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Tim Bonner: A future for hounds in Scotland?

In what seems like another age, but was actually just eight years ago, the then First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Nicola Sturgeon, performed a cynical and predictable U-turn on hunting. Before the 2015 General Election, Ms Sturgeon had been asked about the ‘West Lothian Question’, in shorthand the anomaly that allows Scottish MPs to vote on issues in England and Wales which are devolved to the Scottish Parliament in their own country. Ms Sturgeon responded that this was not a problem as her MPs would never vote on an issue that only affected England and Wales and she gave an example of one such law: the Hunting Act 2004. After the General Election, when David Cameron brought forward amendments to the Hunting Act, Ms Sturgeon performed her brazen hand break turn and the SNP announced that not only would their 56 Westminster MPs vote on the Hunting Act, but that they would be whipped to oppose any changes.

Political hypocrisy tends to come home to roost in the end, and Ms Sturgeon is currently giving great support to Enoch Powell’s famous quote that “all political lives end in failure”, but that does not repair the historic damage. Not only did her decision in 2015 scupper logical changes to the Hunting Act in England and Wales, but it also started a process which saw new hunting legislation come into force in Scotland on Tuesday (3 October 2023). The Scottish Government’s approach throughout this long process has been as reprehensible as its original U-turn. First it commissioned a senior judge, Lord Bonomy, to review the existing legislation. Then, when he found “not only that searching and flushing by two dogs would not be as effective as that done by a full pack of hounds, but also that imposing such a restriction could seriously compromise effective pest control in the country”, it completely ignored its own review and said it would introduce a ban on the use of more than two dogs anyway. It took over two years to come to that conclusion, mostly because the Scottish Countryside Alliance was very clear that legislating to ban the use of packs of dogs in direct contradiction of peer-reviewed science and its own independent reviewer would be a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

This caused the SNP government to pause and, through gritted teeth, to state that it would bring forward a licensing scheme to allow the use of packs. When the Bill was finally introduced that scheme was clearly designed to be unjustifiably restrictive. The government had to accept amendments to make it potentially workable, but its contempt for rural people was quite clear when it laid the commencement order (which brings the law into force) without informing any stakeholders or even having a licensing scheme in place. The government’s agency, NatureScot, finally published guidance and an application form on Thursday last week for a law that came into force at midnight on Monday. There was no time for anyone to put together an application to use a pack of hounds, let alone for NatureScot to process it.

It is not clear whether Ministers think they are being clever or are just acting out of spite by producing a ‘licensing scheme’ under which no-one can currently get a licence, but either way their behaviour is appalling. What it will not do, however, is cow the Alliance or the rural community North of the border. Even if Ministers do not like it, there is a law in place which allows for the use of packs of dogs to control foxes and other mammals where the conditions are met. Lord Bonomy was quite clear about the serious damage that could result to livestock if packs cannot be used to find and flush foxes, and we have every intention of ensuring that licences will be issued to prevent that damage. We will not back down from challenging either the government or its agency if they operate unlawfully.  

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