Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee
Meeting date: Tuesday, October 1, 2019
Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, Biodiversity Targets Inquiry, Public Petitions
Control of Wild Geese (PE1490)
The next item on our agenda is the continuation of our consideration of two public petitions.
The first is petition PE1490, which was submitted by Patrick Krause on behalf of the Scottish Crofting Federation and is entitled “Control of wild goose numbers”. Members will recall that the petition
“calls on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to address the problems created by increasing populations of wild geese in crofting areas as a matter of priority; reassess its decision to stop funding existing goose management programmes and assign additional resources to crop protection and adaptive management programmes to ensure this threat to the future of crofting is averted.”
The committee last looked at the petition in May 2018, when we agreed to seek an update from the Scottish Government. We subsequently received further correspondence from the Scottish Government in May this year. The SNH review of goose management has also been published.
I ask members to discuss what we now have in front of us and what action we would like to take on the petition.
I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests, which shows that I own a non-domestic property in the Western Isles.
I have been following the petition since it first came before the Public Petitions Committee six years ago, when I was a member of that committee. Having first-hand knowledge of the impact of greylag geese on my family’s farms on Lewis, I have continued to follow the issue closely. Crofting in the Outer Hebrides is fragile in nature, and it is clear that the adaptive management pilots have not demonstrated a reduction in agricultural damage. Over six years, there has been no evidence that goose impacts have been reduced.
The issue of geese is just one of the nails in the coffin of crofting, which is becoming increasingly unsustainable. It is ironic that greylag geese have been protected because they were endangered, but it is now the crofter who is endangered, partly thanks to the proliferation of greylag geese on the islands.
In the review, SNH suggests a self-help group as the way forward, but I am afraid that I do not agree. I would much prefer a return to the machair life scheme, or at least access to agri-environment support schemes and whatever is to replace Scottish rural development programme pillar 2 funding. There is a commitment to support the on-going suite of goose management schemes until 2021, although the specific funding in the Western Isles will stop this year.
We need to keep the petition open in order to monitor progress and to see the outcome of the RSPB and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust complaint to the European Commission regarding the situation in Islay, because that is not yet clear. As long as there are concerns in the industry, we must keep the petition open.
I want to mention a meeting that was held by the Scottish Crofting Federation earlier this year in Stornoway. The theme of the meeting was threats to crofting, and the comments from local crofters made clear that greylag geese are a major threat. One crofter said:
“If the geese numbers are allowed to get even more out of control, it will decimate our land. It will finish crofting on this island.”
Donald MacKinnon, the vice-chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, who is also a crofter in Lewis, said:
“It is absolutely essential the goose management scheme continues to be funded. We’re not talking about huge amounts of money here, in terms of a percentage of the total amount of money spent on goose management in Scotland. It’s minute really, but the work it does here on the ground in Lewis is essential for crofting”.
He went on:
“If the goose situation is allowed to get to out of control again—if the goose management scheme stops—we could run into a situation where crofters give up crofting completely, simply because of the damage that geese are causing.”
I call on the committee to write to the Scottish Government expressing concern that funding is being withdrawn, given the impact that it will have on crofting and that it will probably kill crofting completely.
Thank you—that local knowledge is really important.11:00
I represent South Scotland, so I do not have first-hand knowledge of the situation, although I have certainly seen how many geese migrate down to the Clyde. It is a serious issue for the whole of Scotland, not just for the Highlands, because crofting is part of all our heritage.
I had real concerns about the cessation of the Machair Life project in the previous parliamentary session, and I think that that should be looked at again, as Angus MacDonald said.
When reading the papers for today’s meeting, I found it concerning that, although geese numbers have been cut by the cull, that has not altered the level of serious damage to the crofts concerned. The crofters work in very demanding conditions, not only in winter. I have been to Lewis and I have seen the steepness of the terrain and the challenges that many crofters face, so we owe it to them to look at other ways of dealing with the issue. The Government should do more research.
Frankly, I also found it alarming to read that resources of the same scale as those provided for Islay are unlikely to be imitated in other places where there are intractable goose problems.
It is a very serious problem for Scotland, and I hope that it will be treated as such by the Government and the others who are involved. We should keep the petition open.
A fifth of the world’s population of pink-footed geese overwinter at the Loch of Strathbeg in my constituency. Like greylag geese and other varieties of geese, they are substantial animals. How they feed does significant damage; they also tend to flock, so they land on quite small areas in significant concentrations.
We want to protect the geese—they are an important part of our environment—but we may have to do various things to deal with the issue. However, the bottom line is that there is no direct way in which farmers whose fields are affected can protect the environment from the depredations of geese behaving perfectly naturally. The only sensible intervention that we can make is an economic one, and it is important that the committee gives its support to those who farm our land in economic terms, if there are no other methods by which we can do so. We must make sure that we strike the balance between the interests of the geese and the interests of people in agriculture.
