New independent inspectors could be introduced as part of a drive to bolster fox hunting laws in Scotland, a report by a leading judge has found.
Lord Bonomy has also called for the “unduly complicated” legislation to be changed in order to encourage more prosecutions.
He was tasked by Scottish ministers with ensuring the law protects foxes and other wild mammals while allowing for their control where needed.
Fox hunting with dogs was banned in Scotland in 2002, with the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act stating that a person who deliberately hunts a wild mammal with a dog is committing an offence.
An exception is made when dogs may be used to stalk or flush out a fox to be shot for purposes including the control of pest species, protecting livestock or ground nesting birds.
Mounted hunts in Scotland have since offered farmers, landowners and estate managers a pest or fox control service, but campaigners have claimed “loopholes” in the legislation mean it is not “worth the paper it is printed on”.
In his report, Lord Bonomy said: “The review has led to two broad conclusions: in the first place, that there are aspects and features of the legislation which complicate unduly the detection, investigation and prosecution of alleged offences.
“Secondly, that there is a basis for suspecting that there may be occasions when hunting, which does not fall within one of the exceptions, does take place and that the grounds for that suspicion should be addressed.”
He said consideration should be given to the appointment of part-time, independent hunt monitors to observe hunts using packs of hounds, underpinned by a code of practice.
Robbie Marsland, director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, said the report shows that current laws are not working and called for action from ministers.
“The law isn’t fit for purpose and, in keeping with the commitments made by the First Minister to strengthen the law if it were necessary, we look to the government to strengthen the law before the end of the current fox-hunting season in March 2017,” he said.
Alex Hogg, chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, said: “We feel that Lord Bonomy’s report is a balanced attempt to provide greater accountability and clarity around the law and we have no problems with increasing transparency.”
There have so far been no successful prosecutions in relation to mounted fox hunting and a Police Scotland submission to the review described the law as “somewhat unworkable”, highlighting a lack of clarity over key terminology.
Scottish Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said ministers will issue a formal response to the report in the new year.
“The Scottish Government recognised concerns about whether the legislation on fox hunting is working properly - that is why we asked Lord Bonomy to carry out this detailed work,” she added.