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SNH statements concerning
Loch Leven discussed.
Is SNH a good land manager?
Can SNH be trusted with our heritage?
Teviot Scientific Publications, Edinburgh and Comrie, Perthshire
Filed 27 Jun 06
Earlier this month Land-Care carried an article
describing the impending demise of brown trout fishing on Loch Leven
(1). Among the causes for this regrettable state
of affairs, the large numbers of protected cormorants were held
to be at least partially responsible due to their voracious appetite
for fish, and their predilection for brown trout in particular.
The loch's owner - Jamie Montgomery of Kinross Estate - could no
longer sustain the economic losses incurred by restocking the loch
from hatcheries every year (2).
Experienced fisheries staff will lose their jobs, the traditional
clinker built boats will go and be replaced by a greatly reduced
number of characterless fibreglass craft. World renowned fly-casting
championships will be held elsewhere. A part of what should be regarded
as Scotland's true natural heritage will be lost. For why?
Tradtional clinker-built boats
at Loch Leven Fisheries:
but not many takers
(To enlarge Click Here)
This question is particularly relevant as the
management of Loch Leven has been under the control of a government
agency since 1964: initially the Nature Conservation Council and
subsequently Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).
It would appear that there must surely be something
seriously wrong with the way such an important site has been managed
by these organisations, bedecked as it is with a galaxy of protection
orders - National Nature Reserve (1964), Site of Special Scientific
Interest (1956) and Special Protection Area (1960).
Seeking clarification Land-Care asked three questions
of SNH on 5th June (3). SNH responded
on 9th June (4). SNH also put
a position statement on their own website in response to "press
A number of important issues arise from an analysis
of SNH's formal response and its position statement.
Question to SNH
"How does SNH reconcile the severe damage
being done to the fish stocks at
Loch Leven with the refusal by the Scottish Executive to grant
a licence for the shooting of as few as 50 cormorants per year,
when the 'invasion' rate is some 700 over the winter months? Who
advised the Scottish Executive in this regard and on what basis?"
"The shooting of cormorants requires a
licence and decisions on these are made by the Scottish Executive,
not SNH. SNH advises on natural heritage issues, whilst the Executive
consider fishery, economic and other relevant issues.
"SNH's advice was based on Loch Leven's
status as a Special Protection Area under the EC Habitats and
Birds Directives. These Directives give special protection to
the population of cormorants at Loch Leven. Before any plan or
project is allowed which may result in having any significant
effect on this population, a series of tests must be met. In the
case of the Estates' application to shoot cormorants in 2006,
the Executive considered these tests had not been met.
"You refer to the request to shoot "as
few as 50 cormorants per year". For clarification; in giving
our advice to the Executive, we had regard to the following:
i) The degree to which shooting would cause
disturbance to other waterfowl on the site. One of our main objectives
for management of the NNR is to provide a safe haven for birds
by ensuring there are only low levels of disturbance.
ii) Cormorants form part of the internationally
important bird assemblage
and have probably been on Loch Leven for centuries.
iii) Shooting of 50 cormorants would be a significant
proportion of the birds using the site. SNH co-ordinates fortnightly/monthly
bird counts of the whole loch. Our data for the last four winters
show a mean number of cormorants of 134. This should be seen in
the context of the large amount of variation in count figures.
In a total of 33 counts, the figures for cormorants present on
any one day in the winter ranged from 4 to 386 birds.
iv) Research work undertaken in the late 1990's
demonstrated the high daily turnover of cormorants on Loch Leven.
Birds regularly travel to the Firths of Forth and Tay and any
cull would be largely futile as birds shot would quickly be replaced
by others moving in. Cormorants counted on Loch Leven are likely
to be feeding at many other places in Fife and Tayside.
"In summary, we would take issue with reference
to an "invasion rate" of some 700 cormorants in the
winter months. This in no way reflects an accurate picture of
behaviour and numbers of cormorants."
This question and answer highlights some of the
major problems that face SNH in terms of many land managers' alleged
lack of trust in their organisation. For trust there must be openness
and sincerity - not a presentation that superficially appears to
justify their stance but which omits key facts of which they must
be fully aware. Failure to achieve this leads to ridicule and to
"SNH is but the political wing of the RSPB
and their single focus friends in Environment Link who are so
generously funded by SNH"
The public may on the face of it think that the
SNH argument, that the shooting of up to 50 cormorants per year
would disturb the peace for other birds to a significant extent,
But what was not stated by SNH was the fact that
shooting at Loch Leven is commonplace. Kinross Estate, by long-standing
agreement with SNH in the form of a management contract, has some
36 days a year shooting on the loch for wildfowl. Not only that,
but there is a great deal of shooting of geese on an informal and
essentially uncontrolled basis by members of the public on the shores
and the surrounding land of Loch Leven. This has been the practice
for years without apparent significant disturbance to the wildlife
habitat of the loch. To argue in that context that the shooting
of 50 cormorants a year would cause a significant disturbance to
other wildlife can only be described as disingenuous.
