It sounds incredible but it could happen. I get myself a shotgun licence. Eighty quid. I buy a second-hand gun for £50 to £100. I head out and start shooting. No training. No checking. I wouldn’t even need to prove I know the difference between a bird that I’m allowed to kill and one that’s critically endangered. It’s shocking and hard to believe but it’s happening in Scotland. Right now.

I have to admit that, even though I’ve written about driven grouse shooting many times, I wasn’t aware of the full nature and scale of this other type of shooting until I spoke to people who know the community well. They told me, in grim detail, what’s going on out there. Thousands of people killing hundreds of thousands of birds, including birds whose numbers are in dramatic decline. The motto of some of these shooters, believe it or not, is “if it flies, it dies”.

Of course, to kill birds indiscriminately in this way is illegal. Shooters are supposed to stick to the “Quarry List”, a list of birds which can be shot legally during open seasons. But there’s nothing that requires shooters to know what’s on the list and what isn’t or how to tell the difference. Some geese are protected, for example, and some are on the quarry list. The same for ducks. But in flight and especially at dusk and dawn, it’s hard to tell the difference and shooters may not even know there are some geese and duck that they cannot shoot. Let’s face it: they may not care.

As for the Quarry List itself, it is pretty dubious. Basically, it’s a list of the birds that shooters are allowed to kill but – and this is possibly the most staggering bit – some 70% of the birds on the list are of conservation concern. It includes birds which have been assigned the “red” or most critical conservation status such as grey partridge and woodcock. Other birds that are in decline, such as snipe, are also on the list, which means the guy with the 80-quid licence can go out into the countryside and shoot birds that are endangered. It beggars belief.

The problem here is that the Quarry List is in effect a legal fiction. It hasn’t changed for decades apart from in the 1980s when the curlew was removed from it (although even in that case, the shooting fraternity would like to see the bird put back on the list). There’s also no one regularly or independently reviewing the list to ensure the most egregious cases such as the snipe are fixed. And the other problem is there’s nothing in the system that alerts shooters to the list in the first place or requires them to know what’s on it and what isn’t and how to spot the difference. In some respects, the list might as well not be there.

It's pretty obvious what the consequences of all this are, especially when combined with a lack of enforcement and a miniscule to invisible chance of ever getting caught if you break the rules. As of March 2019, there were 47,102 shotgun licences in Scotland and in theory every one of those shooters could go out and shoot 100 snipe today and another 100 tomorrow and if he does that for the whole of the season, that’s 15,000 birds killed by just one man. And remember: the snipe is in serious decline and yet it’s on the list. Officially, it’s ok to kill it.

Clearly, we need a review. Many shooters may be aware of the list, at least in theory, and they will know that they can shoot snipe and woodcock, etc, but whether they can identify them is another matter. There should therefore be a test, before a licence is issued, to ensure shooters know about the list and can properly identity the birds. It will cost money but it could be paid for by an increase in the cost of the licence. Eighty pounds is ludicrously cheap anyway.

The list itself also needs to be reviewed and changed as a matter of urgency. There is no case for having birds like the golden plover or the coot or the snipe on there – indeed, there is a case to be made that the only birds that should be on the list are birds that can be farmed and are therefore in no danger of declining or disappearing which would effectively mean the pheasant, the red-legged partridge and the mallard duck. Anything else should be taken off the list immediately.

The other issue, of course, is enforcement. The problem with the kind of rough shooting we’re talking about here is it happens where there aren’t many people about. The guy with the gun may approach his local farmer (although there are lots of people who drive out from the suburbs to do this kind of shooting too). He will ask the farmer for permission to shoot on his land and if the answer is yes, off he goes blasting away. No one can see him. No one’s checking if he’s sticking to the Quarry List. And God alone knows what kind of birds, and how many, he is killing.

Part of the answer – and I’ve said this many times before in relation to wildlife crime – is more wildlife officers: policemen and women who are specially trained and have the resources to do their job. Again, it all costs money but again the shooters could pay for it. Why is a shotgun licence not £500 or a thousand even? Perhaps we could consider it a fair tax on the people who want to shoot and kill Scotland’s birds.

I appreciate, as always happens, that people will respond by accusing me of being a townie (even though I live in the countryside). But the people who wish to shoot birds do not have a monopoly on the truth about the natural world. There are also men and women in the rural community, some of whom shoot or have shot themselves, who are very far from the cliché of bean-burger-eating do-gooders but believe that the system as it currently stands is wrong and rather sickening. Remember that horrible motto: if it flies, it dies.

In the meantime, we have to ask some questions. What is the point of putting birds on a conservation list if it’s also legal to kill them in a shooting free-for-all? What is the point of a “quarry list” if no one is enforcing it or ensuring the men with guns know the difference between “fair game” and “endangered”. And lastly and perhaps most importantly, what should be our guiding principle be here? The desire to shoot protected birds, based on centuries of entitlement? Or the desire to ensure that they are still here in the centuries still to come?

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