Tom Peterkin: Hunting horn sounds blast from past as MSPs look at ban

Long-standing divisions over country sports will be opened up as the foxhunting ban is reviewed writes Tom Peterkin

The Lauderdale Hunt, seen here at New year, backs the status quo, which the pro-hunt lobby describes as a humane method of pest control.

Veterans of the Scottish political scene may recall one of the more bizarre contributions to Holyrood debate made nearly 15 years ago by the former Labour MSP Cathy Peattie.

In the old days when the Scottish Parliament met at the top of the Royal Mile, Peattie stood up in the chamber on the Mound during a highly charged session. To the bemusement of many and the amusement of some she then produced a rather cute cuddly toy.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

“If I was to take my lovely wee soft toy fox and pull it to bits, everyone here would be appalled,” Peattie exclaimed. “So why do people justify doing that to a live animal?”

Mercifully the toy fox emerged from parliament unscathed – which is more than can be said for the centuries old rural tradition of foxhunting which was “banned” by MSPs in the vote shortly afterwards.

Peattie’s emotional and simplistic cri de ceour did little to illuminate members grappling with a complex and somewhat muddled piece of legislation. But it did illustrate the passions that were aroused by the Scottish Parliament’s decision to outlaw foxhunting.

The battle between countryside campaigners and an urbanised political class dominated by MSPs from the Central Belt was one of the most intense of Scotland’s first devolved parliament.

The controversies that it stirred up came to mind when looking through the recently published responses submitted to a Scottish Government review of the ban.

That’s right, the Scottish Government is having another look at the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, which had its genesis in a member’s bill proposed by Lord Watson of Invergowrie when he was a Labour MSP.

Amid the noise of Brexit it is easy to forget that a former High Court judge, Lord Bonomy, has been put in charge of the thorny business of looking again at the legislation to see if – as has been suggested by animal welfare groups - it needs tightened. Lord Bonomy is expected to publish his recommendations shortly. For some time now, animal rights groups have voiced concerns that the current legislation is being flouted, with dogs being routinely used to hunt foxes.

Under the Scottish legislation, dogs can only be used if they are “flushing” foxes from cover to waiting guns.

It was these concerns that led to the Scottish Government promising to reconsider the legislation – a move that has been met with dismay by hunts and countryside organisations who are adamant that those engaged in the pursuit are acting within the law.

A quick glance at the Bonomy Review submissions show that the fault lines that were so evident at the turn of the century are reopening on this issue.

So, for example, we can see the Buccleuch, Lauderdale and Berwickshire Hunts aligning to argue for the status quo which, they say, provides for a humane method of pest control.

Claims that hunts are flouting the law are categorically denied. Tim Culham, chairman of the Berwickshire Hunt said: “Police Scotland seem content there are no issues for them...In other words, the act is being enforced and complied with.”

On the other side of the argument, there are the animal welfare organisations like the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS).

The LACS submission argues that the Scottish legislation, which allows a pack of hounds to flush to guns, is being exploited to allow hunts to chase and kill foxes in much the same way as they did before the ban.

Only time will tell what recommendations Lord Bonomy will come up with, but the anti-hunting lobby has taken encouragement from the submission offered by Police Scotland.

The police force believes the current law has become “somewhat unworkable” adding that it lacks individual accountability and suffers from a lack of clarity.

As Lord Bonomy mulls over these competing claims, it is also worth noting that there has been a further political dimension that was not entirely connected to animal welfare. Foxhunting has become caught up in the row over David Cameron’s English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) proposal, which aimed to prevent Scottish MPs from voting on English-only issues.

The then prime minister was keen to relax the English and Welsh anti-hunting legislation to bring it into line with the law in Scotland. As the law stands south of the Border, English and Welsh hunts can only use two dogs to flush out foxes.

An amendment put before the Commons recommends the adoption of the Scottish position whereby there is no limit on the size of pack.

When it became clear that the SNP intended to break with their previous position of not voting on English and Welsh only issues, and use their votes to prevent the amendment, Cameron’s proposal was shelved. The SNP’s stance irritated Cameron’s supporters, who claimed the SNP was indulging in a cynical ploy to give the then Prime Minister a bloody nose. Nicola Sturgeon used the notion that the Scottish ban was flawed in her defence, but was also unapologetic about intervening in English matters, claiming the UK government was showing scant respect to Scotland on EVEL and other issues. As Scotland prepares to grapple with this complicated and emotive issue again, one suspects it will take more than outbursts about toy animals to get to grips with foxhunting.