Fox hunting laws hinder prosecutions, says review
Scotland's "unduly complicated" fox hunting laws should be changed to make prosecutions easier, a judge has found.
The hunting of foxes with hounds was banned under the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act in 2002.
But there have not been any successful prosecutions since - with police branding the legislation "unworkable".
A review by Lord Bonomy also suggested introducing independent monitors to randomly check on the activities of hunts.
At present, dogs can still be used to flush out foxes and chase them towards the hunts, where the foxes are shot.
But there have been allegations that the law has been broken because guns have not been visibly present.
A review of the legislation was ordered by the Scottish government last year, with Lord Bonomy being asked to examine whether the existing law gave adequate protection to wild mammals, while at the same time allowing effective control of these animals where necessary.
In his report, Lord Bonomy concluded that there were "aspects and features of the legislation which complicate unduly the detection, investigation and prosecution of alleged offences".
And he said there were grounds for suspecting that illegal hunting may still take place, and that those suspicions should be addressed.
He suggested that hunt monitors, who would observe hunts on a random basis, could be introduced either through legislation or a voluntary scheme.
The monitors could submit a report of their observations to Scottish Ministers, with an annual summary included in the Wildlife Crime in Scotland Annual Report. The judge also said the monitors' observations could be admissible evidence in court.
His report also recommended:
- A Code of Practice for the conduct of hunt activities
- Consideration of whether vicarious liability is appropriate if an offence is committee
- Consideration of extending the time limit for bringing prosecutions under the 2002 Act
Responding to the report's publication, Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham said Scotland had "led the way" in addressing animal welfare concerns, and the government remained committed to ensuring the "highest levels of welfare" for the country's wild animals.
She added: "We will now carefully consider the findings, with a view to responding in 2017. Any ensuing proposals for legislative change will be subject to the proper consultation processes."
Analysis by Kevin Keane, BBC Scotland environment correspondent
There are few people in the UK who are as far apart in their views as those who practice hunting and those who oppose it. And yet the senior judge Lord Bonomy has produced a set of proposals which appear to satisfy both.
That outcome cannot be underestimated. Most of his recommendations were expected; clarifying the language of the act, creating a code of practice.
The most surprising is the suggestion of appointing independent monitors to randomly track the activities of hunts.
Policing the law is a big job. Where the two sides differ is in their interpretation of what Lord Bonomy concludes.
League Against Cruel Sports Scotland says his report shows there is "considerable law-breaking."
The pro-hunting Scottish Countryside Alliance interprets it by saying there is no evidence packs "are acting outwith the legislation."
Ministers will wait until next year to decide what to do next. It may be at that detailed stage that this initial unity diminishes.
Scottish Greens MSP Mark Ruskell said the current legislation was not fit for purpose, and claimed wild animal hunters had been able to exploit it using loopholes.
He added: "Lord Bonomy's report is clear that changes are needed to introduce greater restriction and monitoring of hunting and that landowners should also be liable for breaches of the law.
"The Scottish government must act fast to bring amending legislation to parliament and prevent further animal cruelty from taking place."
The League Against Cruel Sports called on the Scottish government to strengthen the law before the current fox hunting season closes at the end of March 2017.
Its Scottish director, Robbie Marsland, said: "This review set out to evaluate whether the current law banning hunting in Scotland works.
"Lord Bonomy's robust and detailed examination clearly shows that it doesn't, and that he agrees with us and Police Scotland that improvements are essential if it is to stand any chance of fulfilling its purpose of protecting wild animals."
The Countryside Alliance, which represents hunts, said it was pleased that the inquiry had "recognised the importance of gun packs for fox control and rejected unjustified calls for further restrictions".
But it said it does not believe there is a significant problem with the enforcement of the current legislation, and said Police Scotland had confirmed to MSPs in January that there was "no evidence to suggest that the mounted foxhound packs that exist are acting outwith the legislation that is in place at the moment".
At the weekend, two charities published what they claimed was proof that a fox was killed by dogs during a recent hunt in Renfrewshire.
A post-mortem examination of the animal concluded that a gun wound was unlikely to be the main cause of death and that extensive other injuries were likely to have been inflicted by dogs.
The Countryside Alliance said the animal had been shot in accordance with the law.
A vote on relaxing hunting laws in England and Wales was shelved last year after SNP MPs indicated they would vote against it.