I am pleased to open the debate on the general principles of the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill. I thank the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee for its considered scrutiny of the bill, and all those who gave extensive evidence at stage 1.
It has been 20 years since the Scottish Parliament passed the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002. In doing so, we became the first part of the United Kingdom to ban the use of dogs to chase and kill wild mammals for sport. As a country, we decided then that such behaviour was unacceptable and unlawful.
Unfortunately, the 2002 act has not proven to be as robust and effective as it was intended to be. Indeed, in my own legal training, I studied it for its deficiencies and legal uncertainty. In bringing forward the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill, I intend to draw a line in the sand and finish the work that was started 20 years ago.
Concerns about the current legislation led the Scottish Government to ask Lord Bonomy to review and report on whether it was achieving its intended purpose. He came to two main conclusions: that there were deficiencies in the drafting of the legislation, and that there was reason to believe that that was leading to instances of illegal hunting. In that regard, he said:
“there are aspects and features of the legislation which complicate unduly the detection, investigation and prosecution of alleged offences”,
“there may be occasions when hunting, which does not fall within one of the exceptions, does take place and ... the grounds for that suspicion should be addressed.”
It is important that Lord Bonomy noted that, despite the majority of fox control being undertaken without dogs,
“it appears that in general 20% or more of foxes disturbed by hunts are killed ... by hounds.”
The bill takes as its starting point the need to address issues that Lord Bonomy identified. We have corrected deficiencies of the past and worked to prevent future deficiencies from opening up, and we have done all of that in pursuit of the highest possible animal welfare standards. However, as we seek to tackle illegal hunting, we must be clear about the need for farmers, land managers, conservationists and environmental groups to continue to have access to legitimate and legal control methods to protect livestock and ground-nesting birds, manage deer and tackle invasive species. We must also bear in mind that Police Scotland uses dogs to detect evidence of wildlife crime. Those are all legitimate purposes for which dogs are used in our rural nation.
The bill has been designed to balance the safe, considerate and appropriate use of dogs in permitted circumstances with the need to stop illegal hunting. Where there is suspicion of illegal activity, the bill will make it easier for the police and the Crown Office to detect, investigate and prosecute.
I am most grateful for the work that the minister has done in meeting me and representatives of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association. Does she accept that, as far as its work and that of its members and the Scottish Hill Packs Association in using dogs to control foxes is concerned, there have been few—if any—complaints about that aspect? Will she confirm that the licensing regime will be flexible and will allow that good work to continue without unreasonable impediment, cost or complication?
I have met Fergus Ewing, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and interested bodies across the spectrum. There is evidence that the legislation as it stands was not operating appropriately with regard to mounted hunts and foot packs. I think that there were instances in respect of which Forestry and Land Scotland, for example, had concerns, and the League Against Cruel Sports has evidence that it thinks shows that the rules were contravened.
I will come on to the licence, which I think we will hear a lot about today. My opinion is that the licence is an exception to an exception. It is to be available in exceptional circumstances, but it has to be available due to some of what Bonomy identified.
The licensing regime to allow for the use of more than two dogs in specific circumstances
, which the minister has touched on, is absolutely essential in areas such as the one that I represent if we are to protect endangered ground-nesting birds as well as livestock. I am sure that she would agree with that. However, it is equally imperative that the scheme is workable in practice. To that end, I seek an undertaking from the minister that there will be direct input from land managers in its creation. I am thinking specifically about gamekeepers. I note the very constructive way in which the Scottish Gamekeepers Association has engaged on that particular point.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I am happy to give that undertaking, because it has been important to me from the start—and it continues to be important—that those who are affected by the legislation that we seek to pass are engaged in its development. Stakeholders have been thoroughly engaged until this point, and they will continue to be engaged as the guidance that will accompany the legislation is developed. I think that, at committee, NatureScot said that it would continue to work with stakeholders once the guidance is in place to ensure that it does what it says on the tin.
