Tail docking row: could it cost Nicola Sturgeon votes?

The Scottish Gamekeepers Association, pictured protesting outside of the Scottish Parliament in 2014, has long called for the SNP administration to reverse a ban on the docking of working dogs' tails. 
Picture: Neil Hanna
The Scottish Gamekeepers Association, pictured protesting outside of the Scottish Parliament in 2014, has long called for the SNP administration to reverse a ban on the docking of working dogs' tails. Picture: Neil Hanna
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The SNP and the Tories don’t often see eye to eye, or so they would have you believe, but when the former party is in minority government they can be seen to rely on the latter.

When Alex Salmond was First Minister between 2007 and 2011, he often needed to win round the Conservatives to pass important bills like his budgets.

Yesterday’s vote on ‘tail docking’ (shortening the tails of working dogs) might not have carried the weight of the bill that decides how money is spent, but it is still proving controversial.

The outright ban on the docking of dogs’ tails had been in place for a number of years, but 86 MSPs voted in favour of relaxing it.

The reaction from interested parties was immediate, with animal welfare groups expressing their sadness at the change.

Near-unanimity is almost guaranteed at Holyrood votes, but yesterday’s Decision Time showed some splits even within parties.

SNP MSP Christine Grahame spoke out against the move, and in an uncharacteristic show of disunity, nine members of the party abstained.

For and against

Spaniels and hunt point retrievers will now have their tails shortened as puppies, to avoid pain and possible amputation in later life, according to advocates for the controversial move.

Announcing the move last year, Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham said: “We have seen evidence that some working dogs are suffering tail injuries, so I have decided to allow vets to shorten the tails of spaniel and hunt point retriever puppies where they believe it will prevent future injuries amongst working dogs.”

READ MORE: Plans in place for tail-docking

The move was pushed for, and ultimately praised by, Scotland’s game-keeping leaders, with claims it would improve animal welfare.

However, the practice involves dogs that are less than a week old having a section of their tail removed without anaesthetic.

While the new practice will apparently be applied to less than 100 dogs in Scotland per year, the move has still proved controversial.

Charity One Kind called the decision by Holyrood tantamount to taking animal protection “a step back in time”.

The Dogs Trust said: “We are deeply saddened that the Scottish Government is reintroducing this outdated and unnecessary practice. Sadly today we’ve seen a significant step backwards for animal welfare from a country who once led the way.”

Potential impact

Perhaps most alarming for Nicola Sturgeon, especially if she intends to push forward with her plans for another referendum, is the reaction from some of her bedfellows in the independence movement.

The Scottish Greens, whose decision to stand in just three seats at the General Election may have saved the skins of some SNP MPs, hit out in the strongest possible terms at the move.

READ MORE: Environment Secretary defends move

Their Environment spokesperson Mark Ruskell said: “Callous SNP and Tory MSPs have endorsed this cruel and unnecessary practice.

“I’m sure many SNP supporters will be appalled by the actions of their MSPs.”

Popular pro-independence parody account “Angry Salmond”, which gained its author a newspaper column, expressed shock at the move.

Fellow pro-independence outlet Common Space posited whether the change in the rules was “Barking Mad”.

Writer and rapper Darren “Loki” McGarvey tweeted: “I’m hearing SNP are now briefing against a 6 month old golden retriever who has claimed it really did hurt when his tail was chopped off.”

Paul Kavanagh, who also has a column in The National called the decision of the SNP to vote with the Tories on tail docking “f******g stupid”.

While the move is unlikely to cause mass protests or demands for Ms Sturgeon’s resignation, there is no denying the potential for the change to hurt her.

“Soft” Green or potential Socialist voters are hugely important for the SNP to keep onside, even as they try to win back support in their traditional rural heartlands.

An under pressure First Minister is still learning, in the wake of her relatively poor election result, just how hard it is to truly govern for all parts of the country.