Foxes have been chased by hounds and shot in public forests after interventions by the rural economy minister, Fergus Ewing, backing shooters.
Internal documents released by Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) reveal that officials reversed two decisions barring fox control with hounds on FLS land near Inverness after “considerable” pressure from ministers.
FLS has also ditched a plan in 2019 to rewrite its policy to prevent fox shooting with hounds on its land because of the risks for animal welfare and wildlife. But it insisted that no ministers were involved in the policy review.
Wildlife groups have criticised Ewing for “seemingly abusing his ministerial powers”, and called for tougher restrictions on methods of killing foxes. But the minister has been praised by countryside campaigners for his “responsible attitude towards necessary predator control”.
Traditional fox hunting, with riders on horses and packs of hounds chasing and killing foxes, was outlawed in Scotland in 2002. But it is still legal for groups on foot to use hounds to flush out foxes to be shot to protect game birds or livestock.
This has taken place in forestry plantations, where foxes live. But shooting groups, known as foot packs, need the landowner’s permission – and FLS owns a third of Scotland’s forests on behalf of the public.
Details of the behind-the-scene battles over access to FLS land for foot packs have been unearthed by the Scottish animal campaigns charity, OneKind. Along with the Scottish Raptor Study Group, it obtained over 100 files from FLS under freedom of information law, and passed them to The Ferret.
In 2017 the Three Straths Fox Control Association wanted permission to use hounds to flush out foxes in forests to the south of Inverness. But according to emails released by FLS, the association was blocked and had “raised concerns with Mr Fergus Ewing MSP regarded access for fox control on the national forest estate.”
As a result in March 2017 an FLS official in Inverness offered to meet with the association “to listen to your concerns and seek to resolve the situation as soon as possible.”
FLS told The Ferret that permission was subsequently granted to the association to control foxes until 28 September 2018 in three public forests south of Inverness – Wester Lairgs, Morrinsh and Glenkirk.
In February 2019 the Three Straths Fox Control Association complained again to FLS about the imposition of “exclusion zones” for hounds around the A9 south of Inverness. It accused FLS of “a continuous attempt to exclude us from FLS land completely”.
The association copied its complaints to Ewing, provoking anxious discussions between FLS officials. The issue was highlighted in an email to colleagues as a “potential hot topic” by north region delivery manager, Alex Macleod.
Officials needed to meet with the association “with a view to coming to an amical agreement”, he said.
Head of corporate support, Michael Hymers, agreed it was “critical” to clarify the FLS position “as a matter of urgency”. He pointed out that “we had considerable ministerial/parliamentary correspondence involving several members of the Cabinet including Mr Ewing in March 2018” about constraints on fox control.
FLS then held a conference call to discuss the case and, according to another email, planned a briefing for its chief executive, Simon Hodgson, “if this topic comes up in his call with Mr Ewing.”
FLS told The Ferret that the Three Straths Fox Control Association was subsequently allowed to chase and kill foxes. The association has permission for fox control with hounds until 31 March 2020 on FLS land, including Farr forest south of Inverness.
In a third case FLS resisted an intervention from Ewing and maintained a ban on fox control with hounds in order to protect wildcats. Emails show that in May 2018 Glenprosen Estate at Kirriemuir in Angus complained to its SNP MSP, Graeme Dey, about FLS blocking access to forests.
Dey raised the issue with Ewing, whose private secretary, Lauren Wilson, then messaged FLS asking for information. The minister “would like to make sure he fully understands what has been the approach to this as he has raised this matter before in other areas and had reached a good outcome,” Wilson wrote.
This was initially processed as a “fast track” case, and FLS officials prepared a briefing for Ewing. The estate was subsequently refused permission to carry out fox control with hounds on FLS land “as they had not obtained the necessary licence given the presence of a European protected species, i.e. Scottish wildcat”, FLS said.
The internal documents released by FLS also make it clear that a group of officials decided in 2019 to rewrite FLS policy to prevent fox control with hounds in the future. An email in July 2019 by FLS environment manager, Chris Nixon, summarised the outcome of a discussion on work to “refresh the fox policy”.
The use of hounds on FLS land was considered to be “inappropriate in future on grounds of health and safety, animal welfare and uncontrollable impact on other wildlife,” he wrote.
In August 2019 another FLS official drafted a new policy arguing that flushing out foxes with hounds had “a very low impact” on numbers. “Foot packs of hounds can cause potential disruption to the safe public enjoyment of the forest estate,” it said.
Packs of hounds were “undesirable” because of “unintended consequences” for the protection of mammals, the draft policy continued. “The use of foot packs of hounds and any other use of hounds will not be a method of fox control on the national forestry and land estate.”