Stewart Stevenson is right to point out that we are talking about globally significant populations of species, including the pink-footed goose. They are legally protected under EU law, and they are the subject of the current complaint to the European Commission.
However, we also need to recognise that the EU common agricultural policy is changing, as is the debate in this country—we are much more focused on public good, and on public money to deliver that public good. I see the maintenance of the goose populations and the conservation status of the species as a hugely important public good that is being delivered. Therefore, we need to get right the public money, the funding and the support for crofting communities in that regard.
We need to keep the petition open and look at what that might involve. If it involves a change in management practice on farms, or farmers and crofters moving away from the way in which they currently manage farms to something very different, that needs to be part of the mix as well. We need to take communities with us and ensure that nobody is left behind.
I would welcome sending a letter to Government, to keep the petition going. Let us see if we can crack the problem and deliver important conservation objectives, while considering the many other challenges that the crofting community is facing, in particular what is happening to the price of lamb. We need to see the issue in the round and try to deliver a solution that works economically for crofting communities. It is about more than just this issue; it is about the range of other issues that are being faced at the moment.
In addition to the review, the Government should do a cost benefit analysis. The pilot study has suggested that the damage caused by the greylag geese is unacceptable and has increased over the past 20 years, but there are no any figures behind the study, so there is nothing to back that up.
Paragraph 23 of paper 3 says:
“the Pilots have been funded entirely with government support”,
and it is highlighted that the pilots are no longer sustainable.
I think that everyone on the committee agrees that we need to support crofters and understand what the economic damage is, as well as understand how much it is costing the Government and why the pilots have not been developed further.
Okay. There is a range of things that we can put into a letter to the Government. We can touch on the pilot schemes, ask what has happened to the Machair Life scheme, ask about future agri-environment support mechanisms and ask for an assessment of the costs of the damage. The clerks have taken note of all the committee’s points.
Do we agree to keep the petition open and write to the Government in those terms?
Members indicated agreement.
Is the committee content for me to sign off that letter, or would members like to see it before it goes out?
I would like to see it.
I am happy to send you a draft, so that you can add any points that have been missed, or anything else that you want to.
Single-use Drinks Cups (PE1636)
The second petition for consideration is PE1636, in the name of Michael Trail, which seeks to ensure that all single-use drinks cups are 100 per cent biodegradable. The committee last considered the petition in September 2017. Since then, the Scottish Government’s expert panel on environmental charging and other measures has produced a report making a series of recommendations about single-use cups, and the draft Deposit and Return Scheme for Scotland Regulations 2020 have been published for consultation. We also know that the circular economy bill will be coming through the committee and Parliament. Do members have any comments on the petition?
There have been some developments, particularly with the deposit return scheme on the horizon and more work to be done on the circular economy, so I believe that we should keep the petition open to make sure that we keep abreast of what is happening. However, we should perhaps write to the petitioner asking whether there are any further details that they would like. I support keeping the petition open because coffee cups are very much in the public eye and the public want something done about them.
There is a welcome Government commitment to introduce a minimum charge of 20p. I hope that we will see that in the circular economy bill. We should seek some clarity from the Government about how it intends to take forward the expert panel’s recommendations. Finlay Carson mentioned the deposit return scheme, and there are exciting developments regarding including coffee cups as well as bottles in the scheme. It would be useful to know where that sits in the Government’s current plans. It was not in the programme for government, but I recognise that a lot of work is happening on the DRS more generally. It could be a game changer in terms of how we buy our coffee in future.
Although the petitioner’s original intention was that all single-use drinks cups should be 100 per cent biodegradable, I agree with Mark Ruskell that there could be other ways for the Scottish Government to tackle single-use plastic. There is an article in The Times this morning that talks about behavioural change. If somebody buys a coffee and there is an extra 20p charge because they took the coffee cup, that might not necessarily be clear to them. Zero Waste Scotland’s suggestion is to charge for the coffee cup and then have it filled, so that there is a distinction between what the cup costs and what the coffee costs, rather than there being just an extra charge for the coffee. There are huge developments and I wonder whether some of the work on the DRS and the circular economy bill will tease those out and perhaps go beyond what the petitioner is asking for.
I guess that we should write back to the petitioner to say that we would like to keep the petition open, and we will use their asks to inform our work and our scrutiny of the DRS and the circular economy bill, the objectives of which are, of course, to reduce waste. Is the committee content for me to sign off that letter?
Members indicated agreement.
That concludes the committee’s public business for today. At its next meeting on 8 October, the committee will consider its approach to the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill and hear evidence on the proposed deposit return scheme. We will also consider the draft report on the Scottish Government’s 2020-21 budget.11:10 Meeting continued in private until 12:26.
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