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The polarising fox hunting debate

The polarising fox hunting debate

A fox - Image credit: Pixabay

Few subjects are as polarising as fox hunting.

Just over a year ago, Lord Bonomy embarked on a review of the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, with a remit to see whether the legislation was providing a sufficient level of protection for Scotland’s wild creatures, while at the same time allowing for effective and humane control.

Almost 300 submissions were received and Bonomy published his findings on 21 November.

The report said Scotland’s “unduly complicated” fox hunting laws should be changed to make prosecutions easier.

The 2002 Act banned hunting foxes with hounds, however, there have not been any successful prosecutions since –  with police claiming the legislation is “unworkable”.

The review also suggested introducing independent monitors to randomly check on the activities of hunts.

At the moment, dogs can still be used to flush out foxes and chase them towards the hunts, where the foxes are then shot.

The report followed just days after calls by two animal rights charities, OneKind and the League Against Cruel Sports, for the fox-hunting ban to be strengthened.

They claimed evidence was found that a fox had been killed by dogs at a Lanarkshire hunt last month.

A post-mortem on the animal by SAC Consulting: Veterinary Services (SACCVS) found “severe trauma consistent with that caused by a dog or dogs”.

And last month Police Scotland called the current hunting legislation “unworkable” because of the number of exceptions and loopholes.

Welcoming the review’s findings, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said: “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.

Back in 2002, Scotland led the way in addressing animal welfare concerns and we remain committed to ensuring the highest levels of welfare for our wild animals.

“We will now carefully consider the findings, with a view to responding in 2017. Any ensuing proposals for legislative change will be subject to the proper consultation processes.”

Robbie Marsland, the director of the League Against Cruel Sports, Scotland, said Bonomy’s “robust and detailed examination clearly shows…that he agrees with us and Police Scotland that improvements are essential if it is to stand any chance of fulfilling its purpose of protecting wild animals”.

He added: “The ball is now firmly in the Scottish Government’s court. Public opinion in Scotland wants to see fox hunting banned, the Government thought they had banned it and now Lord Bonomy and Police Scotland reveal that the hunts are running a coach and horses through the legislation.

“In short, 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.”

Meanwhile, the Countryside Alliance also welcomed publication of the review.

Scottish Countryside Alliance director Jamie Stewart said: “We are pleased that the inquiry has recognised the importance of gun packs for fox control and has rejected unjustified calls for further restrictions. 

“In particular, we are pleased that Lord Bonomy makes so clear the important role that gun packs play in managing the fox population and that any restriction on their activity could ‘seriously compromise effective pest control in the country’.

“Whilst we do not agree that there is a significant problem with the enforcement of the current legislation, and note that as recently as January 2016, Police Scotland confirmed to MSPs that there ‘is no evidence to suggest that the mounted foxhound packs that exist are acting outwith the legislation that is in place at the moment’, gun packs have always been very happy to work closely with the authorities. 

“We therefore look forward to working with statutory bodies in the development of a separate code of practice for control activities as recommend by the inquiry.

“Given the recognition in the report of the importance of the use of gun packs in fox control, it is vitally important that any changes to the legislation should not undermine their operation.

“Any such changes to the law should facilitate a return to the settled and agreed position that had been in place since the Act was passed in 2002.”

While the debate on fox hunting remains heated, the issue has also become a loaded political topic.

In July last year, the UK Government was forced to withdraw its attempts to relax the fox hunting ban in England and Wales after the SNP vowed to vote against the change.

The party said it would break with tradition and vote on an issue which doesn’t affect Scotland “to remind the Government how slender their majority is”.

This came months after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon used fox hunting as an example of where the party would not vote.

However, speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, she said she had changed her mind, given public opinion across the UK against the relaxation of the ban and the opportunity to put pressure on the Government’s 12-seat majority.

“Since the election, David Cameron’s government has shown very little respect to the mandate that Scottish MPs have.

“On the Scotland Bill, reasonable amendments backed by the overwhelming majority of Scottish MPs have been voted down,” she said.

“So, I think if there’s an opportunity – as there appears to be here – and on an issue where David Cameron appears to be out of touch with majority English opinion as well, to actually remind the Government how slender their majority is.”

The UK Government proposals would have seen fox hunting in England and Wales given parity in Scotland, where an unlimited number of dogs can be used to flush out a fox so that a farmer or landowner can shoot it.

Explaining the decision to vote against, MP Angus Robertson said: “We totally oppose fox hunting, and when there are moves in the Scottish Parliament to review whether the existing Scottish ban is strong enough, it is in the Scottish interest to maintain the existing ban in England and Wales for Holyrood to consider.”

At the time, those opposed to the SNP branded Sturgeon “hypocritical” and “shameless” and the UK Government said it would reintroduce the subject once the English votes for English laws (EVEL) process was introduced.

Meanwhile, EVEL itself remains a contentious issue – in January Scots MPs were prevented from voting for the first time under the EVEL parliamentary mechanism.

In unprecedented scenes, a ‘grand committee’ of English and Welsh MPs debated housing, which in Scotland is devolved to Holyrood, and signs were posted in the voting lobbies barring MPs from Scotland from voting.

The “consent motion” for England and Wales was agreed without a division.

Despite the fact SNP MPs previously refused to vote on matters which didn’t affect Scotland anyway, Pete Wishart MP said the mechanism was “driving Scotland out of the UK”.

A month later, Westminster’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee warned that since the scheme has scant support, it would likely be overridden “as soon as there is a non-Conservative majority” in the Commons.

The committee also expressed concerns about the “complexity and workability” of the rules.

At this stage, Westminster has not revisited the fox hunting debate in the light of the new EVEL process but if it did then the SNP would no longer be able to use this particular, controversial issue to make their point.

Back in Scotland, despite both sides of the fox hunting debate welcoming Lord Bonomy’s findings, it is doubtful that changes to legislation will be plain sailing.

Ministers will wait until next year to decide on the next steps for the act and it will probably be at this stage – when details are hammered out – that this rare unity disappears.

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