MSPs debate the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill in the Scottish Parliament

Last week, we watched as MSPs debated the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill in the Scottish Parliament. As discussed previously, this Bill has the potential to finally close loopholes in legislation that have enabled fox hunting to continue, despite a ban being introduced over 20 years ago with the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act.

We have been campaigning for decades for a real fox hunting ban in Scotland, and strongly welcomed the Bill when it was introduced in February of this year. However, we are concerned about a number of potential loopholes in the Bill’s text that could enable this cruelty to continue yet again.

In particular, we do not support the proposed licensing scheme to allow packs of hounds to flush foxes to guns in certain circumstances. We also strongly oppose allowing the use of dogs below ground or to ‘provide quarry for falconry, game shooting or deer stalking.’ If exceptions are to remain, we are calling for them to be reserved for extraordinary circumstances only, and to be strengthened in the legislation.

OneKind Policy Officer Kirsty Jenkins giving evidence on the Hunting With Dogs (Scotland) Bill in Scottish Parliament

In the lead up to the Bill’s announcement and since then, we have been working to ensure that this is the strongest possible legislation to really ban fox hunting in Scotland. Last year, together with our supporters, we responded to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the issue, urging them to close loopholes in the legislation. And earlier this year, we provided evidence in the Scottish Parliament, raising our concerns about the licensing scheme and other exceptions.

This week’s debate gave MSPs the opportunity to debate the Bill’s contents and vote for it to move to Stage 2, where amendments can be lodged by MSPs. Here are some of the highlights from the discussion.

Minister for Environment and Land Reform Màiri McAllan started the debate

The Minister opened the debate stating that with this new Bill, she intends to finish the work started 20 years ago with the Protection of Wild Animals (Scotland) Act, which was ‘not as robust and effective as intended.’

Minister for Environment and Land Reform, Màiri McAllan speaking in Scottish Parliament on the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill

She discussed how concerns about the effectiveness of this Act led to the Scottish Government asking Lord Bonomy to carry out a review of the legislation. This review concluded that there were deficiencies in the law, which may have contributed to illegal hunting.

She went on to discuss the proposed licensing scheme as part of the Bill which would allow the hunting of foxes with more than two dogs – an aspect of the Bill that OneKind does not support.

She stated that the licensing scheme will be ‘an exception to an exception’ and ‘available only where other options are not.’, while also being ‘available, workable and sensible’ for those that apply to use it.

Colin Smyth MSP called for the Bill to be strengthened

Colin Smyth highlighted that the Bill as it stands does not fully close loopholes that exist in the legislation, it merely licenses them. He stated,

'You cannot license cruelty.'

He went on to point to the fact that the Scottish Government’s own Scottish Animal Welfare Commission, as well as animal welfare organisations including OneKind, League Against Cruel Sports and Scottish Badgers, already argue that the Bill is compromised by allowing any dogs in the hunting of mammals.

Colin Smyth MSP speaking on the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill in Scottish

He agreed with our written submission which made recommendations for strengthening of language in the Bill. Avoiding the ambiguities of the 2002 Act was also backed by Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee in their Stage 1 report on the Bill.

On supporting the inclusion of rabbits in the definition of a wild animal in the Bill, the MSP pointed out that this is not only important in terms of preventing hare coursing, but also in terms of animal welfare:

‘Rabbits are after all, sentient creatures.’

Speaking in relation to the proposal in the Bill to continue the use of dogs below ground to ‘control’ mammals, he stated,

'If it is cruel to use more than one dog, it is cruel to use any dogs.’

He went on to welcome a section of the Bill that introduces new offences for taking part in trail hunting, ‘used as a cover for the hunting of wild animals’ in England and Wales. He highlighted that,

‘OneKind pointed out in its submission to the committee that pre-emptively banning trail hunting in Scotland will prevent a repeat of that situation.’

He later went on to urge the application of the seven principles of ethical wildlife ‘control’ to any decision-making on licensing, as recommended by OneKind and the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission.

Mercedes Villalba MSP welcomed the Bill but highlighted limitations

Mercedes Villalba MSP speaking on the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill in Scottish Parliament

The MSP considered the Bill a ‘a step forward’ and stated that the positive changes included in the text are a testament to the work of animal welfare campaigning organisations including OneKind.

However, she went on to address a number of limitations of the Bill, and urged for them to be amended in Stage 2. One such limitation is the need to strengthen the language of the Bill, something we have also urged. She highlighted that unclear wording in the previous Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 undermined the ability to investigate and prosecute alleged offences.

Secondly, she considered the proposal of allowing one dog below ground to ‘flush out’ foxes as undermining the Bill’s aim of achieving the highest possible animal welfare standards. She stated that animal welfare organisations have submitted evidence on the difficulties of controlling even one dog below ground, and the Scottish Government itself acknowledged that such practice is incompatible with the highest standards of animal welfare.

Thirdly, she questioned the Bill’s proposal to allow birds of prey as a means of killing wild mammals, quoting the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission’s conclusion that,

‘The impact on the welfare of the hunted animal is likely to be similar whether killed by a dog or a bird of prey.’

Finally, she considered the proposed licensing scheme to be a potential loophole in the Bill, which would enable packs of dogs to ‘flush out’ foxes in certain circumstances.

Ariane Burgess MSP welcomed the Bill but urged for the closure of loopholes

Ariane Burgess MSP speaking on the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill in Scottish Parliament

The MSP passionately spoke of the terror experienced by foxes being chased by packs of hounds, and the ‘the horror and agony of being torn limb from limb while still alive.’

She went on to show support for the Bill, with the caveat that three key loopholes are closed. These include the licensing scheme that would allow more than two dogs to hunt foxes, the exception to allow one dog to flush out foxes below ground and the exception that would allow the use of two dogs to ‘provide quarry for falconry, game shooting or deer stalking. We have also urged for the closure of these loopholes when submitting evidence on the Bill.

Besides the MSPs mentioned above, a number of others spoke at the debate, some in favor of closing potential loopholes, some supporting the licensing scheme and other exceptions, while others felt that the Bill is too restrictive.

Minister for Environment and Land Reform Màiri McAllan concluded the debate

In her conclusion to the debate, the Minister disappointingly supported the licensing scheme to enable packs of hounds to hunt foxes, stating that it would only be available ‘where no other option exists.’

However, we welcome the interest she then expressed in applying the 7 principles for ethical wildlife ‘control’ to the Bill, something we have urged before. As we outlined when submitting evidence to the Scottish Parliament, applying these principles to the Bill will

‘make sure that it is based on evidence, that animal welfare is prioritised and there is a standardised decision-making process throughout.’

Following the Minister’s conclusion, a majority of MSPs voted for the Bill to move to Stage 2, where amendments can be lodged by MSPs.

We will be supporting the MSPs who lodge amendments to close these loopholes, so that we finally secure a real fox hunting ban in Scotland.