Earlier this month, I came across a headline in the Mail on Sunday that declared: “Listen to country folk – we know our land best”.
This was a piece written by Alex Hogg MBE, chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and it is interesting because he does not seem to follow his own advice.
His article was inspired by plans for rural workers to protest online because they feel that many, including politicians, are so detached from rural life that they have little understanding of the issues. Mr Hogg is concerned about deer management, fish farming, species reintroduction and fox control amongst other things. He writes: “Our voices are not listened to.”
This is all very confusing, because the fish farming sector is also part of rural life, and it is clear that Mr Hogg and his colleagues in the hunting, fishing, shooting sector are not in the slightest bit interested in listening to people from the fish farming industry – even if they, too, know their sector best.
Mr Hogg makes two points about salmon farming. First he says that three years ago, cross-party Parliamentary committees indicated major changes were needed to better regulate fish farming. He then continues that, whilst the Scottish Gamekeepers Association is not opposed to good fish farming operations, the Government has not kept its part of the bargain. He says that fish farms are endangering already declining salmon populations, and this is threatening ghillie jobs.
Although there has been an attempt to reach out to Mr Hogg, he has not replied. Like much of the wild fish sector. he does not seem that keen about listening to others. They have a narrative that they have fixed in stone, and are not interested in anything that might undermine it.
Mr Hogg refers to the Parliamentary Committee inquiries of 2018. He does not mention that the REC Committee reconvened to discuss salmon farming in November last year. These committees are not Government and Mr Hogg mentions a “bargain” that might be more perceived than real.
The REC Committee heard last November that SEPA (the Scottish Environment Protection Agency), one of the regulators, does not believe that the decline of wild fish is related to salmon farming. So far, the wild fish sector has ignored this statement, clearly in the hope it will be soon forgotten.
Those in the wild fish sector, including Mr Hogg, associate the current crisis in wild salmon with salmon farming. Yet, even before the arrival of salmon farming to the west coast, catches from rivers in what is now called the Aquaculture Zone averaged only about 10% of the total Scottish catch. This means that 90% of salmon caught by anglers are from rivers, such as the Tay and Tweed, that cannot be considered to be situated anywhere near a salmon farm.
In 2018, Salmon & Trout Conservation commissioned a report from the Norwegian Institute of Nature Research that concluded that in Norway, the loss of salmon due to the impact of salmon farming is about 10% of the national stock. Scotland is geographically different to Norway in relation to the distribution of salmon farms, so even if the figure was 20% (a number I have plucked from the air) this would account for about 2% of the total Scottish stock.
In a long-term trial using over 352,000 smolts, researchers from the Marine Institute in Ireland found that the difference in survival rates between the group treated with an anti-lice product and a control was only 1%. This research did not go down well with the wild fish lobby who have refused to accept the findings ever since. Even Marine Scotland Science’s (MSS) “Summary of the Science” published on the Scottish Government website does not specifically cite this work, preferring to bury it with results from other studies. MSS have long argued that Scotland is different to Ireland and hence they persuaded the now defunct Scottish Aquaculture Research Fund (SARF) to spend £600,000, half of which came from the industry, on a similar study. This study used the same precious wild salmon smolts that MSS claim to be trying to protect. There are no results from this study because MSS failed to recapture any returning smolts from either the treated or control group.
Experimental trial is one thing, but real-life observation is another. The wild fish sector continues to highlight that many rivers in the Aquaculture Zone are of a Grade 3 conservation status. Thirty-six rivers in Scotland have been classified as Grade 1, yet 10 (28%) are located in the Aquaculture Zone. A further 33 rivers across Scotland have been classified as Grade 2 of which 12 (36%) are in the Aquaculture Zone. All these rivers can be exploited by anglers, meaning that their conservation status is sufficiently good to allow anglers to kill fish for the pot. The most surprising classification of these rivers is the River Ewe (Grade 1) given that this farm is blamed by the wild fish sector for causing the collapse of the Loch Maree sea trout fishery. Yet this river, just 7 km from the farm (now closed), is of the same status as the best rivers in Scotland such as the Spey, the Tay and the Tweed.
I would be delighted to hear Mr Hogg’s explanation for these observations but sadly, Mr Hogg appears to believe that when it comes to rural life, only his narrative should be heard.