The provisions in the bill are the result of many years of work: Lord Bonomy’s review, the widespread engagement that I mentioned with land management and animal welfare stakeholders, and two public consultations. Although the bill broadly replicates the provisions of the 2002 act, it makes certain important modifications that I will try to outline quickly.
First, the bill addresses the concerns with the language of the act by unambiguously setting out the purposes for which dogs can be used. It also introduces a two-dog limit for the lawful activity of searching for, stalking and flushing wild animals.
Yes, I acknowledge that. I also acknowledge his comments—I am not quoting because I do not have them in front of me—that the addition of the licensing scheme made the two-dog limit workable. He said that the scheme and the limit work together and that it was also a good idea to keep the licensing scheme restricted. I hope that Rachael Hamilton and other members will recognise that, together, the two-dog limit plus the licensing scheme represent the finest possible balance between those competing interests.
The licensing scheme is critical to whether the bill will fulfil what it sets out to achieve, so why, in your response to the committee, did you suggest that you would not lay out the information on it until after the bill is passed?
A member of Finlay Carson’s tenure would surely understand that the Government cannot produce guidance that accompanies the bill until it knows the final form of the bill. We are committed to continuing to engage with stakeholders throughout the development of the legislation. The bill sets out the framework for the licensing scheme. The guidance will accompany it. Stakeholders will be involved but I cannot know the form of the bill until it is passed at stage 3.
I will make reference to some points from the committee’s report. I am pleased that the committee agreed with the general principles of the bill. Its report raised a number of important points, which I have addressed in my written response and will not rehearse here.
However, I will touch on the licensing scheme. I am clear that it is an exception to an exception. It must be construed narrowly and available only where other options are not. However, I am equally clear that, when farmers, land managers and environmental groups find themselves in such circumstances, the scheme must be available, workable and sensible. Therefore, I, my officials and NatureScot will continue to engage with stakeholders throughout the passage of the bill and during the implementation phase to develop and refine the scheme.
I will also briefly mention rough shooting, which was raised with me during the latter stages of stage 1. Although I tried to give a definitive view on the treatment of rough shoots when asked, it soon became clear to me that people have different views on what constitutes a rough shoot. That is inherent in the name: it is a loose and informal term.
My officials and I have been working, particularly since I appeared at the committee, to better understand the various permutations of a rough shoot and how they would be treated under the bill. For today’s purposes, I can say that it is clear that there are circumstances in which what is regarded as a rough shoot could operate within the bill—for example, where one person uses their own two dogs to flush their own quarry, not working in proximity to, or with, others in pursuit of the same quarry and not allowing other dogs to join them. However, there are activities that have been put to me as rough shooting that would not be permissible under the bill—for example, a gamekeeper using five dogs to flush wild mammals to be shot by paying customers.
Rough shooting is a broad term and it is impossible to treat it singularly. Therefore, I will listen to views that are shared on it in the debate and will keep working with members in advance of stage 2.
I was pleased to hear Lord Bonomy comment during his evidence to the committee that he considers the bill to be
“a very well-crafted piece of legislation” that
“solves the problems” of
“the loose and variable use of language … and … should be a great incentive for better enforcement of the law”.—[
Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee
, 15 June 2022; c 41.]
I look forward to hearing members’ speeches and will listen closely to them.
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill.
As the convener of the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee, I am pleased to speak to the committee’s stage 1 report on the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill today.
I thank everyone who was involved in the inquiry, particularly the clerks, the Scottish Parliament information centre and all the organisations and individuals who provided evidence, which allowed us to draw on a wealth of quality evidence and expertise.
The Government has stated that the bill is intended to address deficiencies in the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 that might have contributed to the continuation of illegal hunting practices in Scotland. The bill attempts to address ambiguities in the language that is used; it also introduces a two-dog limit for hunting above ground and a one-dog limit for hunting below ground. It provides for a licensing scheme to facilitate exceptions to some of those limits and it prohibits the activity known as trail hunting.
The committee noted those intentions and recognised that the bill is an attempt to strike a balance between pursuing the highest possible standards in animal welfare and allowing for legitimate control of wild mammals in our rural communities. Although the committee supported the general principles of the bill, we reflected a number of concerns that were raised by various stakeholders in our report.
