Unfinished business

If re-elected in May, Alison Johnstone aims to ban fox hunting for good.

The Scottish Parliament has done some bold and progressive things since it was reborn in 1999. It has made brave decisions on public health and human rights, tackling some of the country’s big challenges like smoking, alcohol and bigotry.

But there are some areas where it has been too timid, for example on land use and animal welfare.

In 2019 I proposed a bill to give better protections to Scotland’s mountain hares and foxes. It received an overwhelmingly positive response from the public.

Tens of thousands of mountain hares were being eradicated every year as part of localised ‘culls’ by estate managers on intensively managed grouse moors, who want to keep populations of red grouse artificially high, also for killing.

There wasn’t even any evidence that this senseless circle of slaughter had any impact whatsoever on populations of grouse, and I moved to insert protections for this iconic native species in new wildlife laws last year.

But the other half of my bill, to ban fox hunting in Scotland, is unfinished business.

Back in 2002, MSPs voted to ban the hunting of wild mammals with dogs. Two years ahead of England and Wales, it felt as though Scotland was leading the way.

It seemed obvious, as it still is today, that a day out on horseback with a fancy coat and a pack of dogs is not ‘pest control’ but a hobby, and a bloodthirsty one at that.

Sadly, that 2002 decision contained too many loopholes, which allowed this cruel practice to continue, nearly twenty years later. I want to close these loopholes for good.

Lord Bonomy was tasked with reviewing the laws around hunting, and his report in 2016 was clear that exceptions in the 2002 act had allowed fox hunting to continue much as it had before.

In his 2016 report, Lord Bonomy said: “pest control can appear to be incidental to the primary objective of exercising horse and hounds”.

Police called the laws “unworkable”, because it is very difficult to prosecute when these loopholes exist, but the SNP’s response was to suggest limiting the number of dogs that are allowed to take part. Nicola Sturgeon promised to follow up on the Lord Bonomy review by strengthening the law.

But that was towards the beginning of the last parliamentary term. The SNP have had five years to ban fox hunting and they have failed to do so. That’s just not good enough. The use of dogs to hunt wild animals should be stopped.

There is enormous public interest in this issue. The response to my consultation eclipsed that of any other member’s bill in the last parliamentary session. I believe the vast majority of Scots do not support blood sports. The shooting of grouse and the hunting of foxes appals anyone who cannot understand the need to kill for pleasure.

What is more curious is the lack of courage from the SNP to stand up to powerful lobbyists and act to protect Scotland’s wildlife. If returned in May, I aim to ban fox hunting for good.