Animal welfare groups have condemned Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) for continuing to allow fox hunts into public forests which are home to protected species such as otters, wildcats and badgers.
The criticism followed a freedom of information (FOI) request to FLS by The Ferret which revealed a fox hunting foot pack was granted access to public land, despite a new government bill which aims to protect foxes from being “chased and killed by packs of dogs”.
We revealed in 2020 that foxes were being chased by hounds and shot in public forests, prompting angry responses from wildlife groups.
The reply by FLS – which owns a third of Scotland’s forests on behalf of the public –revealed that Three Straths Fox Control Association was given permission to run its hounds through public land earlier this year, south of Inverness.
Critics have condemned FLS for continuing to allow this “cruel activity” to take place in Scotland’s public forests. In response FLS said its policy is in line with the law, while a group supportive of fox hunting said threatened species such as capercaillie and curlew “rely on effective fox control”.
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.
Videos previously released publicly by The League Against Cruel Sports revealed how foot packs operate.
They show people digging out foxes from underground to be set upon by hounds, while others encourage the dogs to chase and kill the fleeing animal.
Critics want hunting with packs of dogs completely banned in Scotland and are urging government ministers to outlaw foot packs as well as mounted hunts.
The Hunting With Dogs (Scotland) Bill – published in February and currently going through the Scottish Parliament – seeks to replace a widely criticised 2002 law which aimed to ban fox hunting in Scotland.
Internal FLS emails, obtained by The Ferret, reveal discussions this year between FLS and Three Straths Fox Control Association.
In January the association requested permission from FLS to run hounds through public land. But the agency said it needed to “provide a justification as to why you need to control fox’s using foot packs on the national forest estate”.
The association’s initial request was refused by FLS in an email on 25 January 2022, which said: “The attached justification report does not provide sufficient detailed evidence for a permission to be granted.
“In the permission request, please can you provide specific examples of ongoing issues with predation and locations. You previously informed me that all estates keep records of fox impact, time spent on fox culling and anticipated livestock/game losses.”
On 10 February 2022 FLS staff raised the issue of possible offences regarding European protected species (EPS). Its email warned it is an offence to “harass an animal or group of animals” and pointed out the area the fox pack wanted to use would include otters and wildcat.
FLS also cited the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, which means people cannot damage a badger sett or disturb one if it is occupied.
Three Strath replied on 10 February 2022 and said: “In the hypothetical event of something taking place that is not intended, whoever witnessed it would contact the huntsman by radio immediately and the hounds would be recalled.
“Extra protection of non-target species is not required because we have had no incidents of them coming under any threat. If that happened obviously changes would have to made but if it isn’t broken why would we be trying to fix it.”
FLS granted the association permission to hunt on 22 February.
Animal welfare charity, OneKind, said it was “disappointed” to see FLS has continued to grant permission to fox hunting foot packs to operate on public lands, despite the “strong support among the Scottish public for a real fox hunting ban”.
Kirsty Jenkins, OneKind’s policy officer added: “In its current form, the (Hunting with Dogs) Bill would ban the use of packs of dogs, including foot packs, for flushing foxes to guns as a form of ‘predator control’. OneKind is very supportive of this limitation.
“We will be working hard to ensure that the proposed fox hunting ban is just that – a complete ban that does not contain any loopholes to allow fox hunting to continue.”
Robbie Marsland, Scotland director at The League Against Cruel Sports, said: “Fox hunting is fox hunting whether it’s with a mounted hunt or a foot pack. The cruelty and suffering is exactly the same for the fox regardless of what you call it.
“Encouraging a pack of dogs to chase and kill a wild mammal for the evident joy and merriment of those who are spectating this gruesome and repugnant activity is why it’s so important that the new government Bill ends up really banning any kind of hunting with dogs – for good.”
A spokesperson for FLS said that its “fox management and control policy” is in line with current Scottish Government policy on wildlife management, adding that any permission granted is issued in accordance with the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, section 2.
“Land managers are currently, legally permitted to control fox numbers to limit predation on livestock, game birds and ground nesting birds and to prevent a detrimental impact on other species,” they added.
“As part of being good neighbours we must consider the interests of neighbouring land managers, and so we work with them to address their concerns where their interests are affected by foxes living on the national forests and land.
FLS said it was monitoring progress of the Bill, and any changes in the law will be “reflected in a revision” to its policy.
Jake Swindells, director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance said: “It is reassuring to know that Forestry and Land Scotland are permitting legal pest control, which is an incredibly vital tool in conservation work. Evidence has repeatedly shown that threatened species like capercaillie and curlew, rely on effective fox control.”
The Ferret was unable to contact Three Straths Fox Control Association directly.
The Ferret revealed in 2020 that foxes were chased by hounds and shot in public forests after interventions by the former rural economy minister, Fergus Ewing, who backed shooters. Wildlife groups criticised Ewing for “seemingly abusing his ministerial powers”
Photo Credit: iStock/Dabyg