” but can “cause significant damage to young trees by grazing”, said a spokesperson. Hares were only culled as “a last resort” and shot under official guidelines.

However, Scotland’s rampant deer population is “far the greater threat to young trees”, alongside other herbivores, they added.

Up to 2,000 gannet chicks, known as guga, are permitted to be hunted for food under a single licence every summer on the uninhabited island of Sula Sgeir, 40 miles north of Lewis. NatureScot said no licence was given to take gannet chicks in 2022 or 2023, however.

Gulls are often considered pests in urban areas due to taking food from residents, causing a mess by ransacking bins, and aggressive behaviour. Some 5,648 gulls – including 2,323 chicks – were licensed to be killed. NatureScot said it only issues licences to kill gulls where they pose a risk to public health or safety.

The Herald:

A pair of Oystercatchers, Haematopus ostralegus, walking on Isle of Mull

Ravens are blamed for attacking and killing lambs, while fish-eating birds including goosanders, cormorants, red-breasted mergansers and herons can be targeted by anglers.

Other birds on the hit list, largely for reasons of health and safety, included buzzards, mute swans, robins, herons, collared doves and magpies. Declining bird species such as oystercatchers, lapwings, golden plovers, starlings, curlews, dunlins, rooks and swifts, were also on the list. 

Licences were awarded to kill hundreds of natterjack toads – one of Scotland's rarest amphibians, found only at a handful of sites in Dumfriesshire.

No toads, swans, doves, swifts, golden plovers or dunlins were actually reported as killed, however. Other species licensed to be killed included fish, crustaceans and insects.

Read more: Why The Herald cares about our wildlife coverage

The licences covered a total of 84 animal species, 56 of which were birds. 

In some cases, licences with unrestricted kill limits were awarded to controllers to remove nests and eggs, and kill chicks where they risked health and safety. This could involve removing a birds' nest that is obstructing electrical gear, or causing carbon monoxide buildup by blocking a chimney.

But applicants were required to evidence “that they have tried all other suitable alternatives to licensable activities, including for example, scaring,” NatureScot stressed. “For air safety licences, applicants must submit a wildlife management plan, which outlines the risks posed by, and management strategies for each species.”

In 2019, we revealed that NatureScot had licensed the killing of 130,000 wild animals between 2014 and July 2019. Some 62,521 animals were reported as dead.

The wildlife agency said it licensed the killing of 177,651 animals over the last decade.

‘Devastatingly high numbers’ 

The animal welfare charity OneKind said it was “appalled to learn that so many wild animals continue to be killed under licence”.

“These devastatingly high numbers don’t even include the unlimited number of animals who are killed under general licences, nor the death count for the species of animals where no licence is required to kill them, including familiar animals such as foxes,” said Bob Elliot, director.

“We believe that a fundamental shift in mindset is required, away from viewing other animals as a resource to be ‘managed’ towards valuing them as other sentient beings, who should be allowed to thrive. Killing should not be part of routine ‘management’.”

The Herald:

Northern gannets nest on the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, the largest single-island colony of gannets in the world.

He added: “For the past few years, we have been urging the Scottish Government to incorporate the seven principles for ethical wildlife ‘control’ into its wild animal ‘management’ framework. These principles ensure that ethical reasoning is applied, evidence is consulted, and animal welfare is prioritised when making decisions that impact wild animals.”

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) said it accepted “that in some specific circumstances, species do need to be controlled to protect public interests, including the conservation of threatened bird species”.

But a spokesperson added: “We have long requested that there should be greater transparency in the species licensing process and an evidence-based approach to any control of birds and other animals, as well as mandatory returns to NatureScot on any species controlled under licence to inform future conservation efforts.”

‘Need for species management’

The National Farmers Union in Scotland argued that “the conservation of wildlife in Scotland goes hand-in-hand with the need for species management.”

“The heavily licenced and legal control of a number of species is founded on the need for balance,” said policy director, Jonnie Hall. “For many that live and work in Scotland’s countryside, there is an ongoing need to prevent significant agricultural damage or safeguard the biodiversity across our wildlife, or both.

“Regardless of species, we shouldn’t measure them by population alone but also by impact. It’s not a numbers game, either by population or licence returns. It’s about understanding impacts and managing them appropriately, working alongside [the] Scottish Government and stakeholders through the well-regulated and transparent routes.”

Read more: Protected bird euthanised after being shot in Highlands

NatureScot stressed that the figures referred to the total number of animals permitted to be killed under licence “over a five or ten-year period, and not the numbers actually killed each year”.

“Lethal control is a last resort and in the majority of cases where licences are issued, the desired outcome is achieved without the need for animals or birds to be killed,” said a spokesperson.

Recent changes to the licensing system had led to a 69 per cent reduction in the number of licenced kills, from 23,000 a year from 2014 to 2016, to just over 7,000 a year from 2020 to 2022, they said.

The Herald: Red deer at Glenfinnan.

Red deer at Glenfinnan

“No activity carried out under these licences will adversely affect the conservation status of any of our native species and none of these licences issued relate to endangered species”.

The government’s cooperation agreement with the Scottish Greens led to a review of the species licensing system “to ensure that the law is being applied correctly and that lethal control is only licensed where the licensing conditions are shown to be met,” added the spokesperson.

“NatureScot welcomes this review of our licensing function and is currently waiting to hear the specific details of how this will be undertaken. In the meantime, we are working with Scottish Government colleagues to ensure that NatureScot licensing processes are clear and transparent in addressing the dual crises of biodiversity loss and climate change.”