There must be a better way ...

Wild Trout Fishing in Scotland - The Way Ahead

Comment on the Proposed Scottish "Anti-Angling" Bill

AKA The Draft Wild Fisheries (Scotland) Bill

Anglers' access to the Scottish countryside to be restricted and anglers criminalised for fishing without written permission

May 5, 2016

Plans have been hatched by the group advising the Scottish government on the reform of freshwater angling to severely restrict the freedoms of Scottish anglers by limiting their access to our freshwater rivers, lochs and burns. The proposed new bill would make it a criminal offence to fish for any freshwater fish, including trout, perch or even minnows, without the written permission of the land owner. Under the new proposals, fishing without such written permission would become a criminal act, punishable by fines of up to £1000 and possible imprisonment for non payers. Proposals are also being considered to impose a tax on anglers in the guise of a “management and development levy”, apparently seen as a more palatable alternative to the unpopular rod licence idea …....

See the full Government consultation documents on this link

Is this the best we can do? Is this really progress? The whole Wild Fisheries Review and Reform exercise was ill-conceived, fraught from the beginning with misunderstandings, omissions and inconsistencies. The declared intention was twofold :

a) the conservation of our wild freshwater fish and their habitats and

b) the more efficient management of a valuable resource (wild fish and fisheries) for the benefit of the Scottish people.

From the outset, it was clear that conservation was not a serious objective of the government, as it expressly excluded from the review process any discussion of the threat to wild fish posed by the salmon farming industry, which is now recognised as a major cause of declining stocks of migratory fish on our once pristine west coast. The refusal of successive Scottish governments to impose sensible controls and regulations on the activities of the salmon farmers makes a nonsense of any claim they might have as responsible custodians of our environment. In addition to the catastrophic impact of aquaculture, our wild trout and salmon face numerous other threats, e.g. climate change, high seas netting, predation, man-made barriers to migration, agricultural, industrial and domestic pollution, afforestation, water abstraction etc.. Yet, instead of addressing the real threats to our wild fish, those framing the proposed new legislation have chosen to target anglers, the very least of all threats to our wild fish, by proposing increased levies on angling and restricting rural access for the purpose of angling, this despite the government's declared commitment to "the key pillars of conservation, sustainability and access to all" (Dr Aileen McLeod, Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, February 2016).

This dual commitment to conservation and public access is echoed in the opening mission statement of Scotland’s draft National Fisheries Strategy (Draft 8 January 2016:

“To protect, develop and enhance social and economic benefit from Scotland’s freshwater fish and fisheries; and to promote access to fishing opportunities and participation

Laudable words indeed! Might Scottish anglers at last entertain the hope that they might be permitted fairer access to our lochs and streams, that they might be granted the legal right of access conferred upon almost all other recreational land users, such as hill walkers, cyclists, horse riders, campers, bird watchers and canoeists? Sadly, it would appear not. The Draft Wild Fisheries (Scotland) Bill fails to address the essential issues of 1) conservation of our freshwater fish and 2) public access to wild fishing waters. A great opportunity seems to have been missed - to explore ways to manage our wild freshwater fisheries for the benefit of the Scottish people; to seek to promote wider access to wild fishing waters and to encourage greater participation in angling; to build on the foundations laid by the Land Reform Act. Instead, it would seem that the course of the wild fisheries review and the direction of the national strategy have been driven by non-anglers, posing as conservationists, with little understanding of angling, and even less interest in it. The Wild Fisheries Bill has become little more than a mechanism for controlling, taxing and regulating anglers, on the wholly unfounded and mistaken assumption that anglers somehow present a threat to wild fish and wild habitats. It does nothing for conservation, nothing for anglers and nothing for wild fisheries.

The Consultation Draft Provisions for a Wild Fisheries (Scotland) Bill includes the following provisions:

Chapter 2


Entitlement to fish

33 Fishing without legal right or permission    

         (1) A person commits an offence if, without having legal right or permission, the person fishes for, takes or kills –

              (a) an Atlantic salmon or sea trout in –

(i)   any inland waters, or

(ii)  any part of the sea within 1.5 kilometres of mean low water springs, or

               (b) any other species of freshwater fish in any inland waters other than those parts of a river or loch that are tidal.

         (2) For the purposes of subsection (1), “permission” means the express written permission of a person having legal right to fish for the species of fish being fished for, taken or killed in the waters in question.

         (3) A person who commits an offence under subsection (1) is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.

         (4) This section does not apply to the Lower Esk.

The effect of this proposed law (Subsection 1 (b) specifically) would be to deny anglers access to large parts of the country, where they may be unable to obtain a written permit, for example from an unidentifiable, uncooperative, inaccessible or absentee land owner.  The proposed bill would impose no obligation on landowners to allow access to their lochs and streams, or to issue written permission to anglers to fish in them. Nor is there any proposal to regulate the price of such permission, if and where a landowner might agree to grant it. Those fishing without such permission would be liable to criminal prosecution and fines of up to £1000, with the possibility of imprisonment for inability to pay. Law abiding anglers, of whatever age (even a child with a minnow net and jar), who were unable to obtain the necessary written permission, for example from an unknown or obstructive land owner, or who were unable to afford an unreasonably highly priced permit, would, therefore, be denied access to the river, loch, burn or pond he or she wished to fish.

At a time when the right of access of other users of the countryside - ramblers, hillwalkers, canoeists, bird watchers etc. - has been enshrined in recent Scottish Land Reform legislation, surely such a retrograde, discriminatory law restricting access for anglers cannot be tolerated. I wonder how hill walkers would react if told that they required written permission from the local Laird before walking up a hill!

