I'm not a gambling man, but I'm betting that Scotland's fox hunting packs are a bit nervous right now.
A review of what they have been up to is currently being conducted by the Scottish government. Should the verdict be that the legislation banning hunting is somehow being skirted around, then tougher measures may well be brought in. And I for one believe that this will not only have implications for the hunts in Scotland, but also for those in England.
Let me explain.
Starting from the beginning, the government review of the effectiveness of the hunting ban in Scotland came directly from an investigation by the League Against Cruel Sports. The investigation started with meetings with Police Scotland and the Procurator Fiscal's office which revealed that between 2002 and 2014 there were very few complaints about alleged illegal hunting. However, the League consistently received intelligence suggesting that illegal hunting was widespread among the ten registered hunts in Scotland.
So we decided to find out what was really going on.
The first step was for the League to employ experienced wildlife crime investigators including one who had thirty years of evidence gathering experience with the police and others with many years' experience of monitoring Scottish hunts.
The investigators started by looking at the hunt websites. The Buccleuch hunt's website explained that they, "like all Scottish hunts", were hunting within the law by using a provision that allowed "flushing to guns". Flushing to guns is a way of shooting foxes. It is an established activity in the countryside where dogs are used to drive foxes out of woods, hedgerows and other "cover" into the path of waiting shotguns.
As such, it is necessary to employ a number of shooters in strategic positions where an escaping fox would be expected to leave the cover and a safe shot could be taken. The law is clear that if the dogs continue to chase or stay on the line of a fox once it has left the cover then illegal hunting has occurred.
Hunts in England and Wales do not say they flush to guns because their law restricts the number of dogs that can be used to two, whereas the Scottish legislation has no limit to the number of dogs.
While some of the Scottish hunt websites insisted that the hunts were flushing to guns, it was confusing to note that they also referred to the skill of foxes evading the hunt. One website referred to the expectation of "a fast hunt... ...for some considerable distance ". One website even contained a video from December 2014 that showed a full pack of dogs apparently "on cry" following a line nowhere near any cover. This led the League to wonder what was really going on.
Between 12 December 2014 and 14 March 2015 the League's wildlife crime investigators witnessed half the hunts advertised by the 10 hunting associations known to operate in Scotland. The filming was mainly from long range, using state-of-the-art cameras and the hunts were unaware that their activities were being filmed.
What we saw worried us. Our wildlife crime investigators did not see a single shotgun either used or brandished on any of the days they filmed Scottish hunts. Our conclusion is that none of the hunts observed were flushing to guns and it was impossible to distinguish their activities from the activities of pre-ban hunts.
Using over a hundred hours of raw footage, we produced a short video showing what was, and what wasn't, happening deep in the Scottish countryside. The video shows dogs in full cry clearly following a line and being seemingly encouraged by the huntsman to do so. On at least three occasions the dogs are seen to be following a line of a fox.
We then released the video to the media, showed it at party conferences in Scotland and to a large group of interested MSPs at a specially arranged event in one of the committee rooms in the Scottish Parliament building. We then met with Aileen McLeod, the Minister responsible, and asked her to take action to assure herself and her Government that the foxhunting ban in Scotland was really working.
The stakes were then raised when David Cameron announced in Westminster that his Government intended to harmonize the fox hunting law in England and Wales with the law in Scotland - an attempt to make flushing to guns with a full pack legal in England and Wales.
Key to this strategy of weakening the ban in England and Wales was the hope that the 56 SNP MPs at Westminster would abstain as the proposed move didn't effect Scotland. After several weeks of fervid lobbying the SNP announced they would vote against the proposal and one of their reasons was that they had decided to undertake a comprehensive review of the Scottish ban due to the results of the League's investigation.
We then took another look at what Scottish hunts were up to this season. Our investigators were out again and we were amazed and dismayed that despite the publicity and political attention, they hadn't changed their behaviour. In fact one incident was so blatant we had to inform the police.
Two hunt staff from the Jed Forest hunt in Scotland's border region were then interviewed and charged by the police with illegal hunting.
The Review's chair is senior Law Lord Bonomy and this week I will be taking the League's submission to the Government offices in Leith. To say the least, it is a comprehensive package containing over 100 hours of video evidence and recommendations that, if adopted by the Scottish Parliament, would mean that foxhunting will be really banned in Scotland.
We hope that the excuse of 'flushing to guns' has well and truly been busted. And it will be interesting to see what implications any strengthening of the law has south of the border, where the threat of repealing the Hunting Act still remains.
Currently Scotland looks set to move forward when it comes to the barbaric sport of hunting with dogs - will England and Wales go backwards?
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