On behalf of the committee, I welcome the Government’s response, which sets out its view on those concerns. In addition, I appreciate that that response was provided in good time, which allowed all members to reflect on our report and the Government’s response ahead of today’s debate.
Sections 1 and 2 create the offences of hunting using a dog if none of the exceptions that are set out in later sections apply.
The revised language and definitions that are used in the bill lead on from Lord Bonomy’s review of the 2002 act, which was undertaken in 2016. In evidence to the committee, Lord Bonomy stated that he regarded the bill as a
“very well-crafted piece of legislation” and that
“It makes everything much clearer and simpler, which, in itself, should be a great incentive for better enforcement of the law”.—[
Official Report, Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee,
15 June 2022; c 41.]
Lord Bonomy supported the removal of the word “deliberately” from the definition of hunting. The committee also noted the concerns of some stakeholders, who called for the bill to include clearer definitions of terms such as “hunting”, “searching” and “coursing”. It is vital that the bill does not repeat the problem of ambiguous language that was identified in relation to the 2002 act, so we asked for further information on the definition of hunting, to reassure us that those terms do not need to be further defined.
In her response, the minister reiterated her position that hunting should encompass the
“natural meaning of the word”,
and she argued that expanding the term would offer
“scope for people to argue that some specific conduct which would naturally be understood as hunting falls outwith the definition.”
I will move on to the issue of the definition of a wild mammal, which has been expanded to include rabbits but not rats, mice or animals
“living under temporary or ... human control”.
The committee noted that the inclusion of rabbits in the definition is intended to address concerns that hunting rabbits is used as cover for hare coursing, as well as to prevent rabbits from being chased and killed by dogs. There was disagreement among stakeholders on the animal welfare benefits of including rabbits in the definition, with some arguing that a ban on using dogs to hunt rabbits is not the most effective way to tackle hare coursing.
In our report, we asked the Government to provide further information on how dogs are used to control rabbits and to clarify what alternative methods of preventing hare coursing have been considered.
The member referred to the committee’s report, which is excellent, by the way. I noted that Police Scotland welcomed the inclusion of rabbits in the bill, because hunting rabbits can be used as subterfuge in relation to hare coursing. In addition, the procurator fiscal’s office said that that would be a useful inclusion in the bill. Do you agree?
These are quotes, yes.
In her response, the minister stated that the bill would address the animal welfare anomaly whereby it is an offence to use dogs to chase and kill hares and most wild mammals but it is not an offence to chase and kill rabbits.
The bill provides exceptions to the offence of hunting a wild mammal using a dog. In sections 3 and 5, those exceptions are for
“preventing serious damage to livestock, woodland or crops, ... preventing the spread of disease” and
“protecting human health.”
Section 6 covers exceptions for falconry, game shooting and deer stalking. Section 7 covers exceptions for environmental benefit, such as preserving a particular species or biodiversity more broadly. The exceptions apply only for certain purposes and so long as specified conditions are met. One condition is the use of a bird of prey, instead of guns, to kill a wild mammal. In its evidence, the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission questioned why that exception is included and recommended its removal from the bill. The minister confirmed that the use of a bird of prey as one of the two permitted methods of killing a wild mammal is to include instances in which a falconer is employed to use dogs to flush to a waiting bird of prey.
Section 3 contains the first exception and introduces a two-dog limit for the purposes of controlling wild mammals above ground to prevent
“serious damage to livestock, woodland or crops.”
The committee recognises the impact and consequences of serious damage caused by wild mammals. The committee also noted the different views of stakeholders on the impact of the two-dog limit on animal welfare. Some considered that that would still allow for the flushing of mammals from cover while reducing the likelihood of a dog handler losing control over a pack. However, others were concerned that the two-dog limit would prevent the effective flushing of animals and prolong distress for both wild mammal and dog. Some committee members shared those concerns, and our report asks the Government to address them in a workable way through the proposed licensing scheme.
