ANIMAL rights campaigners have accused ministers of stitching together a back-room deal with Scotland's shooting lobby to allow the controversial practice of snaring to continue.
Environment Minister Mike Russell declared two months ago that snaring was "still necessary" despite demands for it to be banned.
Farmers and land managers use snares to trap foxes and other pests in order to protect lambs and game birds across Scotland.
But Advocates for Animals is now claiming shooting estates and farmers were handed "disproportionate influence" by Russell in the run-up to the decision.
E-mails between the Scottish Government and the shooting and farming lobby, obtained by the pressure group, show how they were informed two weeks before Russell's statement that he would reject calls for a ban.
By contrast, when he met Advocates for Animals ahead of the announcement he said he was "considering all the options".
Advocates for Animals says the e-mails show it was frozen out by the Government, with a deal already having been agreed. Russell last night insisted everyone was treated "equally".
Libby Anderson, policy director of Advocates for Animals, said: "The correspondence between the shooting estates and the officials appears to show a concerted effort to work together behind the scenes to devise a system of regulation the industry would accept in order to retain snaring in the face of overwhelming public opinion.
"We feel that the shooting industry has been allowed to have disproportionate influence."
The group says it has "particular concern" over one e-mail sent by an official from Russell's department to the National Farmers Union on February 5, two weeks before the announcement was made public.
In it, the official declares: "I can tell you in confidence that he (Russell] does not propose to ban snaring outright..."
"It appears that the minister and his department have listened only to the views of the minority shooting interest," said Anderson.
Russell said his measures would make a "fundamental" change to the practice of snaring, requiring farmers and land managers to put safety stops on the snares to prevent the noose from closing too far.
Among those who had lobbied him to resist a ban were the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (Scotland), NFU Scotland and the Scottish Countryside Alliance.
Last night, Russell said: "I met Advocates for Animals the Friday before the statement on snaring and told them that I was still considering the options, although was finding it difficult to accept a complete ban.
"I am sorry they don't like the decision that was taken but everyone was treated equally in the build up to February's policy announcement."
The row follows revelations in this newspaper last week that a lobbyist for ScottishPower who used to work for the SNP was allowed access to First Minister Alex Salmond ahead of a statement he made opposing the firms' takeover.