Foxes are still being chased by hounds and shot in public forests, despite outrage about the practice when it was revealed last spring, The Ferret has learned.
Fox hunting in Scotland was banned in 2002, but exceptions remain in place that allow the use of hounds to “flush” foxes into the open, where they can be shot dead by a “foot pack” of huntsmen accompanied by beaters.
In April 2020 internal documents released by Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) and published by The Ferret revealed that officials reversed two decisions barring fox control with hounds on FLS land near Inverness after “considerable” pressure from ministers.
Now, despite criticism of the use of foot packs, fresh freedom of information requests submitted by the Scottish animal campaigns charity, OneKind, have revealed that this method of fox hunting has continued to be given permission in several publicly owned FLS woodlands.
Detailed documents and emails showed huntsmen were permitted to “flush foxes to guns” between 26 October 2020 and 31 March 2021 in Loch Farr Wood, Farr Wood and Meall Mor near Inverness.
However FLS says only two foot packs operate in its forests, with “legal fox control” only taking place to “meet conservation interests, for research purposes and to assist neighbouring land managers”.
The released documents also reveal that FLS has been unable to stop ongoing, and in one case suspected gamekeeper-led, wildlife crime in its forests.
OneKind says the newly released documents highlight loopholes in Scotland’s “weak” fox hunting legislation and offer further evidence of the urgent need for reform.
In 2020 the Scottish Government announced plans to bring forward a bill to strengthen the existing law on fox hunting. This included measures to reduce the number of hounds used to just two but to allow full packs of dogs in “exceptional circumstances”, which is expected to include rough terrain, under license.
Animal welfare charities have warned that those loopholes will allow fox hunting to continue by a back door. They claim that not only is the practice cruel, but that it also disturbs wildlife including protected species.
Eve Massie, campaigner for OneKind, said: “We are very disappointed that despite public outrage at the use of fox hunting foot packs on Scotland’s public forest estate, FLS continued to allow these packs to kill foxes and to disturb wildlife in the forest.
“The majority of the Scottish public are opposed to fox hunting, and so, as the public body responsible for promoting Scotland’s land, FLS should amend its fox control policy to reflect public opinion, as it had previously planned to do.”
She added: “Our findings reveal just how weak Scotland’s fox hunting legislation is and demonstrate why it cannot be said that Scotland has a real fox hunting ban. So long as exemptions for ‘pest control’ exist, people will be able to hunt foxes under this guise.”
Emails suggested that FLS was unsure of its own position on foot pack fox hunting, argued Massie. One internal email appears to have been drafted in response to a query from a conservationist, with comments then requested from colleagues.
The draft states: “Fox hounds are not interested in any other species than fox as this would be counterproductive to the objectives of the event.” This is immediately followed by an internal note from a colleague who adds the comment: “Good statement, but can we actually factually verify this?”
Previously The Ferret reported that FLS had come under pressure from Scottish Government ministers to allow foot pack fox hunting to go ahead. We revealed that between 2017-2019, Fergus Ewing MSP was asked to intervene in three cases where foot packs were denied permission to enter FLS public land to flush foxes to the guns. In two of these cases FLS’s decision was overturned.
The latest freedom of information request from OneKind, which asks for more detail and more up-to-date information, also reveals concerns about FLS’s inability to control wildlife crime taking place in Moy forest.
Fears about links between fox hunting and illegal practices are raised in internal FLS emails.
One dated 30 June 2020, with the title ‘Moy’, refers to an image from trail cams in the area that show “unexplained activities”. The Moy area of Scotland, which is largely made-up of grouse moor but includes FLS woodland, is “synonymous with raptor persecution”, according to some campaigners.
Last October a red kite was found dead in the area, with Police Scotland confirming it had been poisoned with a banned pesticide.
The FLS email from nine months prior to this incident refers to an image of “four people equipped with a spade entering the middle part of the forest during lockdown”.
The FLS official continues: “Although I have no proof it seems highly likely that these are from the gamekeeping community and are probably looking for fox dens. They will block the dens during the day and return to check for any excavation in the evening. That way they know which dens are active and can deal with the animals later.”
Activity blocking dens could be illegal, they added, as these could be occupied by badgers, which are a protected species. The dens are beside raptor nests, the disturbance of which is also an offence, the email noted.
The email also questions what “legitimate reason” estate staff have for being in the forest adding: “As you know this area has a proven history of wildlife crime with evidence of shooting of raptor nests, tree climbing, disturbance and illegal snaring.
“While we can’t control what happens on adjacent land we surely should be able to control what happens on FLS land and having some indication of who and why access through our land was taking place would be a great help.”
OneKind’s Eve Massie added: “It is also clear that wildlife crime is an ongoing issue in Scotland and that FLS have been unable to tackle it.
“The Scottish Government has committed to reforming Scotland’s fox hunting legislation in this parliamentary session to make it more effective and enforceable.
“While flushing by dogs will still be permitted, it proposes to restrict the number of dogs to two, except under licence. We will be urging the government not to license any packs of dogs and to end fox hunting for good. Wild animals need protection from suffering too.”
Scottish Greens environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP, said: “The cases raised by OneKind prove yet again that the 2002 foxhunting ‘ban’ has failed. The practice of ‘flushing’ foxes with packs of dogs to waiting guns is in many cases just hunting with dogs under another name.”
Fox hunting is one area on which the Scottish Greens and SNP have agreed disagreement on as part of their power sharing deal, approved in August 2021.
Robbie Marsland, director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, insisted that “all forms of fox hunting” should be banned for good.
He added: “New laws promised by the SNP (but not the Greens) will still allow this type of fox hunting. On foot, on horse in the Borders or in forests, fox hunting is fox hunting and the League, along with over 80 per cent of the Scottish public, find it repugnant.”
Logan Steele, of the Scottish Raptor Study Group said: “Many people would find it shocking that public funds are being used to facilitate or support fox control to the benefit of privately owned, game-shooting enterprises and in particular driven grouse shooting. We have long suspected that foot packs simply provide cover for the illegal persecution of birds of prey and in particular the goshawk.
“Allowing foot packs to run through the national forest estate and pose such a risk to wildlife is clearly at odds with growing public opinion who are increasingly aware of wildlife crime.”
Abiding by current laws
The Scottish Gamekeepers Association turned down the offer to comment on the basis that the released emails offered “no proof” of gamekeeper involvement.
The Scottish Countryside Alliance did not respond to requests for comment. But director Jamie Stewart has previously insisted all fox control in Scotland is abiding by the law.
Forestry and Land Scotland insisted that fox control on its land was both legal and closely regulated. “What is happening here is not beyond the scope of what is allowed under current law,” said a spokesperson.
“FLS will only control foxes to meet conservation interests, for research purposes and where deemed appropriate to assist neighbouring land managers. Currently only two foot packs operate on Scotland’s national forests and land and all fox control activity is closely monitored by FLS staff.
“As responsible land managers we will refer any reports of inappropriate behaviours or actions, and any evidence of wildlife crime, to Police Scotland – and we would encourage others to do the same.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are reforming the law to protect foxes and other wild mammals. During this parliament we will bring forward legislation to implement the majority of the recommendations of the independent report on the Protection of Wild Mammals Act, as well as other measures, such as limiting the number of dogs that can be used to flush wild mammals from cover.”
This article was co-published with the Sunday National.
Photo Credit: iStock/Jamie_Hall