Section 4 sets out the proposal for a licensing scheme—an exception to the exception—to permit the use of more than two dogs for a maximum of 14 days. The licensing scheme is set to be administered by NatureScot. Although the licensing scheme could be the means of addressing stakeholders’ concerns about the impact of the two-dog limit, the committee heard different expectations among stakeholders about how the licensing scheme should work in practice. There were different expectations partly as a result of a lack of clarity about the licensing scheme.
The committee welcomes the commitments by the Government and NatureScot to engage with stakeholders on the design of the licensing scheme and to provide further information on the scheme’s development. The minister set out her intention to continue to engage with stakeholders after today’s decision on whether to agree to the bill’s general principles. However, given the significant importance of the licensing scheme, as the convener of the committee, I would warmly welcome a commitment to give a verbal update to the committee prior to the consideration of stage 2 amendments. Any movement in the Government’s position on that issue or on any of the other contentious issues might require the committee to take additional evidence before the conclusion of the bill process.
A particular concern among some stakeholders was the requirement for a licence to be valid for up to 14 days, and we sought the Government’s view on that. I thank the minister for her response on the issue and for confirming her continuing engagement with stakeholders and her openness to considering alternative approaches, should appropriate arguments be made as to why 14 days would not be a sufficient period.
Section 5 provides an exception for the use of one dog below ground to flush fox or mink. The Government’s view is that the use of one dog below ground strikes a balance between predation control and animal welfare, but animal welfare stakeholders had concerns that the use of even one dog below ground raises animal welfare issues. We also heard concerns about how the exception could work in practice, as the conditions require verbal or audible commands by the dog handler but the National Working Terrier Federation’s position is that flushing is most effective when dog handlers work in silence. Given that evidence, the committee was not clear on how the exception would maintain the highest animal welfare standards or work in practice. The minister’s response reiterates the Government’s position and provides some helpful clarification on how the exception would work. I welcome her commitment to listen carefully to what is said today about the exception and to give full consideration to our views and feed back before stage 2 proceedings.
Section 6 provides an exception for the use of up to two dogs for falconry, game shooting and deer stalking. Some stakeholders raised concerns about how the exception for game and rough shooting would work in practice.
The minister provided some detail, but there are concerns that there are more questions to be answered. Her response does little to provide clarity on rough shoots and creates more questions.
We look forward to more engagement as we go through the bill process, and the committee will continue to highlight stakeholders’ concerns. I look forward to hearing members’ contributions to the debate. If the bill progresses at decision time, I expect that the committee will explore some of the issues that are raised in more detail at stage 2.
Thank you, Presiding Officer—I am glad that you reminded me of that.
Since the election of the sixth Scottish Parliament, there have been more than 200 debates in the chamber, and I can think of only two in that time that have focused exclusively on rural affairs. I welcome this exceedingly rare opportunity to discuss in this setting a matter that relates to our rural communities. However, the fact that we discuss such matters so infrequently is indicative of a Government that does not understand that 98 per cent of the country is classified as rural. Only 1 per cent of our debates are on the issue, when it relates to 98 per cent of Scotland.
I am afraid that that lack of understanding is plainly evident in the bill. After Lord Bonomy published his review of existing legislation on hunting with dogs, ministers were right to look at ways of addressing the weaknesses that were highlighted, but they have done so in a manner that ignores the findings of Lord Bonomy’s review and the bulk of the evidence that was provided by stakeholders. I want to address some of the key areas that stakeholders have described as impractical, unworkable and damaging.
For those who have taken an interest in the bill, animal welfare will be a key part of that interest. There are welfare concerns for the predator, for the animals under predation that are being protected and, in this context, for dogs. Earlier this month, we were all alarmed to hear of the perilous position in which capercaillie find themselves. The story is the same for other ground-nesting birds such as the curlew. We must recognise that the failure to manage predators has real-life consequences, not just for kept animals but for our fledgling wildlife. Does the minister really want to be the minister who lost the capercaillie or curlew? The reality is that that is what is at stake in the bill. If we pass the bill in its current form, we will risk removing the vital tool of predator control from our toolbox for protecting and enhancing Scotland’s biodiversity.
