Robbie Marsland: Licence won't stop fox hunting in its tracks

Fox hunting is horribly simple '“ a pack of hounds is encouraged to chase and cruelly kill a wild mammal. Fox hunting legislation, on the other hand, is horrendously complicated and never fails to surprise.

The Buccleuch hunt in St Boswells. Picture: David Cheskin/PA

The so called “fox hunting ban” was introduced in Scotland in 2002. But, despite this, ten mounted fox hunts still ride out in Scotland three times a week between September and March. They say they are using exemptions in the law that allow them to use their packs of hounds to flush foxes from cover to waiting guns. The problem the League exposed is that there are rarely any guns and these exemptions are in fact loopholes that allow for traditional fox hunting to continue unimpeded.

Over the past four years the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland has convinced the media, the public, the judiciary and the government that the present legislation just doesn’t work and that foxes continue to be chased and killed across the Scottish countryside.

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In the courts there was just one successful prosecution of the Jed Forest hunt and another case against the Duke of Buccleuch’s Foxhounds was dismissed because of the “well-known difficulties around this legislation”.

After a protracted and rigorous process, Lord Bonomy, the chair of a government-commissioned review, agreed with the League that the law needs strengthening. So, when the government said it was going to announce what it was going to do about it, we hoped they would get it right.

And they almost did. Last week, the Minister for Rural Affairs and Natural Environment, Mairi Gougeon MSP, finally made the long-awaited announcement on fox hunting in Parliament. That in itself was a momentous step. For the past 12 months there was such an ominous silence from the Scottish Government on this issue that Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone had to announce that she would bring a Members Bill to really ban fox hunting.

Implementing Lord Bonomy’s recommendations to clarify the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act and going beyond his recommendations by reducing the number of hounds from a full pack to two would have strengthened the law and effectively banned fox hunting. Bringing in new measures to stop trail hunting, a practice which purports to mimic traditional hunting by following an animal-based scent – usually fox urine – would also have stopped the invidious English practice establishing a foothold in Scotland.

If the Scottish Government had stopped there, all would have been good. But it didn’t.

The minister’s statement went on to mention the prospect of introducing a licensing system for hunts allowing them to opt out of the two-dog rule where there were grounds for legitimate pest control – effectively replacing the current loopholes with a new one. And as we all know – you can’t license cruelty.

In follow-up answers about her statement the minister made it clear that licences would only be issued in upland areas and in exceptional circumstances. That’s as may be, but we know that while there are licensing schemes, mounted hunts will smell the chance to be out there with their full packs of hounds.

Fox hunters live and breathe to see their packs of hounds out there chasing foxes. Reducing the number of dogs to two would take away their thrill and drive them to find another way to go out with their beloved packs of hounds. That’s why it’s so crucial to stop trail hunting in its tracks, which is what the government says it will do.

So, the government’s plans to reduce the number of dogs to two and see off the spectre of trail hunting are the right things to do. But why allow the hunts the hope of a licence to take out a full pack of dogs? I suspect the answer has nothing to do with animal welfare and a lot to do with internal SNP politics.

Fox hunting is simple, stopping it never is. However, we are two steps closer to really banning fox hunting in Scotland. The third and final step will be for the government to come to terms with the fact that you can’t license cruelty.

Robbie Marsland is Director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland