I read the other day that a number of foxhunts in Scotland had been monitored by the League against Cruel Sports (LACS), who claim that in many cases the law was being ignored. It is an offence under the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 to hunt a wild mammal with a dog. Exceptions are rabbits or rodents, provided permission has been obtained from the owner or tenant of the land. The Act has been used successfully by the police many times in relation to hare coursing, though in some circumstances has been superseded by new provisions in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Relating to fox hunting, the legislation is complex since there are considerable exemptions, probably the most important one being the wording that allows a fox to be flushed from cover above ground by a dog or dogs under control and driven towards guns to be shot. Those participating must ‘act to ensure that the fox is shot’ but an offence is not created if the fox is shot at and missed, or if it changes direction away from the waiting guns. If, in the process of chasing the fox towards the guns, the hounds catch and kill the fox, no offence is committed as this is yet another exception.
An offence seems clear-cut if no guns are in place but the wording ‘dog under control’ should be borne in mind. The term ‘under control’ is interesting. In terms of Section 10(4) of the Act (definitions) a dog is ‘under control’ if the person responsible for the dog is able to direct the dog’s activity by physical contact or verbal or audible command, or if the dog is carrying out a series of actions appropriate to the activity undertaken, having been trained to do so. If the pack starts to chase a fox in the opposite direction to where any guns are placed they should be able to be stopped or recalled. If they are unable to be recalled from their objective, or allowed to continue, an offence under the Act may be taking place.
In one case LACS considered that a clear offence by a particular hunt had taken place and rightly passed the evidence to the police for further investigation. Police officers have to uphold the law as it stands, not as some might like it to be. They must be completely impartial, separating legal issues from moral concerns. These investigations can be further complicated by the amount of potential suspects involved and, in real-time incidents, the fact that where the alleged offence is occurring may not be easily accessible and the speed at which the activity may be moving forward.
There is no doubt there are drawbacks with the 2002 legislation. It was a private members bill done, in my view, in a bit of a hurry with insufficient consultation. The Act is basically a list of three offences with pages of exemptions and exceptions. Few cases have been to court so the legislation is largely untested.
In Scotland, we must remember that ‘foot packs’ of hounds are regularly used to control foxes. This is the use of a pack of hounds, controlled by men (or women) on foot, to flush foxes forward towards waiting guns. This has always been done purely for fox control rather than sport and seldom appears to deviate from the law. As readers of this blog will be aware, my view is that mounted foxhunting is no more than a sport, with the most effective methods of controlling foxes being by shooting them in a spotlamp at night or by the use of footpacks.