SNP and Greens clash over new plan to stop fox hunting

THE SNP and Greens have had a second public disagreement in as many days after their joint government published a Bill intended to close loopholes around fox hunting.

SNP environment minister Mairi McAllan said the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill would ensure there was “no place” for hunting with dogs north of the border.

But the Greens said the Bill was “tinkering around the edges”, failed to deliver a “watertight ban”, and risked creating a new loophole to let “this bloodthirsty practice” continue.

The party warned it would not support the Bill unless it was changed.

Scottish Labour also warned the Bill would “license cruelty”.

The argument comes just a day after the SNP and Greens had a public spat at Holyrood over freeports, which the SNP support but the Greens oppose.

Under the joint government deal, freeports and field sports are both “excluded matters”, meaning the SNP and Greens expect to disagree, allowing the alliance to remain intact.

However the disagreements do expose tensions at the top of the Scottish Government.

Although hunting with dogs is technically banned in Scotland, packs can still be used to flush foxes from cover so they can be shot as pest control to protect livestock or curb disease.

This is seen by some as a loophole that allows hunting with dogs in all but name.

The new Bill would limit the number of dogs allowed to flush animals to two, which the SNP say will close the loophole. 

However the Bill says packs will still be allowed to flush animals under a new licensing scheme, which the Greens say would simply replace one loophole with another.

Ms McAllan said that, by clarifying existing law, the Bill would protect foxes, hares and other wild mammals from being chased and killed by packs of dogs.

She said dogs would only be allowed to flush predators for specific purposes, including “preventing serious damage to livestock, timber or crops, protecting human health or preventing the spread of disease”.

The Bill will also ban ‘trail hunting’ as it also poses a risk to wild animals.

She said: “I want to make clear that chasing and killing a mammal with a dog, for sport or otherwise, has no place in modern Scotland – indeed it has been illegal for twenty years. 

“I am seeking to close loopholes which have allowed that already illegal activity to persist, and my aim is to do that in a way that ensures the greatest possible animal welfare while facilitating legitimate predator control.

“As well as closing existing loopholes, I am seeking to prevent others opening. 

“We have seen from recent events south of the border that trail hunting is sometimes being used as a cover for illegal hunting. 

“We therefore plan to take pre-emptive action to prevent trail hunting becoming established in Scotland in order to reduce the risk of wild mammals being killed by dogs.”

She went on: “Foxes can cause significant harm to livestock, as well as other wildlife such as ground nesting birds – so it is important that farmers and land managers have access to control measures that are efficient and humane. This legislation provides that.”

She said the legislation followed a public consultation that received more than 11,000 responses and she was confident it was “progressive and balanced” as a result.

Green MSP Ariane Burgess, her party’s rural affairs spokesperson, said: “Most people think fox hunting is already banned in Scotland, but loopholes in the law mean that hunting continues much as it did. 

“Sadly, in its current form this bill closes one loophole while risks opening another so that this bloodthirsty practice can continue.

“Polls have repeatedly shown that the public back an outright ban, yet the Scottish Government continues to tinker around the edges. That’s why blood sports remain an area excluded from the Bute House Agreement and why this bill will need to deliver a real watertight ban if it is to get the backing of Scottish Green MSPs.”

Scottish Labour MSP Clin Smyth, his party’s animal welfare spokesperson, said: “For almost a decade now hunts have gone out of their way to ignore the fox hunting ban in letter and in spirit.

“This long-awaited Bill is a chance to right this wrong at last and put a stop to this needless cruelty – but this Bill doesn’t go far enough.

“The SNP’s needless licensing scheme will create new loopholes as we are trying to close the old ones.

“You cannot licence cruelty and Scottish Labour will fight to scrap this loophole.

“We need to make this the last tally-ho for hunting and consign this archaic ‘sport’ to the history books once and for all.”

Robbie Marsland, director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, welcomed the intention behind the Bill, but said the detail would be important. 

“After twenty years of flawed legislation it is critical that this Bill addresses the need to reduce the pack of hounds to just two, and takes pre-emptive action to prevent trail hunting being established as a new ‘sport’ in Scotland. “We want to see a Bill that really bans hunting and doesn’t contain new loopholes for hunters to exploit.” 

The National Farmers Union of Scotland added: “NFU Scotland stresses the need to maintain effective, practical and pragmatic control of wild mammals, including foxes, in a farming and crofting context to prevent damage to livestock, crops, plants and habitats and limit the spread of disease, as well as to reduce predation on protected wildlife species.”

The Scottish Countryside Alliance said the Bill went against the independent review of hunting by Lord Bonomy, which rejected limiting dog numbers for flushing foxes and questioned the value of a licensing scheme.

SCA director Jake Swindells said the restrictions on the use of dogs in fox control were an “unnecessary and unjustified attack on rural Scotland “.

He said: “Farmers and land managers across rural Scotland will understandably be asking why the Scottish Government is intent on compromising their livelihoods in direct contradiction to both the science and its own review. It is noticeable that the Minister does not once mention Lord Bonomy’s review or its conclusions in her statement.

“This legislation is an unnecessary and unjustified attack on rural Scotland. 

“Depriving farmers of the ability to protect their livestock and their livelihoods would be a direct attack on their rights. Restricting the ability of land managers to protect threatened species like curlew and capercaillie is equally illogical. 

“The only way the damage done by these proposals can be mitigated is by ensuring that the proposed licensing scheme is workable, practical and open to all farmers and land managers who use packs of dogs as part of their fox control measures.”

Through the SCA, Ian Duncan Millar, a sheep farmer from Perthshire who has lost livestock to foxes, said his “livelihood and peace of mind will both be adversely affected if we lose the ability to control foxes with a reasonable-sized group of trained dogs”.

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