Licences for a foot pack to kill foxes were issued by Forestry and Land Scotland despite strong objections from internal experts who feared 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.
Critics who want hunting with packs of dogs banned in Scotland are urging Scottish Government ministers to outlaw foot packs as well as mounted hunts.
The Ferret previously revealed that foxes were being chased by hounds and shot by foot packs in forests used by the public.
Our report prompted angry responses from wildlife groups who have condemned Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) once again for issuing more licences. FLS is responsible for managing and promoting Scotland’s national forest estate.
A freedom of information request was submitted to FLS by campaign group, Raptor Persecution. The reply revealed internal discussions at FLS in September and October after Three Straths Fox Control Association (Three Straths) applied for licences for fox control in the south Inverness area.
The documents, passed to The Ferret, showed that FLS experts strongly advised against the foot pack being allowed to hunt.
The licences were issued, however, prompting condemnation by critics. They included the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland which said it was “quite staggering” FLS granted permission in the face of “vehement concerns” by its own staff.
In reply, FLS said it appreciates that fox control is a “contentious issue” but under existing legislation the activity is legal in Scotland and “closely regulated”.
Three Straths told The Ferret it always adheres to the law to “ensure public safety and to avoid non-target species”, adding that it provides a “public service at no cost to the public purse”.
The licence application said Three Straths represented a “number of sporting estates” seeking to hunt foxes on the Moy, Farr, and Dalmagarry estates. Each hunt would typically involve 30 people including local gamekeepers, 20 to 30 guns, 15 hounds and a huntsman.
The hounds are used to flush the fox from cover to a line of waiting guns where the animal is shot.
The foot packs are overseen by a wildlife team at FLS, but some staff still opposed Three Straths’ application.
Internal documents revealed one person wrote: “As a minimum we should request a protocol for how the operators (the foot pack) will deal with encounters with protected species. This was asked for at the last permission request but I have not yet seen it. As discussed before, without this I feel the activity cannot be done without potentially disturbing legally protected species and could lead to an illegal activity.”
They added: “As this is a known activity any disturbance could be classed as reckless under the law and would constitute an offence. FLS as the landowners would also be liable for allowing the activity to take place. Given the risks, lack of mitigation information and lack of rationale for why the activity is needed, I would strongly advise it is not allowed.”
Another expert — a species ecologist — also objected and wrote: “As I [sic] have pointed out several times previously, fox ‘control’ at this time of year has no impact on fox density the following spring. This is a matter of scientific fact. If the intention is to reduce (assumed) fox impacts on the shootable ‘surplus’ of grouse in 2020, it is a pointless exercise.”
They added: “Furthermore, I am not aware of any evidence that these foxes actually eat game birds on adjacent estates. To sanction this controversial activity without any evidence of an actual problem is inadvisable. For the record, and for the reasons I have listed in previous communications, I reiterate my advice that we should not give permission for this activity.”
It was also noted that internal concerns had been raised in previous years regarding requests by Three Straths to hunt, which were “not adequately addressed”.
Staff also pointed out that foxes are “part of the forest ecosystem” and “we should not be unsustainably removing any native species”. They said: “As we have no idea of the current population (no surveys have been undertaken) then effectively this could extirpate foxes on our land. We know foxes play a valuable role in keeping populations of other predators in check and in reducing rabbit and hare populations, thereby reducing damage to restock sites.”
Concerns were also raised over public safety and “verbal assurances” given by Three Straths that hounds would only chase foxes. There was a “real risk” that a bolting fox could go down the entrance to a protected species den or sett to escape the dogs, it was noted, and people firing guns on a badger sett “would be a disturbance in itself”.
Dr Ruth Tingay, of Raptor Persecution, who submitted the freedom of information request, pointed out that Moy Estate is currently serving a three-year general licence restriction, imposed by NatureScot, for wildlife crimes against birds. Moy Estate reportedly said it was extremely disappointed by the decision and would be considering an appeal.
Tingay said: “The rationale behind the restriction is that NatureScot can no longer trust Moy Estate to comply with the terms of the general licences after evidence of raptor persecution was provided by Police Scotland.
“So why on earth has FLS entrusted Moy Estate to comply with the terms of a licensed fox hunt, in a public forest, with what looks like minimal oversight and scrutiny? Don’t these licensing agencies talk to one another?”
He added: “It is incredibly disappointing to see that once again, despite several serious objections raised internally by Forestry and Land Scotland staff, FLS has granted permission to allow foot packs to kill foxes in Scotland’s public forests this winter.
“We know from our previous freedom of information requests to FLS that many of the concerns raised by FLS staff, including the non-necessity of fox hunting foot packs, the importance of foxes to the ecosystem, and the threat to other wild animals, have in fact been raised before.”
His views were echoed by Robbie Marsland, director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, who said it was “quite staggering that despite vehement concerns” the licenses were issued.
He added: “The situation at FLS is yet another reason why it is imperative the new Hunting with Dogs Bill passes through parliament in the most robust form possible, ensuring hunting with dogs is really banned in Scotland once and for all.
“The existing legislation is so full of loopholes it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on and time and time again we’re seeing those who wish to hunt wild mammals with dogs for fun, simply ignoring the fact this activity is supposed to be illegal.”
A spokesperson for Forestry and Land Scotland said that in “all aspects” of its land management activities it has a duty to “follow the law and existing policies” when considering requests. “Only if there was a change in law and Scottish Government policy would we be in a position to review our procedures,” the spokesperson continued.
“Ordinarily FLS only controls foxes to meet specific conservation interests. However, we also appreciate that neighbouring land managers’ priorities might differ from our own and will assist where it is deemed appropriate. We continue to have our own staff monitor fox control activities.”
A spokesperson for Three Straths accused FLS experts of having a “personal bias” against predator control, adding that none of the objectors had come out with the foot pack to witness a hunt for themselves, despite being asked.
“We always have FLS staff out with us on days we are in the forest and in the 25 years I have been involved, not one of them has raised any complaint about our practices,” said the spokesperson. “On the point about controlling foxes at the time of year we do, making no difference. That is nonsense, areas where foxes are controlled all year round have a far smaller fox population and ground nesting birds breed far more successfully because of the control.
“We also used to hunt into the spring and summer on FLS land which did do a lot of good but we were stopped by the same ecologist who quotes that we are hunting at the wrong time of year now. His comment about no evidence to suggest foxes eat ground nesting birds just goes to show how far removed from reality some of these people can be.”
The spokesperson continued and said Three Straths controls foxes for the “good of all ground nesting birds”, not just game birds. “Many of these species are in dire straights [sic] at the moment and need all the help to survive they can get,” they added. “Upland sporting estates are their last stronghold and their last chance of survival.”
A spokesperson for Scottish Land & Estates said: “The predation of wild birds such as capercaillie, black grouse, curlew, golden plover, grey partridge, lapwing and oystercatcher continues to be a huge problem, with widespread declines in populations of these birds across Scotland since the 1960s.
“The control of foxes, alongside other predators such as crows and pine martens, is important in improving the breeding success of these birds. Predator control takes place when it is deemed necessary and in accordance with regulations.”
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.
Both Farr Estate and Dalmagarry Estate were asked to comment. We were unable to contact Moy Estate directly so made indirect approaches via Three Straths and Scottish Land and Estates, which represents rural businesses.
Cover image thanks to Zdeněk Macháček