BY CAPTAIN ED SWALES
“Have we got this right?” opined Finlay Carson MSP, the Convenor of the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee, assessing the practicality of the proposed Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill; the committee’s aim to provide recommendations to Mairi McAllan, Minister for the Environment, to move this Bill into law.
That was 3 weeks ago during the earlier sessions of the ‘Evidence’ stage of the Bill and was a reaction to the fact that the public consultation on the proposed Bill had witnessed a return of approximately 50% against and 50% for the Bill. So, without hearing any evidence, Mr Carson’s initial opening line quite rightly questioned the underlying assumption of the Scottish Government, that this Bill was being proposed because some huge majority endorsed the ‘cancelling’ of wildlife management using dogs.
Having scrutinised these evidence stage sessions and been involved in many separate meetings within the Scottish rural community around this Bill, it is clear that the members of the RAINE Committee have an incredibly difficult task ahead of them. My view is that the individual members are conducting their political duty professionally, with diligence and they are endeavouring to get to grips with an undoubtedly complex set of circumstances, in good faith. But they are struggling.
What is strikingly clear to anyone examining these sessions is that the baseline level of understanding of the matters involved is very low, in some cases negligible. This is not helped by the fact that there is virtually no research or evidence to support this Bill, that would enable any Government body to pass legislation, whilst demonstrating any form of acceptable process or probity.
Jim Fairlie MSP demonstrates clear understanding of the issues of livestock loss through predation due to his sheep farming past and Rachael Hamilton MSP is at pains to ensure that this Bill is examined more thoroughly and not just on the back of some prejudiced, anti-hunting agenda set by Animal Rights groups, such as One Kind and the League Against Cruel Sports. Ariane Burgess MSP and the other Committee members all contribute well to the debate, although, without wishing to cause offence, Marcus Aurelius put it quite nicely when he said:
Having accepted that the management of wildlife does include the lethal control option (as accepted by the RSPB’s culling predators on their reserves), the necessary object of any legislation must therefore aim to ensure the highest possible standards of welfare for the animals involved, legislating against proven cruelty and unnecessary suffering. Therefore, research and study to provide some evidence must be an essential prerequisite in concluding on the actual impact on animal welfare, the efficacy, necessity and practicality of the alternatives, which currently are: using hounds to flush to guns, shooting using either shotgun or rifle by day or night, trapping and snaring.
Essential reading must include ‘The Welfare Aspects of Killing or Capturing Wild Vertebrates in Britain’ 1995, which studied and compared the various methods, along with ‘Welfare Aspects of Shooting Foxes’ 2003 for the All-Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group at Westminster. The latter indicates that in the shooting of foxes, the wounding rate is in the region of 10%. That might sound like a politically acceptable figure to some, but when applied to the total number shot per year, that’s quite a number and particularly bad news if you were a fox within that 10%, although I don’t subscribe to the viewpoint of anthropomorphology! Step forward the marksman that can honestly say that he’s never unintentionally wounded a fox and I’ll show you the pack of hounds that left a fox wounded to escape and die a lingering death of starvation, sepsis or blood loss.
Neither, Dear Readers, exist.
Incidentally, an interesting and relatively unknown fact is that within a week of organised hare coursing being banned by the Hunting Act 2004, on an area of arable farmland near Newmarket in East Anglia, over 3000 brown hares were shot in two huge hare drives. The same number of hares would not have been killed on that same piece of ground under the practice of coursing over the previous 50 years. Today, hare numbers in those counties are seriously in decline. Animal welfare? Wildlife management? When are politicians going to wake up?
Only one method (using hounds) allows for a close season, whereby the fox is left alone during the breeding season or when nursing and raising cubs for six months of the year. Using hounds is also the only natural form of controlling fox populations, similar to how the evidence (Yellowstone Park in the US) of a wolf pack, identifies and targets the weaker, old or diseased specimens (in that case, of elk herds). Animals have evolved within the trophic cascade to predate or be predated upon and that is not an unnatural phenomenon, albeit it that the fox evolving as a meso predator, has become, through the absence of certain apex predators (wolves, bears, certain larger birds of prey) itself an apex predator in the UK. And packs of hunting dogs have replaced the wolf’s place in that system.
Whilst there might be good reason for the omission, it was of note that during the Committee session based around ‘animal welfare’, the only organisations in attendance were basically anti-hunting. How is it that these organisations claim to own that space, when the Veterinary Association for Wildlife Management exists and has put forward its submission to the consultation? This is an organisation supported by 560 members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons which states:
“Hunting by hounds is the natural and most humane method of controlling the population of all four quarry species, fox, deer, hare and mink in the countryside.”
Among their other publications are ‘The Natural Chase’ and ‘A Veterinary Opinion on Hunting with Hounds’, worth being aware of that content if you were charged to decide on legislating on the animal welfare aspects of hunting with dogs.
Coincidentally, this Bill was read on the same day that a directive from Nature Scot was put forward, urgently recommending an increase in the control of foxes and crows due to the negative effect of their predation on rare and red listed species of ground nesting upland birds such as Black Grouse, Capercaillie, Curlew and Plover. Coupled with the Scottish Government’s commitment to climate change, with an astonishing increase in forestry cover (Scotland currently plants more than 75% of all new woodland in the UK) , these areas of cover, in which it is either impractical or dangerous to shoot foxes, especially with the ‘right to roam’ anywhere, will become impenetrable fox breeding havens. The only known method to flush foxes from such, is hounds.