SNH informs that "a series of tests have
to be made" before such a licence could be granted by the Scottish
Executive, and that "the tests had not been met" by Kinross
Estate. It would be interesting to know what the tests are and on
what basis did they fail. We were not informed.
Clearly there are three layers of government administration
on such matters:
In the view of some land managers there would
appear to be much buck passing between these three tiers of devolved
Government in Scotland, when it comes to trying to determine who
is pulling the strings, and how much credence can be put on what
SNH may say about any particular issue. There is a concern among
some that SNH may say one thing to members of the public, but another
to SEERAD or the Scottish Executive and then blame SEERAD or the
Scottish Executive for making unpopular and unreasonable decisions
- "it wisnae' me, honest!" approach.
We are told that
"SNH advises on natural heritage issues,
whilst the Executive consider fishery, economic and other relevant
It must be nice to be able to advise without being
concerned about economics. Unfortunately, without a good knowledge
in the round of the economics of the management of the land (or
loch) in question, that advice is likely to be flawed. This is where
SNH is weak.
SNH's attempt to overcome this criticism by putting
their proposals out to "consultation", although sounding
democratic, is in practice hardly a proper remedy. Not only is their
now "consultation fatigue" amongst land managers but there
is considerable doubt whether SNH pays much attention to the responses
they receive (6). To be effective
SNH would need to have the relevant expertise to analyse these responses.
Even more seriously, SNH will have a desire to
conform with the political wishes of a Scottish Executive that is
perhaps not the best informed on rural matters.
SNH states that it is not concerned with "fishery"
- that being the responsibility of the Scottish Executive, according
to SNH. If that is the case, then why is SNH entrusted with the
management of Loch Leven, an icon for Scotland's number 1 countryside
sport - fishing? Little wonder that the fishing was allowed by SNH
to go into decline: in their view it is not within their brief.
But quite apart from the economic aspects of Loch
Leven Fisheries, the unique brown trout of Loch Leven are as much
a part of the spectrum of wildlife in the area as anything else
- a point that I will return to later.
Selective use of statistics
Another cause for concern is the statistical evidence
relating to the number of cormorants on Loch Leven put forward by
SNH to justify its own performance. It selects evidence provided
by its own staff, ignoring the findings of another government agency
- Fisheries Research Services (FRS)(7)
- and, of course, the experienced staff of Loch Leven Fisheries,
who will be on the loch rather more often than SNH personnel and
who would have no problem recognising a cormorant as a big black
bird with a very long neck that likes to eat their charges in great
quantity. A biased selection of evidence - even to the extent of
excluding peer reviewed papers by others - is not good science.
The FRS paper on Loch Leven is clearly a highly
professional piece of work by experts in the field. It shows that
the number of cormorants on Loch Leven have been increasing over
the years, and makes good estimates of the amount of trout that
they eat. It estimated that over a 7 month period cormorants consumed
some 80,000 brown trout, compared to an average annual fishery catches
of some 6,000 brown trout. On top of that is the evidence of the
fishery staff and anglers that brown trout in the loch may be lethally
damaged by cormorants so that they die in the loch.
Special protection status for cormorants at Loch Leven
SNH states that its advice to the Scottish Executive
"was based on Loch Leven's status as a
Special Protection Area under the EC Habitats and Birds Directives.
These Directives give special protection to the population of
cormorants at Loch Leven."
But are they correct in this assertion?
In 1999, Lord Johnston ruled on a Judicial Review
raised by RSPB and the Wildfowl Wetland Trust (WWT) against the
Secretary of State for granting licences to shoot barnacle geese
within the Special Protection Area (SPA) on Islay (8).
In his summation Lord Johnston states that
“To determine the issue solely on a local
basis would defeat the basic objective
of the Directive, since it would lose sight of the primary object
Directive and create ad hoc results.”
Lord Johnston also goes further and disallows
their “plans and projects” due to them being in the
interests of the birds and not the management of the site. He does
so because the directives protect the land and food source before
It would therefore appear that SNH may have
wrongly advised the Scottish Executive in terms of the refusal of
a licence for Loch Leven Fisheries, Kinross Estate, to shoot up
to 50 cormorants per year in an attempt to protect their business.
There can be little doubt that SNH would be aware of Lord Johnston's
judgement regarding Islay. This leaves us again wondering about
the integrity of SNH when asked for clarification regarding a situation
that had developed under their control but which did not appear
to make sense. Again the word disingenuous comes to mind.
What role does SNH play?
There is also concern over just what role does
SNH play in influencing rural policies. It is not an independent
organisation and does not claim to be (9).
There is a strong impression that its advice is determined by what
the government wants to hear, rather than what it should hear. It
is supposedly for this reason that it is alleged that SNH has a
tendency to be disingenuous about the evidence it quotes to support
As well as the present example of Loch Leven,
another is the statement by a previous SNH Chief Executive in relation
to the Land Reform Bill (now Act) (10).
When I asked Roger Crofts after his presentation at a press conference
at the Royal Highland Show 2001why the SNH Access Forum had clearly
failed to take into account the legitimate concerns of modest sized
farms adjacent to towns, he replied:
"SNH has a remit form the Scottish Executive
to put into effect the manifesto pledge of the labour/liberal
democrat coalition: that there was to be open access for everyone
everywhere, with few exceptions".