The Scottish Countryside Alliance noted that, if dogs are to continue to be used effectively in rough shooting or other pest control contexts, more than two dogs will be needed and that will therefore have to be licensed under the bill. The former director of the League Against Cruel Sports stated that
“gun packs have realised that pairs of dogs are utterly useless in flushing to guns”,
and Lord Bonomy himself noted that
“imposing such a restriction could seriously compromise effective pest control in the country”,
especially on rough or covered terrain.
Given the implications of imposing a two-dog limit, it is absolutely imperative that the licensing system is fair and workable. I acknowledge that the minister has said that in her response. As Bonomy notes, the bill’s viability rests on that, yet there is overwhelming evidence from organisations such as the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the SCA, the NFUS and many more that the proposals as drafted are neither fair nor practical nor remotely workable.
There is a typical lack of detail but, where detail is provided, it makes for worrying reading. For example, the 14-day licence is ill-thought-through and unevidenced. As the SCA has pointed out, most land managers who use packs to flush would do so two to three times a year at regular intervals, in conjunction with other methods. To limit each licence to a 14-day period is unworkable unless applicants can be granted multiple licences, which is of course bureaucratic and unnecessary. Farmers need the flexibility to use their licence allowance in a way that is most appropriate to them, and the current plan would completely ignore that need.
There are many more unanswered questions about the licensing scheme. As the minister has already said to the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee, we simply cannot wait until a farmer’s livestock has been killed by a fox before they have enough evidence to apply for a licence. That begs the question what evidence an applicant needs to provide to obtain a licence. We do not know. What is the distinction between flushing foxes to protect livestock and doing so to protect the environment? We have no answer. How does the scheme deal with landscape-scale wildlife management? More evidence is required. There is a lot of work to be done on the few areas of the licensing scheme that I have discussed, but that barely scratches the surface, and my time is ticking on.
I turn to the inclusion of rabbits in the definition of “wild mammal”. I understand that the Government intends to tackle the serious problem of hare coursing, but that must not come at the expense of effective wildlife management. There is a remedy, which would allow rabbits to be excluded from the definition while ensuring that they could not be used as a defence for hare coursing. I would be grateful if the minister would meet me to discuss that and perhaps consider future amendments.
We know how damaging rabbit grazing can be to the natural environment, as well as to grazing grounds that farmers need for their livestock. They can cause damage to crops, businesses and infrastructure, costing farmers and others money to repair and replace what is damaged, as well as putting a massive strain on their mental health.
I will give way to the minister.
I would be happy to meet with the member, as I am with any member who wants to discuss the issues. I ask her to reflect on whether she believes that the sentience of a rabbit means that its welfare ought to be protected and that it ought to be protected from being chased and killed by dogs in the same way that I think we would all agree that a hare should.
I ask the minister whether she believes that the sentience of a rat would be in the same category.
BASC has also pointed out that the inclusion of rabbits in the two-dog limit provision has unintended consequences for rough shooting. I am sure that the minister would like to touch on that in her closing remarks, given the widespread concern that that activity would become restricted rather than an exception.
This afternoon, we joined a protest outside Parliament by people, including the Crofters Federation, against the proposed new agriculture bill and the lack of detail within the bill on crofting. Next week, an even larger rally, organised by NFU Scotland, will be held on the same issue.
I do not have much time—I am really sorry. Perhaps the member could speak to me another time.
The Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill is growing to a large pile of red tape that will stop people from doing their job—the very people who provide food for the country while working towards a sustainable future for agriculture and for Scotland’s countryside, producing crops, managing our natural environment and protecting wildlife. Those people are doing all that, but they are needlessly being penalised with more bureaucracy than ever.
I see that you are making signs for me to conclude, Presiding Officer. The full folder I have with me is the extent of letters I have received, even in the past week, from rural organisations that are concerned about the matter. I am concerned for people’s mental health and about their livelihoods and I hope that the Scottish National Party shares those concerns.
