Animal welfare groups have voiced concern that new legislation on fox hunting in Scotland still contains loopholes that could be exploited.
They commented after the law on hunting with dogs was tightened more than 20 years after legislation was first introduced to ban fox hunting.
The new Hunting with Dogs Bill is designed to make the law clearer and close loopholes which allow the killing of wild mammals with packs of dogs.
Animal welfare groups have welcomed the bill but are concerned over potential loopholes. The Scottish Countryside Alliance, which supports fox hunting with packs of hounds, argued that the bill is unnecessary and impracticable.
The Scottish Parliament voted to pass the new bill in the evening of 24 January 2023, with 90 MSPs for and 30 against. There were no abstentions.
It will repeal and replace the Protection of Wild Mammals Act 2002, and means hunters will no longer be able to use packs of hounds to flush out wild mammals – unless they have a licence.
The detail of the licence scheme has yet to be developed but animal welfare campaigners argued this could be exploited.
Their concerns follow a Ferret report in December revealing that licences for a foot pack to kill foxes were issued by Forestry and Land Scotland, despite objections from its internal experts who said there was potential for “illegal activity” and protected species such as badgers to be disturbed.
A foot pack – in contrast to traditional fox hunting with riders on horses – is where a huntsman, accompanied by colleagues acting as beaters, uses hounds to chase foxes out from cover to then be shot.
The League Against Cruel Sports Scotland welcomed the new legislation but expressed concern over the licence scheme. Its director, Robbie Marsland, said: “After twenty years of flawed legislation it is critical that this bill is not simply a way of creating new loopholes for hunters to exploit, and the League is yet to be convinced the licensing scheme won’t do this.
“Despite the best of intentions to ban hunting, the determination and deep rooted defiance among those who wish to chase and kill foxes should not be underestimated. The League will work closely with NatureScot and other stakeholders to ensure the licensing system is robust, effective and fit for purpose.”
His views were echoed by the Scottish Greens’ rural affairs spokesperson Ariane Burgess, who argued the bill did not go far enough and still retained potential “loopholes for the privileged few.”
She added: “In the debate I moved amendments to close the loopholes, which I fear will allow hunting with dogs to continue for the privileged few. We will continue to push for reform and to ensure that the Scottish Government acts on any evidence that the licensing system is being used to facilitate abuses.
“We are determined to end licensed hunting with dogs as soon as practically possible – and to finally deliver the watertight ban on fox hunting that is so badly needed.”
OneKind Director, Bob Elliot, welcomed the new law. “This is a monumental day for Scotland,” he said.
“For twenty years the Scottish public have made it very clear that they want a real ban on the cruel ‘sport’ of foxhunting and now, after decades of tireless campaigning from ourselves and like-minded organisations and individuals, we finally have that ban. “
But he also expressed doubts. On the licensing scheme, Elliot added: “We do not support the licensing scheme. There should not be any exceptions in the legislation to allow people to hunt a wild mammal using a dog. So long as it exists, at the very least, the licensing scheme should be based upon the 7 principles for ethical wildlife control.”
However, the move to license the use of packs of dogs for fox control was branded “unjustified and unnecessary” by the Scottish Countryside Alliance. Its director Jake Swindells said: “This process has taken over seven years and is both unjustified and unnecessary. The Scottish Government’s own review found that restrictions on the use of packs of dogs could compromise fox control and put both farmer’s livelihoods and threatened wildlife at risk.”
He added: “Whilst it is frustrating that so much time and resource has been wasted on this bill, the licensing scheme is, at least, an explicit acceptance by the Scottish Government that the use of packs of dogs in wildlife management is effective and necessary.
“It will now be down to NatureScot, the licensing body, to ensure that farmers and wildlife managers are able to access the best options for fox control in all circumstances.”
The change to the law follows numerous reports on fox hunting by Ferret journalists over the past decade. They included videos obtained covertly of foxes being chased by hounds, with one fox ripped apart by dogs.
The original legislation allowed dogs to flush foxes out from cover as long as they were then shot, and providing the hunt was to protect livestock or ground-nesting birds, or to prevent the spread of disease.
Many animal rights organisations felt it was being exploited, however, and in recent years The Ferret investigated multiple allegations of illegal hunting, among other related issues. Hunts have always insisted they acted within the law.
A review conducted by Lord Bonomy in 2015 recommended changes to the Protection of Wild Mammals Act 2002.
Environment Minister Màiri McAllan, MSP for Clydesdale, piloted the new bill through the Scottish Parliament, arguing that it modernises the law and ends illegal fox hunting.
Under the new bill, it remains an offence to chase and or kill a wild mammal using a dog, but the wording of the 2002 act is updated to make the law easier to understand and enforce.
The key change is that no more than two dogs can be used to stalk or flush out animals from cover unless a licence has been granted.
The rules also prohibit trail hunting, where dogs follow an animal-based scent.
The bill is expected to receive royal assent in the next few weeks and come into force in the autumn.
Cover photo by Erik Mclean/Pexels