Land managers will be permitted to hunt foxes and other pests using more than two dogs only in “very narrow” circumstances, the SNP’s Environment Minister said as MSPs approved a crackdown.
Mairi McAllan said that the “chasing and killing of a wild mammal with a dog” had “no place in modern Scotland” and the Hunting With Dogs Bill closed loopholes in the current law that had allowed the practice to continue.
She gave the warning as MSPs passed the Bill at Holyrood by a margin of 90 votes to 30, with only the Tories opposing the tougher measures.
An attempt by Conservatives Rachael Hamilton and Sir Edward Mountain to remove rabbits and mink from the scope of the legislation was voted down by the other parties. Ms McAllan claimed that excluding rabbits would provide an easy loophole for hare coursing.
Fears over limiting dog numbers
Hunts in Scotland currently allow an unlimited number of dogs to flush out, but not kill, foxes. However, there have been allegations that the law has been broken because guns have not been visibly present.
An independent review by Lord Bonomy warned that restricting dog numbers would “seriously compromise effective pest control in the country”.
However, SNP ministers decided to introduce a two-dog limit anyway as already exists in England and Wales.
Jake Swindells, the director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance, said: “This process has taken over seven years and is both unjustified and unnecessary. The Scottish Government’s own review found that restrictions on the use of packs of dogs could compromise fox control and put both farmers’ livelihoods and threatened wildlife at risk.
“Whilst it is frustrating that so much time and resource has been wasted on this Bill, the licensing scheme is, at least, an explicit acceptance by the Scottish Government that the use of packs of dogs in wildlife management is effective and necessary.”
He said it would now be up to NatureScot, the licensing body, to ensure that farmers and wildlife managers are able to access the best options for fox control in all circumstances.
However, Ms McAllan said that the Bill would close loopholes in the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, which she said had led to “widespread public concern that illegal hunting has persisted in Scotland”.
She said that the licensing scheme was included after Lord Bonomy warned limiting the number of hounds used in hunts would “seriously compromise effective pest control in the country”, particularly on hilly grounds and in woodland.
“So it is an exception to an exception, it will be construed very narrowly and it will only be available where there is no other effective method,” she added.
Speaking to MSPs moments before the vote, which took place shortly after 9pm on Tuesday, Ms McAllan insisted that the Bill would not impinge on legitimate pest control by farmers and gamekeepers.
However, Colin Smyth, a Scottish Labour MSP, said that the legislation did not go far enough as it still contained loopholes that would allow hunting with dogs to continue.
The Bill makes it a criminal offence to hunt a wild mammal using a dog except in “limited specified circumstances”, such as preventing serious damage to livestock, woodland or crops.
Tougher process for landowners
While hunts with unlimited numbers of dogs are currently permitted for these purposes, the legislation imposes a cap of two dogs and states land managers must apply for a licence if they want to use more.
The Bill also states only one dog can be used to search for or flush foxes and or mink from cover below ground and bans trail hunting, where dogs are directed to follow an animal’s scent.
To qualify for a wildlife management licence to hunt with more than two dogs, the Scottish Government said that applicants must demonstrate “there is no other solution which would be effective”, such as reinforced fencing round livestock.
NatureScot will only permit the use of the “minimum number of dogs” its officials consider are required and any licenses issued will expire after a maximum of 14 days, forcing land managers to make repeated applications for year-round pest control.
Those convicted of the most serious offences of hunting a wild mammal using a dog could be hit with a prison sentence of up to five years and “an unlimited fine”.