FOX-HUNTING is to be outlawed within a year following a crucial vote in the Scottish parliament yesterday.
MSPs voted with a decisive majority of 50 to endorse a bill banning hunting, hare-coursing and fox-baiting in Scotland.
Two amendments seeking to prevent a total ban on hunting, but offering the compromise of tightening existing legislation, were heavily defeated.
Lord Watson’s controversial bill to ban hunting, which had been bogged down in the rural development committee for nearly two years, is now likely to have an easy passage through the parliament and may become law as early as next spring.
This means that a ban on hunting in Scotland is now likely to be on the statute book long before any similar legislation for England has even come before the Commons.
Anti-hunt supporters were delighted with the parliament’s decision. Les Ward, the chairman of the Scottish Campaign Against Hunting with Dogs, felt the result would be welcomed throughout the country.
But there were signs that the pro-hunt lobby intends to fight the bill right to the wire.
The Countryside Alliance announced that, if the bill were enacted, it would challenge the law under the European Convention on Human Rights.
There was also confusion last night as to which committee will examine the bill in detail this autumn.
Some MSPs made it clear they did not believe the rural development committee should be put in charge of the bill because it had split the group. That decision will be taken in the next few days.
However, the parliament was dominated by the arguments for and against hunting as MSPs from all parties made passionate and principled appeals for support from their colleagues.
But by voting to endorse the principles of the bill, the parliament rejected the advice of its own committee which warned that it was so flawed and unworkable it could not recommend it to the parliament.
Lord Watson opened the debate on his Wild Mammals (Scotland) Bill in front of crowded public galleries.
He said he was willing to amend his bill later to iron out the problems and he added: "I have brought before this parliament a bill to reduce, if not to end, forms of cruelty that have continued for far too long and which should have no place in a modern, cultured Scotland."
Alex Fergusson, the Conservative convener of the rural development committee, dismissed Lord Watson’s bill as "the wrong bill, in the wrong place at the wrong time".
He said official studies had concluded the bill would cost 142 jobs, excluding gamekeepers. "One hundred and forty-odd jobs may not seem a lot if you live in the central belt, but in rural Scotland it is every bit as devastating as a Motorola or any other major industrial closure," he said.
The Labour MSP Elaine Murray tried to get the parliament to support her amendment which would scrap the bill but tighten existing laws to prevent cruelty to wild animals.
The Dumfries MSP said she had originally intended to support Lord Watson’s bill, but changed her mind after speaking to her constituents and other interested parties.
"The current situation is hard to accept on moral grounds, but the bill misses its target of reducing animal suffering."
However, Alex Neil, the Nationalist MSP for central Scotland, spoke in support of the bill and rejected the claim that it would lead to an economic disaster in the rural community. "I do not believe that implementation of this bill will destroy the rural economy in Scotland. To try and portray this as economic devastation is a gross exaggeration," he said.