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A Green Light For Strengthening The Scottish Fox Hunting Ban

23/11/2016 12:29

Scotland was first in the UK to ban foxhunting in 2002, but by 2014 anyone who knew anything about it knew that hunts were "still at it". Police Scotland, fair enough, said there'd been no complaints and no convictions, but if you asked anyone who knew anything you'd either get a knowing wink or a scowl of frustration.

So the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland decided to find out what was really going on. A team of undercover investigators were sent out to monitor the activities of the 10 registered mounted fox hunts in Scotland. They say they go "flushing to guns" three times a week between September and March.

Flushing to guns is supposed to be a way of shooting foxes. The idea is that they use a pack of 30 or so hounds to scare foxes out into the open to be shot by waiting gunmen. The worry was that once out with 30+ dogs, huntsmen, whippers-in, terrier men, mounted and foot followers, there would be little to stop a hunt from encouraging their hounds to chase foxes across the Scottish countryside. But no, the hunts insisted, they were simply flushing to guns.

The results of the League's 2014 hunting season investigation revealed that there wasn't a gun in sight. Day after day, the League's videos showed huntsmen casting their hounds across the countryside searching for foxes. On several occasions foxes were seen being chased.

The videos were shown on the media and to a specially convened meeting of MSPs in the Holyrood Parliament. The Environment Minister said she was worried by what she had seen and asked for the situation to be reviewed.

Then, down in Westminster, the Tories had another back door go at repeal of the fox hunting laws in England and Wales. Knowing that they have no majority for repeal in the House of Commons (not least because of the block of 56 SNP MPs), the Tories came up with a cunning plan. The idea was to weaken the hunting ban with an obscure Parliamentary process called "Statutory Instrument" that requires less parliamentary scrutiny as it does not involve amending the body of law, just some of its schedules. They were trying to do it quickly hoping the SNP would abstain as it was an English matter and harmonising the situation across the UK. The Tories should have paid closer attention to what was actually going on in Scotland... Based on the fact that they were currently committed to review the legislation in Scotland the SNP let it be known that they would vote against the proposed changes and it was quietly withdrawn.

This political song and dance led the SNP to decide to upgrade the Government review of the Scottish legislation and an independent process was drawn up to be chaired by one of Scotland's leading lawyers - Lord Bonomy. The Bonomy review called for submissions to be made by the end of March 2015, thus allowing another hunt season to take place without any changes being made.

The League took the opportunity to undertake another investigation into the 2015 season. But, surely the hunts would have learnt their lesson and would be behaving themselves? Not a bit of it. Once again, hunts careened around the countryside searching for foxes and on one notable occasion ended up in Jedburgh Magistrates court where the case still proceeds.

In the end, the League submitted over a hundred hours of footage to the Bonomy review that showed whatever the hunts said they were doing, they weren't flushing to guns. The League recommended that the law should be strengthened to remove their opportunity to use this excuse as a false alibi.

Police Scotland also made a submission to Lord Bonomy. They concluded that the current law is "unworkable" and "provides opportunities for exploitation by those who continually and deliberately offend".

As one of a few people who gave personal evidence to Lord Bonomy I can testify that he was rigorous and robust in his questioning. We even went out and looked at a hunt "flushing to guns". Although a shot was heard and a fox was said to have been shot, there were long periods when we witnessed a huntsman encouraging a pack of hounds to search through gorse without the presence of a single gun.

On 21 November, Lord Bonomy revealed his findings. He concluded that the law was being broken and recommended it needed clarification and amendment. Crucially, he said that there is "supporting evidence that flushing to guns can be a decoy activity". While some media attention has concentrated on his novel call for voluntary protocols and independent monitors, his fundamental recommendations revolve around strengthening and amending the law. He recommends clarifying the definition of what "fox hunting" is - as the present definition is confusing to the police. He wants amendments that would reverse the present onus of proof. For example, he suggested that if hunts say they are flushing to guns and there is evidence that there are no guns present, then the hunt must prove that there were. If that had been the case in 2014- 2016 when the League filmed hunts all over Scotland with no guns visible, the courts would have been very busy.

He's also clearly not best pleased that "Police Scotland have encountered unwillingness on the part of hunt participants, and also on the part of estate staff in relation to other wildlife crime, to give witness statements to investigating officers ―on legal advice, and on at least one occasion witness statements noted verbatim by a solicitor were read out in response to police enquiries".

The Scottish Government have said they want to have a think about the report and put any proposed changes out to consultation "in 2017".

Scottish public opinion knows what should happen next - 76% say they want to see hunting really banned. Police Scotland knows what should happen next. They say the present exemptions provide an opportunity to those who want to continually and deliberately offend the law and it is unenforceable and should be clarified. The League Scotland knows what should happen next. It spent two years carefully documenting Scottish hunts as they drove a coach and horses through the law as it stands and that the law should be strengthened immediately.

Fox hunting is cruel, unnecessary and repugnant. There is no place for it in Scotland or anywhere else. Now is the time to really ban it - for good.

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