I echo the thanks to the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee members and clerks for all the work that they have put into gathering evidence to inform its stage 1 report, and to all those who made submissions.
Like the committee, Labour is happy to support the general principles of the bill at stage 1. The bill is the culmination of many years of reviews, consultations, debate and, unfortunately, delays. It is time to put the matter to bed. It is time to end the cruelty of hunting with dogs once and for all.
It is 20 years since the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 was passed by Parliament. Since then, a minority of people have sought to ignore both the letter and the spirit of that law, exploiting loopholes and believing that, despite the will of Parliament and overwhelming public opposition to hunting with dogs, it should be business as usual. For them, the bill as it stands will mean a continuation of that business as usual, because it does not fully close the loopholes that exist; it merely licences them.
You cannot license cruelty. You cannot believe on the one hand that we need to limit the number of dogs to two because that reduces the risk of dogs instinctively chasing and killing, but on the other hand continue to allow the use of packs of dogs simply because someone has a licence. You do not close loopholes by creating new ones.
Those people certainly do have the right to protect their livestock and crops, and numerous examples were given to committee of how that can be achieved using the limit of two dogs.
Labour will lodge an amendment to the bill to remove licensing, to make sure that two dogs actually means two dogs. I say to SNP members that, if they vote against that and vote with Tory MSPs to keep licensing, they are voting to keep hunting with packs of dogs.
Does Mr Smyth not accept that in some terrain—in forestry, on uneven and difficult land and on hill land—it is simply impossible to carry out the task with only two dogs?
There are numerous ways in which people can manage wildlife in their area, and using dogs is only one of them. The very fact that the Government has so far failed to define what would be achieved by a licence and what the criteria would be suggests that licensing will be difficult. I think Fergus Ewing gives the game away that some people will seek to ride roughshod over the ban by using the licensing scheme for pretty undefined criteria.
The reality is that the bill does not ban the use of dogs; it limits their use to just two. In evidence to the committee, the minister admitted that the use of packs of dogs has meant that, in contravention of the 2002 act,
“mammals continue to be chased and killed by ... dogs”.—[
, R ural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee
, 29 June 2022; c 1.]
.] I appreciate that Conservative members have little interest in animal welfare issues, but I note that handing out licences for packs of dogs will not make it any less cruel.
I am very clear on the Conservative position on the ban. It is particularly interesting that the UK Government position is to have legislation in England and Wales that covers using two dogs only, yet there is a different position from the Tories in Scotland. Handing out a licence will not make the use of packs of dogs any less cruel, and people who have exploited the current hunting legislation will seek to exploit this flawed bill.
Many organisations, including the Government’s animal welfare commission, along with animal welfare organisations such as the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, OneKind, the League Against Cruel Sports, Scottish Badgers and the Wild Animal Welfare Committee, already argue that the bill is a compromise by allowing any dogs in the hunting of mammals. Not one of those organisations supports a licensing scheme to allow a continuation of hunting with more than two dogs.
Labour believes that that is not the only area in which the bill falls short. On the offence of hunting itself, the removal of the word “deliberately” is welcome. However, the definition of hunting focuses on searching and coursing and does not include other terms such as “stalking”, “pursuing” or “flushing”. We agree with the written submission of OneKind, which suggests that
“the definition should be ‘to search for, stalk, flush, chase, pursue or course’”.
In its stage 1 report, the committee rightly said that it is “vital” that
“this Bill does not repeat the ambiguities in definitions which were identified in the 2002 Act.”
When the minister gave evidence to the committee, she acknowledged that it “could be helpful” to expand on the list of specified terms, which Labour will seek to achieve at stage 2.
On the bill’s definition of a wild animal, Police Scotland and others supported the inclusion of rabbits, which is a material change from the previous act, not just as a means of preventing hare coursing but on animal welfare grounds. Rabbits are sentient creatures, after all. So, too, are rats and mice, but I note the view of the Scottish animal welfare commission that some of the methods of controlling rodents are arguably even less humane than killing with dogs, and the sooner we outlaw methods such as glue traps the better. In the meantime, Labour accepts the exclusion of rats and mice from the definition.
