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Let's align with animal welfare

Date posted: 13 Jul 2015

Like animal welfare organisations and compassionate individuals the length and breadth of the UK, OneKind is seriously concerned by the proposals to weaken the ban on fox hunting in England and Wales.

We highlighted our opposition to any return to fox hunting in our general election manifesto, and called for the existing legislation to be better enforced.  Since then we have carefully observed and supported the competent, effective work being carried out at Westminster by the RSPCA, League Against Cruel Sports, IFAW, Blue Fox and Brian May’s Save Me – among many others – to highlight the suffering caused by fox hunting and the strength of public opposition to this cruel sport.  What a great job they have all done.

As a small organisation, OneKind tends not to campaign on an issue simply because everyone else is doing it – tempting as that may be.  We have to focus our resources on those areas where our work can add real value.  Very often, that can be achieved by representing the Scottish perspective on an English or wider UK issue.  

And so it is with the current threat to the Hunting Act. The draft Hunting Act 2004 (Exempt Hunting) (Amendment) Order 2015, abruptly introduced last week, was accompanied by a statement from DEFRA that: “A small number of technical amendments to the Hunting Act have been proposed to more closely align legislation in England and Wales with that in Scotland, while maintaining safeguards.”

Later in the statement, the Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss MP repeated:“We are making these technical amendments to the pest control measures within the Hunting Act to more closely align the legislation with Scotland.”

One can only speculate as to the reason for this emphasis on Scotland and why alignment is thought necessary.  It is certainly correct that the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 provides for references to hunting with “a dog” to be interpreted as also applying to two or more dogs.  This has allowed Scottish hunts to use full packs for flushing foxes, without any pretence of merely “trail” or “drag” hunting, providing the fox is shot as soon as it is safe to do so.

Now, if that was all working perfectly in Scotland – allowing effective predator control if necessary and justified, preventing the chase, capture and killing of foxes by dogs, and ensuring public safety – it might arguably be an example to emulate.  But it isn’t.  One wonders whether the Westminster ministers, in deciding to promote this alignment theme, were aware of concern among Members of the Scottish Parliament that their legislation is not being observed or enforced properly.  

Our own OneKind field officer tells of a conversation with a hunt supporter in the Scottish Borders who informed him, in effect, “We are hunting by the rules today, because the antis are out”.  And just last month, the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland showed MSPs a film of Scottish hunts apparently making no attempt to shoot foxes flushed by their hounds.   

One of the key amendments proposed by the League to redress this, and which OneKind will support, was for the number of dogs used in flushing to guns to be reduced to two, so that hunts cannot hunt with a full pack under cover of the exemption.  Exactly the opposite of what is now proposed at Westminster. 

OneKind and the League are of course, firmly in the “anti” camp – so we would support reduction, wouldn’t we?  But it appears that the case for review in Scotland is so compelling that the Environment Minister, Dr Aileen McLeod MSP, has told the League she will: ask the Chief Constable for Scotland to look into the matter further; support “further parliamentary scrutiny” of the issue; and include a section on the ban in the Scottish Government’s annual Wildlife Crime Report, which is scrutinised by MSPs on the rural affairs, climate change and environment committee.

Hardly a ringing endorsement from the Scottish Government of the “flushing with full pack” system.  If alignment is required between the two regimes, it might need to take a different direction.

Another proposal in the DEFRA package is for a full pack to be allowed to hunt in the name of “research and observation”.  (I did succumb yesterday to the temptation to ask on Twitter whether fox hunting for research and observation was essentially the same as “scientific” whale-hunting...but I digress.) 

Leaving aside the obvious incongruity of attempting to observe a wild mammal while accompanied by even two dogs, far less a pack, it is hard to see how this amendment will achieve any sort of alignment – because there is no reference to this at all in the Scottish Act.  

There are other points of variation between the proposed amendments to the Westminster legislation and the current, far from perfect Scottish legislation. The final one I will mention is the language used for the change: from no more than two dogs for stalking or flushing to an “appropriate” number of dogs for the terrain and any other relevant circumstances, enabling the stalking or flushing out to be carried out as “efficiently as possible”. It seems to me that this language gives hunters and gamekeepers permission to undertake subjective judgments as to how many dogs they should use, and that this will make enforcement and prosecution extremely difficult.  And again, there is no explicit equivalent in the Scottish Act.

Conspiracy theorists might suggest that the references to alignment with the Scottish legislation are a signal to the 56 Scottish National Party MPs, who do not normally vote on domestic England and Wales legislation, that their input is not required on this matter.  With a close vote anticipated, and little sympathy for foxhunting evident within the SNP, the government would no doubt prefer its members to abstain. That could be a disaster for wildlife.

OneKind has written to all SNP MPs urging them to vote against any measures to weaken the Hunting Act.  We appreciate the difficulty the group faces – but animal welfare knows no borders and is a significant ethical concern for the public across the UK.   The SNP – and indeed all Members of Parliament – can help the UK maintain a strong international voice for animal welfare as long as we have the highest standards at home.

The Amendment Order will be debated this Wednesday, 15 July.  There is still time to email your MP Please say you are a supporter of OneKind and ask him or her to vote against this wrong-headed attempt to allow packs of dogs to chase and kill foxes once more.

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