But FLS told The Ferret that this review of fox policy was then halted. “As a result, no new or updated fox control policy has been implemented within FLS and there are no current plans to do so,” FLS said.
Ewing under fire for backing fox control with hounds
The animal campaign group, OneKind, wants a complete ban on fox control with hounds. “It is disappointing and concerning that FLS dropped its plans to introduce a coherent policy on fox control, which would have prohibited the use of packs of hounds,” said the group’s campaigner, Eve Massie.
“This would have prevented the situations described in officials’ correspondence, where intervention by the Cabinet Secretary (Ewing) appears to have caused decisions not to allow foot packs on to the forest estate to be overturned.”
Massie pointed out that the Scottish Government was committed to strengthening the law limiting fox hunting. “While flushing by dogs will still be permitted, it proposes to restrict the number of dogs to two, except under licence,” she added.
“OneKind will be urging the government not to license any packs of dogs anywhere in Scotland. These beautiful forests are places for the people of Scotland to appreciate nature and our wonderful wildlife, without seeing wild animals being persecuted on the land, just for the sporting interests of a few.”
The Scottish Raptor Study Group, a network of experts on birds of prey, suspects that access for foot packs has provided a “cover” for the illegal persecution of birds of prey in forests.
“FLS had updated their fox control policy as it was felt that allowing rampaging packs of hounds was at odds with their obligations to protect rare wildlife such as pine marten, wildcat and goshawk,” said the group’s spokesperson, Logan Steele.
“For a Cabinet Secretary to seemingly abuse his ministerial powers to leverage undue pressure to overturn such a practical conservation measure knowing that this reckless act could result in a breach of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act is not the behaviour we expect from a senior member of the Scottish Government.”
Robbie Marsland, director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, said: “If Fergus Ewing has been influencing decisions which enable hunts to encourage packs of hounds to flush foxes, he would appear now to be a lonely figure in a Scottish Government that has promised to really ban fox hunting.”
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland said that the “mass disturbance” caused by foot packs in woodlands was “completely inappropriate in the spring”.
But the Scottish Countryside Alliance, which campaigns for rural sports, complimented the minister. “He should be commended for his understanding of the situation and the responsible attitude towards necessary predator control,” said the alliance’s director, Jamie Stewart.
“We will continue our work with the Scottish Government to ensure that farmers, conservationists and other land managers are afforded the ability to use dogs to flush predatory mammals to protect livestock, ground-nesting birds and game.”
Stewart argued that the use of foot packs was “a legitimate and demonstrably necessary wildlife management tool” and “a significant pest control measure”. It was “dishonest” to suggest it was about the sporting interest of a few, he said.
Foxes killed endangered birds and could be responsible for the “savage death” of up to 35,000 lambs every year, he stated. “Newborn and unable to protect themselves, where’s the welfare concern for these animals?”
Stewart accused animal groups of painting a “disingenuous” picture “designed to confuse” people. “The vast blocks of commercially grown coniferous trees are far from beautiful and do not offer the Scottish public recreational access,” he said.
“Conifer blocks are well known as prime fox habitat, harbouring higher numbers of foxes that exit the afforested areas to hunt on contiguous land such as pasture, and moorland.”
Forestry and Land Scotland pointed out that managing the environment was “extremely complex”. It tried to work with neighbours to find a “sustainable balance”, FLS told The Ferret.
“On occasion, that has been a challenge and local decision making has not always been consistent with our national policy and as an organisation we have had to revisit some of those decisions,” said an FLS spokesperson.
“Fox control is not an unlawful activity and what is happening here is not beyond the scope of what is allowed under current law. Pest control is an important tool in managing the countryside.”
Environment and wildlife management staff did discuss a review of fox control policy in 2019, FLS confirmed. “However that work was placed on hold when we became fully aware that the legislation was to be reviewed by Scottish Government,” the FLS spokesperson said.
“No ministers were aware that FLS intended to review its own policy at the time and as a result no ministers were involved in any of the discussions.”
The spokesperson added: “A very limited amount of fox control takes place on foot and uses hounds that, as per the guidance in the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, must be kept under control and used only to flush out foxes to waiting guns for humane despatch.
“Forestry and Land Scotland considers locally, and on a case by case basis, any requests from neighbours to undertake legal fox control via access to the national forests and land that we manage.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Management is a matter for Forestry and Land Scotland and no ministers were involved in the decision to adhere to existing policy allowing pest control measures on its land.”
Fox control associations did not respond to requests to comment.