There is a certain irony in the fact that anglers' access to Scottish rivers and lochs has never been more limited, having been increasingly restricted in the past few decades by the very governments we might have expected to stand up for and improve their right of access, i.e. Scottish Labour and the Scottish National Party. While the right of walkers, canoeists and others to access our land and water has been reinforced by the Land Reform Act, that same act, together with amendments to the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act, has expressly excluded anglers from those privileges, steadily eroding anglers' rights to access our rivers and lochs. Indeed, one would be inclined to conclude that anglers are seen by our new governors in Holyrood as a bit of a nuisance, a threat to the environment, second class citizens to be controlled, regulated and taxed   ... even criminalised!

The proposed bill envisages a new system of fisheries management, directed and regulated from Holyrood. To finance the new bureaucracy, the administration of the new management structure and the enforcement of the new regulations, the think tank has come up with the idea of imposing a tax on all anglers, to be called a "management and development levy", following a very negative response to their initial idea of a "rod licence", a change in name only, as both amount to the same thing. After the funding of the new government-led management structure and the financing of the tax collectors and enforcers, it is unclear how much money will be left for management and development of wild Scottish fishing, or even how that wild fishing, especially trout and coarse fishing, is likely to benefit at all from "management and development". The only certainty is that anglers in Scotland and the many visiting anglers who come to experience that wild, and till now largely natural, unmanaged and undeveloped, fishing would be faced with higher costs, restricted access and more regulation. Scotland has some of the best wild trout fishing in the world. It has the potential to bring much needed income to rural areas. For that potential to be realised, wild fishing does not need to be managed or developed or taxed. It needs to be made more accessible.

Dr Eileen McLeod, then minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, on introducing the draft legislation (see link below) in the Spring of 2016, insisted that the proposed reforms reflected “an all species approach that acknowledges and promotes the key pillars of conservation, sustainability and access to all”, a fairer, more democratic system of management which will promote wider participation and encourage new entrants, particularly the young, into the sport of angling …........ Aye, right!

Yes, conservation, sustainability and access for all are worthy ideals. Much could be done to conserve and protect our freshwater fish. Out migratory salmon and sea trout are particularly at risk from a variety of threats, as listed above. Angling is not one of them. Wider, fairer, public access to our wild lochs and streams is also important. Just as the Land Reform Act enshrined in law our right to freely access Scottish land (for virtually all recreational purposes except angling), so a Wild Fisheries Reform Bill should seek to promote anglers' access to our wild lochs and streams. Would it not be wonderful if all Scots, and others visiting our fantastic country, could have access, at reasonable cost, to our magnificent wild trout lochs and streams. What if, as in many other countries, an angler in Scotland could buy a fishing permit which allowed him, or her, to fish for wild trout on virtually any loch in the country? What if wild freshwater fisheries were managed and regulated on our behalf by an agency of Government, funded by the sale of a national fishing permit? What if those we are about to elect to our Scottish Parliament had some real vision and ambition?  

See details of the proposed reforms on the following page:


IMPORTANT UPDATE  3rd February 2017

I am very pleased to report that, as outlined in the Scottish Government press release copied below, Ms Cunningham, the Environment Secretary, has responded very positively to the concerns of anglers on the initial proposals for wild fisheries reform in Scotland. The decision to abandon the implementation of a rod licence or levy is most heartening. More crucially, the announcement that The Scottish Government has ruled out the criminalisation of freshwater fishing without written permission is a great victory for common sense. Great credit is due to Ms Cunningham for her protection of the rights of anglers and her ambitions for the future of angling in Scotland.

03/02/17  Scottish Government Press Release

Wild fisheries

Protecting the rights of anglers.

Anglers in Scotland will be shielded from increased costs. Proposals to introduce rod licences and a new wild fisheries levy will not be taken forward, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham has announced.

The Scottish Government has ruled out these measures as well as the criminalisation of freshwater fishing without written permission and proposals to overhaul the structure and remit of District Salmon Fishery Boards, following a consultation on draft provisions for a Wild Fisheries (Scotland) Bill and draft Wild Fisheries Strategy.

The Scottish Government will facilitate‎ work streams which encourage, empower and support the modernisation of fishery management, including the piloting of voluntary board mergers to identify any existing legislative issues. It will also develop a fishery management plan to trial any changes with boards and will also explore potential freshwater conservation provisions ahead of the introduction of a Bill to Parliament.

Ms Cunningham said:

“The Scottish Government is committed to supporting our famous and valuable wild fisheries, to modernise our fishery management structures and to establish a more secure and sustainable future for this vital sector.

“Our Wild Fisheries Bill will build on our significant conservation achievements to date, including the annual salmon conservation measures, Spring Conservation Orders, and the moratorium on coastal mixed stock fishery netting for three years.

“However it’s important that we represent the interests of our anglers, that’s why we have listened to the sector’s concerns around increasing costs and restricting access to fisheries and are ruling out the introduction of rod licences and a freshwater levy.

“We’ve heard through the consultation that these steps would limit the opportunities for our anglers and potentially discourage young people from taking part. Over and above this we will work with the angling community to identify ways to increase participation and to improve engagement across the sector.  

“I am grateful for the considerable time and energy that the wild fisheries sector has given to date to help inform the programme of reform. We will continue to work closely with our stakeholders to make sure the legislation that is ultimately brought forward is robust and fit for purpose, so that anglers have confidence in the management and development of the fisheries that they depend on.”