I have just finished reading Lord Bonomy’s report on suggested improvements to the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002. The aim of the legislation in 2002 was to bring to an end the chasing and killing of wild mammals by dogs. The legislation emanated from a private member’s bill and was primarily aimed at mounted fox hunting. I was asked by Scottish Government just days before the bill became law to comment on it. I remember reading the three offences and thinking that any enforcement would be straightforward, but when I started to read the numerous and complex exceptions to the offences it was easy to see that enforcement would be anything but simple.
As someone who, at the time, was looking at the crime of hare coursing almost daily I could see that there were many improvements over the poaching legislation, particularly with there being a power of arrest and far stronger penalties. Apart from my concerns about enforcement I could see immediately the need to bring the proposed legislation into line with most other wildlife legislation, in other words to create the offence of being committed recklessly as well as intentionally. I also foresaw the excuse that hare coursers would offer since rabbits were not included as mammals in the bill, especially when someone was searching for hares to course: “We’re no looking for hares, we’re looking for rabbits.” That was was trotted out regularly as the excuse. Some Glasgow criminals were caught by police in the middle of the night in Perthshire. They had a dead hare in the footwell of the car and exclaimed mock surprise, saying they thought they had caught a particularly big rabbit with their dogs. Naturally the officers knew better.
Two of the recommendations I made in 2002 were to include the term ‘reckless’ and not to exclude the rabbit as a mammal, but to create a general licence for the taking of rabbits by dogs provided the person is authorised. None of my suggestions were taken up. I suspect it was too late for any alterations by that time anyway, so we were left with legislation that, at least as far as mounted foxhunting was concerned, was almost unworkable.
Fox control with footpacks never really created any suspicion of illegal activity but there has been continuing suspicion of illegal hunting with mounted packs almost from day one of the new legislation. Having said that we in Scotland are nowhere near the outrageous situation in England where captive foxes are being released in front of hounds or thrown live to hounds for them to kill.
Lord Bonomy has been scrupulously fair in his report with no bias towards either ‘side.’ I am pleased he agrees that the term ‘deliberately’ needs to be replaced to either included ‘reckless’ or some similar interpretation. The suggested restriction to the use of only one dog underground makes sense by way of ensuring fox control is more humane, and increasing the time bar to three years in line with the Wildlife and Countryside Act will allow investigations to still get to court where there are unavoidable delays due to post-mortem examinations and the preparation of specialist reports.
I particularly like the suggestions mooted that an accused person should have to prove that claims of illegal conduct fall within one of the exceptions, or that the owner of land where an offence takes place may be vicariously liable. For anyone who may have been breaking the law in the past these suggested changes should have a real deterrent effect. Lastly, and I think the most effective, change would be the proposal for official hunt monitors to be employed. If all of these changes are implemented and hunting offences continue, then there is a strong likelihood that because of the recent Penalties Review considerably increased penalties will already be in force for anyone who thinks he can ignore the law.
We are lucky in Scotland that the Government takes these matters seriously, unlike the Westminster government who would much rather repeal their hunting legislation than strengthen it.
Praise for the government in Scotland again for agreeing to give beavers protected status. While the introduction of Eurasian beavers in the River Tay catchment more than a decade ago may well have been intentional or reckless to use the term I have just been discussing, the work of these busy pioneers has in the main been shown to be beneficial in improving habitat for species such as fish, water fowl, dragonflies, amphibians etc. In upper reaches of the Tay catchment their dams are likely to slow water flow in times of extremely wet weather or heavy snow melt and already beavers are a draw for tourism.
There are no doubt some downsides to the presence of beavers with some crops being damaged or, worse still, their burrowing into flood banks allowing water to penetrate and banks to collapse, resulting in flooded fields. I was pleased to see that farmers have been considered and some management of beavers will be legalised (though the manner of the management is not yet known). It is also sensible that natural expansion of the beavers will be permitted but any further unauthorised releases will be investigated for prosecution.
So more progress made, both with the fight against wildlife crime and the re-wilding of Scotland, but there is still more to do. I note that at the Nature of Scotland Awards last night Chris Packham said that, “the persecution of birds of prey is an international embarrassment for Scotland’. He is absolutely correct. I look forward to a realistic sanction that will bring this to an end when Scottish Government receive the result of their review of satellite-tagging data after the recent disappearance of nearly a dozen satellite-tagged golden eagles and hen harriers.