In 1998, a report was published, The Economic Contribution of Hunting within the Scottish and Northumberland Borders, stating, “The clear conclusion is that environmental, community and economic arguments have to be seen as a whole, in particular in thinly populated, very rural areas with limited employment opportunities, such as the Borders. The abolition of hunting would have economic and social implications way beyond the approximate 350 jobs that it currently generates.” It’s reasonable to assume that not much has changed since that time. If, as seems likely, this new law would severely curb or even completely end hunting with dogs, has the Scottish government undertaken any similar assessment of what a severe reduction or total ban on hunting would be? Would this add to the grounds for a legal challenge by Judicial Review and is the process made more difficult by being complicit in this law making process?
Man has worked with dogs for hunting for at least 30,000 years and yet within the last 30 years, the embedded culture and practice of the minority rural population of these Islands is set to be ‘cancelled’ when realistically we know that there isn’t evidence to justify that. That is called ‘wilful ignorance’, prejudice and minority bashing and has nothing to do with animal welfare. When it is very likely that the passing of the Hunting Act 2004 will soon be evidenced as exceptionally bad law that has had a detrimental impact on the species it pretended to protect, now is possibly the time to put a cold towel around the political head and take a proper, evidence-based view on these matters and leave prejudice to one side. The only ‘smokescreen’ at play here, is the eradication of a rural minority way of life under the smokescreen of animal welfare.
Sir Tony Blair is on record as saying that the Hunting Act 2004 was his biggest single political regret. Daniel Greenberg QC, who drafted the legislation for it, admits to a deep sense of moral unease that it was ‘legislating against a minority on a moral issue’ and that ‘Instead of an effective measure, therefore, the Act and the Bills for it were largely an exercise in what it has now become fashionable to describe as “virtue signalling”. Dennis Skinner put it more bluntly by saying that it was ‘revenge for the miners’. And we want to follow that example in Holyrood? Scotland should do better than that and be the first Government to actually confront such a contentious issue and produce a measured and balanced outcome, devoid of prejudice and based on evidence, not misguided opinion.
Jeremy Wright MP, former Attorney General in Westminster, as recently as March 2022 said:
The Scottish Government continuing to misguidedly refer to what a huge success for animal welfare the Hunting Act 2004 was, need to take note of the evidence that discredits that and the view of politicians with the legal opinion of those such as Jeremy Wright MP.
So, when you add all this together, Mairi McAllan and the Scottish Government is setting Scotland up for a social, ecological and environmental dog’s dinner, partly through wilful ignorance and an unqualified but biased hatred of hunting with dogs, as well as legislating with no basis of evidence, study or research. Ministers are passing law based on their Twitter feed and (admittedly) effective PR and lobbying from the Animal Rights cohort, which does not represent the public opinion that it claims. The RAINE Committee consultation 50% has already proved that. Scotland deserves better, as does its diverse wildlife population. Scottish Law is not held in the high regard that it is, by setting a precedent of producing legislation based on opinion and prejudice, when it is well known that there is not the evidence to support that. The ingredients for a Judicial Review are well and truly coming together into a veritable ‘Highland Flummery’.
The RAINE Committee are evidently concerned whether this Government really has got this whole Bill right and therefore what the outcome might be. Undoubtedly, it can recommend any number of solutions. Mairi McAllan MSP will then have a few soul-searching moments and decisions to make. Based on the clear picture that it would be virtually impossible to legislate, in the absence of any proper study, research and evidence that indicate that the Bill is worth endorsing, it might be worth considering how to rectify that.
The Committee, the Government and the entire process would have much more credibility and be more likely to produce an accepted and workable outcome if it were to recommend commissioning studies to gain evidence on the following points, based on welfare aspects, effectiveness, practicality and necessity:
- Flushing foxes from cover using a full pack
- Flushing foxes from cover using 2 hounds
- Flushing foxes from cover using different numbers of hounds
- Welfare aspects of shooting foxes and wounding rates
- Welfare aspects of all alternative methods of control
- Identifying best methods of control over varying terrain
- Seasonal variations for wildlife control
- Rural community social impact assessments
- Rural community economic impact assessments
- Balancing climate change targets with wildlife population management
- Ability to prosecute cases of cruelty and unnecessary suffering
- Enforcement of the law by Police Scotland
- The effectiveness of the Bonomy report recommendation for the existing hunt code of conduct
- The effectiveness of hunt monitoring as suggested by Lord Bonomy.
These studies are the only method available that will produce the evidence and facts that enable legislation to work, be respected, not unjustifiably criminalise ordinary decent rural people and have any real chance of being seen as impartial, transparent and unbiased – that will also not be undone by a Judicial Review. Due to seasonal variations in weather and wildlife populations, a realistic view on the timeframe required to conduct such research must be taken, somewhere not less than 5-10 years to achieve that task properly and enable effective comparisons. The legal process to then decide whether 30,000 years of wildlife management using dogs should be amended based on someone’s political opinion today, might then receive widespread support from both sides of the argument.
As Jim Fairlie MSP revealed during one of the evidence sessions, “Let’s be honest, banning mounted hunting is really what this is all about” which is a fair summary of Environment Minister Mairi McAllan’s start point of ‘The Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill would ensure there was no place for hunting with dogs north of the border’.
Any evidence to support why that should be so?
I rest my case.