NEARLY half of Scotland’s registered hunting packs may be breaking the law banning fox hunting, according to animal rights campaigners.
Horseback hunting of foxes with dogs was outlawed north of the border 13 years ago, but hunters are able to exploit a loophole in the law that permits hounds to drive a fox from cover so it can be shot by waiting marksmen.
Now, however, video footage filmed by the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) during the last hunt season seems to show hunters out with full packs of hounds but no guns in sight.
The clips suggest hunts are routinely using dogs to pursue foxes and not “flushing to guns”, which is permitted under the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002.
There are 11 registered hunting packs in Scotland. The campaigners fear many of them could be operating “business as usual” as though the ban never happened.
LACS investigators say they could see no shotguns during surveillance of five Scottish hunts on 16 separate outings between December 2014 and March this year.
Robbie Marsland, director of League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, said: “Our footage suggests at least half the hunts in Scotland are flouting the law with impunity and are operating as if the ban doesn’t apply to them.
“While the hunts we observed claimed to be ‘flushing to guns’ our investigators did not see a single shotgun either used or even brandished.”
The act, which carries penalties of heavy fines or a six-month prison sentence, states that a person who deliberately hunts a wild mammal with a dog is committing an offence.
The exemption allows dogs “under control” to be used “to stalk a wild mammal, or flush it from cover (including an enclosed space within rocks, or other secure cover) above ground … but only if that person acts to ensure that, once the target wild mammal is found or emerges from cover, it is shot, or killed by a bird of prey, once it is safe to do so”.
The campaigners, who are taking the footage to MSPs at Holyrood, are calling for changes to the legislation that will ensure an end to the bloodsport.
They want the number of hounds permitted in hunts restricted to two, as is the case south of the border, and the addition of a clause outlawing reckless behaviour that can result in foxes being killed by dogs “unintentionally”.
“Scotland led the way on legislating to ban hunting with dogs in the British Isles,” Mr Marsland said.
“We are calling on the Scottish Government to lead the way once more and make two simple amendments to the law.
“These changes would make it extremely difficult for Scottish hunts to use cynical subterfuge to mask packs of hounds being encouraged to chase foxes and eventually kill them.
“We are hoping politicians will see the evidence and make their own opinions about what is going on out there, then make these fairly simple amendments.”
Mounted hunts and hill packs deliver a much-needed service to livestock farmers across the nation, according to Jamie Stewart, director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance.
The 2002 law is “unjustified and unnecessary”, he said.
“There have been no convictions relating to fox control with hounds, which suggests compliance with the legislation and that Police Scotland and other agencies have effectively monitored the practices over the 13 or so years since implementation.”
He hit out at the campaigners, accusing them of having “a political agenda which rejects the case for managing foxes entirely and has no interest in the economic and environmental well-being of rural Scotland”.
He added: “Serious animal welfare organisations recognise that the act has achieved some level of balance.”
Scottish Labour’s shadow secretary for rural affairs Sarah Boyack, who is backing the LACS campaign, said scenes in the video are “deeply concerning” and should be fully investigated by the Scottish Government.
“Ministers should also consider the merits of the proposals to change the law put forward by the charity,” she said.
“Fox hunting is a cruel pursuit and we need to know that Scottish ministers are serious about properly enforcing the law passed by the Scottish Parliament to ban it.
“At the same time as enforcing the ban in Scotland, the SNP should underline its opposition to the practice across the UK by stating clearly its objection to any repeal of the law in England and Wales.”
The footage is being aired just days after it emerged that new SNP MPs are being lobbied by voters in the rest of the UK to vote against the repeal of the hunting ban south of the border, which was promised in the Tory election manifesto.