Scotland's fox hunting review is not political posturing as some have claimed. It's an important step forward in addressing the fact that we have a law that is failing to do what it was meant to: ban fox hunting.
We have for some time been saying that the fox hunting ‘ban’ in Scotland is not effective and needs to be replaced or radically amended if it is to genuinely ban fox hunting. This isn’t a radical objective: it was what the Parliament intended back when the law was passed in 2002, and its significance wasn’t missed at the time. On the day that the Act was passed, SNP MSP Richard Lochhead, now Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment, declared that “the Parliament was elected to drag Scotland into the 21st century. That is what we will be doing by—I hope—passing the bill today. I urge Parliament to pass the bill so that when people wake up in Scotland tomorrow, the country will be a little bit more civilised.”
Fourteen years on, we’re still waiting for that morning. Exemption clauses that were introduced during the Bill’s passage effectively undermined the legislation, particularly when it comes to hunting foxes.Basically, whilst intentional hunting is banned, packs of dogs can ‘flush’ – chase out of cover - foxes as long as the intention is to shoot the fox once it emerges. ‘Accidental’ killing of the fox by hounds is also permitted.
Compare this situation for a moment with the smoking ban, introduced by the Scottish Parliament back in 2005. The legislation does what it says on the tin, and if you light up in a restaurant nowadays you can expect zero tolerance from the management and, if it came to it, the police. “Accidental” smoking is unlikely to work as a defence.
All this is why we warmly welcomed the announcement on Boxing Day that Lord Bonomy will lead a review on Scotland’s hunting with dogs legislation. This review is a great step forward and already it’s leading to a growing debate and understanding of the situation. We were particularly encouraged by a recent session in the Scottish Parliament when Police Scotland gave evidence to MSPs on wildlife crime in which Assistant Chief Constable Graham advised that:
“There have been a number of cases—we have looked at such cases in conjunction with the Crown—in which, when we considered the whole circumstances, there has not been a sufficient set of evidence to prove that a crime has occurred. That might well lead us down the route of deciding that the legislation is not as effective as it might be in terms of its intended purpose. We were therefore pleased to support the decision that there would be a review of the legislation.”
This gets to the nub of the issue. There have been no successful prosecutions of mounted hunts in Scotland since the ‘ban’ was introduced. Claiming that this means there is no problem when there is ample evidence of continued fox hunting, as the Scottish Countryside Alliance claimed this week, is deliberately missing the point. Instead it reflects the fact that implementation of the law is hampered by the confusing and inconsistent exceptions that found their way into the Bill during its passage and now act as loopholes, allowing legal hunting to continue.
The Bonomy Review is not political ‘posturing’. It’s an essential first step towards putting this situation right. At stake is not just the lives of foxes and Scotland’s reputation as a nation that respects its wildlife, but also the credibility of the Scottish Parliament that needs to show it will act to ensure legislation it passes fulfils its aims.