So what was all this charade about consultation
over access to the countryside?
To be credible SNH should ensure that it provides,
for its masters (SEERAD, abd through them the Scottish Executive)
and the public at large, a fair and objective assessment of the
relevant science, assimilated with the knowledge and experience
of those who earn their living in the area and who have skills and
practical experience unmatched by SNH staff.
Once a protected species, always a protected species - even when
protection is no longer necessary or desirable
Once a species has been awarded protected status,
it would appear that it retains it forever, irrespective of whether
that protection causes such an increase in numbers that the species
then becomes troublesome. The balance of nature has become significantly
disturbed by the intervention of "conservationists". The
relevant rules and directives seem remarkably inflexible.
Apparently, in the case of cormorants the argument
goes that they are increasingly coming to inland lochs - such as
Loch Leven - because their food source at their breeding grounds
is diminishing. Hence SNH's logic - no doubt encouraged by the RSPB
- would appear to be that the breeding sites for cormorants are
more important than the survival of brown trout fishing on Loch
Leven. They justify their case - so common now in the practice of
Government - by resorting to rules and more rules that long since
have been shown to be seriously flawed. So its cormorants given
preference over brown trout, raptors over grouse and song birds.
badgers over the alarming spread of tuberculosis in cattle, waders
over hedgehogs, red squirrels over allegedly nasty grey ones - and
heaven forbid the introduction of species such as beavers and wolves
without taking proper account of the dangers to other species in
Yet SNH maintains that it does not follow a single
species agenda. One has to concede that they do not follow just
one single species, but rather losts of single species at the expense
of a balanced diversity and the local rural economy and character.
What for the future?
While this article has concentrated on the role
of cormorants in the impending demise of brown trout fishing on
Loch Leven, there have been other serious issues concerning the
management of the Loch since government agencies took it over in
1964: mainly to do with pollution. Suffice it to say here that overall
there must be concern about the competence of government agencies
such as SNH to manage land or water. It requires a comprehensive
understanding of the management of the land, of the inland waterways
and of the sea - not a single focus, and excessively ecologically
Presently the Scottish Executive has designs on
designating an area in Scotland as a Coastal Marine National Park.
Not surprisingly there is some vociferous opposition among the local
people who may be affected (11).
They might well be even more concerned if they realised what has
been going at Loch Leven on over all these years under the management
If a reference is referred to more than once in the text, the
may be repeated in the reference list. This is to facilitate the
returning to the relevant point in the text by pressing BACKSPACE
after reading the reference.
James (2006). Protected cormorants blamed for the demise of trout
fishing on Loch Leven, under the management of SNH.
See ENVIRONMENT Homepage, filed 04 Jun 06, www.land-care.org.uk
Here to View
2. Loch Leven Fisheries (2006).
Here to View pdf
3. Irvine, James (2006). Cormorants
and the decline of trout fishing on Loch Leven: SNH responds to
See ENVIRONMENT Homepage, filed 10 Jun 06, www.land-care.org.uk
Here to View
James (2006). Cormorants and the decline of trout fishing on Loch
Leven: SNH responds to Land-Care's questions.
See ENVIRONMENT Homepage, filed 19 Jun 06, www.land-care.org.uk
Here to View
5. Scottish Natural Heritage (2006).
Position statement on Loch Leven.
www.snh.org.uk (accessed 20th June 2006). Click
Here to View pdf
6. Irvine, James (2003). Analysis
of the responses to SNH draft Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
See SCOTTISH OUTDOOR ACCESS CODE Homepage, filed 29 Sep 03,
Here to View
7. Stewart, D. C., Middlemass,
S. J., Gardiner, W. R., Mackay, S. and Armstrong, J. D.(2005).
Diet and prey selection of cormorants (Phalacromorax carbo) at Loch
Leven, a major stocked trout fishery.
FRS Freshwater Laboratory, Faskally, Pitlochry
J. Zool., Lond. 267, 191 - 201
(This paper will be available here as a pdf in October 2006,
but for copyright reasons cannot be available in this format till
then. In the meantime it can be accessed through subscribing libraries,
or by request to FRS Pitlochry)
8. Lord Johnston (1999). Judicial
Review of a decision of the Secretary of State to grant licences
to shoot barnacle geese within SPAs on Islay. Click
Here to View pdf
9. Jardine, Ian (2006). Paper
presented at 4th annual conference of the Scottish Countryside Alliance
"Who should run the countryside? Rural Scotland 2006".
Royal Highland Centre, Ingliston, Edinburgh, 25th April 2006.
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed16 May 06,
Here to View
10. Irvine, James (2001). Scottish
Natural Heritage's policy on access: is it being mis-sold in relation
to enclosed farmland next to urban communities?
LandCare Scotland. 1. 19-23.
11. Editorial (2006). New action
group formed to fight against imposition of Coastal and Marine National
See SOCIAL/ECONOMIC/POLITICAL Homepage, filed 9th May 06,
Here to View