The number of crimes involving hunting with dogs has more than doubled in Scotland in the last year, prompting calls for the introduction of a tougher ban on fox hunting.
There were 44 such offences during 2015-16, an annual increase of 24 and the highest number recorded in five years, the figures from the Scottish Government show.
Although overall wildlife crime has fallen, animal charities said the increase in dog hunting crimes was “very worrying” and suggested that the actual figure could be much higher.
Hare coursing accounted for 38 of the offences, with only a few involving fox hunting and deer hunting. Almost half of the incidents were recorded in the North East of Scotland.
However, the League Against Cruel Sports said it believed the fox hunting figures would be much higher were it not for “sub-standard legislation” preventing successful prosecutions.
The killing of foxes with hounds was outlawed in 2002, but dogs can still be used to “flush out” foxes and chase them towards the hunts, where the animals are shot.
Last year a review of the ban carried out by Lord Bonomy estimated that around one in five fox hunts in Scotland resulted in the animal being killed by hounds rather than shot.
His report said the figure – which was based on “anecdotal evidence” – would be equivalent to 160 foxes being killed in this way every year, proposing a system of independent monitoring of hunts.
“Incidents involving hunting with dogs are at a record high which is clearly cause for concern,” said Robbie Marsland, director of the League Against Cruel Sports in Scotland.
“Last year saw the first conviction for illegal fox hunting since the legislation came into force 15 years ago which used League evidence to convict two hunters.
“We are working with the Government and the Parliament to strengthen the legislation, which is long overdue, to ensure fox hunting is really banned in Scotland.”
Growing dissatisfaction with the legislation prompted Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone to bring forward a member’s bill at Holyrood with the aim of imposing a total ban on fox hunting.
“These figures add weight to the case for a proper ban on fox hunting,” she said yesterday. “The public are understandably horrified that animal cruelty is continuing despite the intentions of the 2002 legislation to ban hunting with dogs.”
She added that the Scottish Government – which is currently consulting on Lord Bonomy’s recommendations – should go further and “offer the option of a proper ban”.
Overall, the annual Wildlife Crime report shows reported crimes have dropped from 284 in 2014-15 to 261 in 2015-16. Fish poaching remains the most common offence, with 75 recorded.
Bird persecution was the second most common problem with 46 crimes recorded, down three from the previous year.
Susan Davies, director of conservation at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said the real crime figures were likely to be significantly higher “due to the difficulty of detecting incidents that often occur in remote, rural areas of Scotland”.
The countryside Alliance has been contacted for comment.