SAY what you like about the Scottish Government but they’ve always been conscious of publicity and PR, and have been good at it on the whole, so it’s curious that the review they’re currently conducting into shooting has been so little publicised and so undercover. Why on earth are they being secretive about it?

The review was ordered in 2021 by the minister for the environment, Mairi McAllan, and is looking into the “quarry list”, which spells out which birds can legally be shot in Scotland. The list was introduced in 1981 by the Wildlife and Countryside Act and hasn’t been examined since, so reviewing it to ensure it’s still fit for purpose is undoubtedly a good idea.

But why is it being done the way it is? The review is being conducted by the government agency NatureScot who will complete their report in the next few days and hand it to the minister next month. But I’ve seen the list of criteria they’re using, and the stakeholders they’re apparently consulting. I’ve also spoken to people in the shooting community, animal welfare groups, and the government and the conclusion is hard to avoid: we should be worried about what’s going on here.

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The first question is why the public hasn’t been properly told about the review because they’d surely be worried if they knew what was going on. Effectively, the situation is that anyone can buy a gun and start shooting birds and in theory, the shooters are supposed to stick to the quarry list. But get this: around 80 per cent of the birds on the list are of conservation concern. Indeed, some, such as grey partridge and woodcock, are on the “red” list of birds whose conservation status is critical.

So reviewing the list is the right thing to do because we should be asking whether birds at risk of disappearing from Scotland should legally be shot. There are other questions we should be asking too, about the lack of training for shooters, their lack of awareness about the list, and the lack of checks and enforcement to ensure they’re sticking to it. And remember: we’re not talking about rich poshos on grouse moors here, we’re talking about rough shooters heading out to the countryside and blasting away. The motto of some of these guys, although they’d never admit it publicly, is “if it flies, it dies”.

But putting all of that to one side for a moment, if there is to be a review of the quarry list, it should at least be robust, efficient, widespread and thorough and the Government’s current review fails all of those tests. Take the list of stakeholders for example: for a start, there’s only a handful of them and most are pro-shooting organisations. The biggest stakeholder of all – the public – is also totally missing and if NatureScot recommends no change to the quarry list and the minister accepts that recommendation, the list will stay the same without the public ever being consulted at all, which is outrageous.

The other problem here is that even this limited consultation with the small list of stakeholders has been bungled. The Scottish Gamekeepers Association for example, which is on the official list of stakeholders, told me they could not recall receiving any information about the review. Another one, the Scottish Countryside Alliance, said the email about the review had gone into their junk folder so they weren’t able make a submission in time. So with even some of the official stakeholders not taking part, how on earth can the review be called robust or thorough?

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Everyone also seems to agree that the criteria being used are dubious. Ross Macleod, Head of Policy Scotland at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, told me he had major issues with the process and indeed whether it could be called a consultation at all. The criteria were very vague, he said; he also said it was unclear how hunting mortality and the effects on bird population would be assessed. In fact, the trust would like to see the whole process re-set and started again properly.

We should also be asking where the animal welfare organisations are in all of this. They should be angry – we should all be angry – but the RSPB told me they weren’t able to comment; I’m also told another senior figure in a well-known animal welfare group is wary of criticising NatureScot, which is troubling. Animal welfare groups should be laying into the Government when they need to without worrying about the reaction. What does all of this say about how the public sector and the third sector work together and whether they have a healthy relationship?

The bottom line in the whole situation is pretty clear: on something as important as the conservation of Scotland’s birds, a government review should be open and thorough and this one just isn’t. I spoke to one gun-dog trainer who’s been part of the shooting community for over 50 years and his view was that, far from conducting a thorough review, the actions of NatureScot indicated an intention to slide the review under the public radar and maintain the status quo. The air of secrecy, lack of publicity and extremely limited consultation, he said, all pointed to a “stealth review”.

I must say I don’t know if the minister, Mairi McAllan, is aware of any of this and she does deserve credit for ordering a review of the quarry list for the first time in 40 years. She’s also said that the Scottish Government takes the issue of the list seriously and is determined to protect and recover Scotland’s biodiversity and I’m sure she’s being genuine about that. This is all good stuff as far as it goes.

But I would urge Ms McAllan to have a look again at the review that’s being conducted in her name and ask whether it is fit for purpose. A limited list of stakeholders, most of whom have an invested interest in keeping the status quo. A vague list of criteria that cannot possibly capture what’s really going on with Scotland’s birds. A process that is at best inefficient and at worst incompetent. And worst of all: a process that leaves out the voices of the public. Can she possibly be happy with all of that?

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The answer, surely, must be to do what the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust have called for and re-set the entire process and start from scratch. The government says if it chooses to make changes to the quarry list, there will be further consultation, but what if it chooses not to make changes? We would then be faced with a situation where the status quo was simply waved through. We would also have missed a rare chance to do more to protect some of Scotland’s most vulnerable species. It should not be allowed to happen this way. We should – we must – start again.