However, we are unconvinced by the proposal to continue to allow the use of dogs below ground to control wild animals. The provisions in the bill to limit the number of dogs to one, with the unrealistic idea that that dog will be controlled, appears to be a messy compromise. If it is cruel to use more than one dog, it is cruel to use any dogs.
It is little wonder that, in its report, the committee says:
“It is not clear ... that the use of dogs at all below ground is compatible with the Bill’s pursuit of the highest possible animal welfare”.
That is because it is not compatible. Therefore, if the Government does not lodge an amendment to remove the use of dogs below ground, Labour will do so.
I want to end on a positive note. I welcome section 11 of the bill, which introduces new offences for participating in trail hunting. That sport was created in England and Wales as a cover for hunting wild mammals after the passage of the Hunting Act 2004. OneKind pointed out in its submission to the committee that pre-emptively banning trail hunting in Scotland will prevent a repeat of that situation, and the SSPCA said:
“Banning trail hunting altogether will eliminate any confusion by enforcement agencies of the activity taking place.”
There is much more in the bill that I am sure will be raised in the debate, and I hope to come back to some of the issues in my closing comments.
Ending hunting with packs of dogs is unfinished business. It is regrettable that the bill is necessary, but it is. However, we need to get it right. Labour will work with the Government and others to help to achieve that. We must ensure that we do not respond to existing loopholes by creating new ones and that we do not just nudge the bar towards less hunting with packs of dogs but end hunting with packs of dogs once and for all.
As deputy convener of the RAINE Committee, I thank the clerks, the bill team and SPICe for their work and I thank my committee colleagues and our convener Finlay Carson. I also thank all the witnesses who gave evidence to the committee and the organisations that provided briefings.
The stated aim of the bill, which replaces the 2002 act, is to give clarity to what was intended by that act’s ending of the hunting of wild mammals with dogs except in limited circumstances. The bill seeks to manage pest control, which is an important part of living on the land, rather than to eradicate it.
I want to see a workable scheme that is based on evidence.
The Law Society of Scotland’s briefing expressed its concerns regarding section 3(3)(e) and the condition that the wild mammal is shot dead, or killed by a bird of prey
“as soon as reasonably possible”.
The Law Society highlights that such terminology does not provide
“substantive difference from the equivalent provision under the 2002 act, which requires the mammal to be shot dead or killed by a bird of prey ‘once it is safe to do so’”.
The proposed licensing scheme chimes with evidence that the committee heard that, in some instances, more than two dogs are required to flush a wild mammal from cover to enable quick flushing and dispatch. The Liberal Democrats support the principle of a licensing scheme. The Scottish Government will need to address concerns about the scheme, which we share. The minister has said that applying for a licence should be the “exception”. We need clarity from the minister about what will be considered an exception.
A workable licensing scheme must be evidence-led and flexible. The period of 14 consecutive days seems unnecessarily restrictive. I would like the minister to consider greater flexibility, led by the evidence, so that the 14 days could be spread across a longer period. The criteria used for the licensing scheme must also be looked at, because there is a lack of clarity about the details of the scheme. The criteria must be developed through engagement with stakeholders and based on the evidence about what works.
The minister indicated that she is willing to engage further with stakeholders on that matter. I encourage her to do so to ensure that the licensing scheme will be both workable and practicable. It must support crofters, farmers and those who live and work on the land in their roles as land managers and food producers so that they can protect livestock and crops and combat biodiversity loss through necessary pest control.
NatureScot will be responsible for administering the licensing scheme and the committee received assurances that it is fully resourced to cope with that additional responsibility. In scrutinising that point, it would be helpful if the Scottish Government could indicate how many licences it expects will be issued each year, once the system is operational.
Some stakeholders have raised concerns about the implications for rough shooting and gun dog trials. I am pleased that the minister has clarified that those activities remain legal under the bill, provided that each person in attendance controls no more than two dogs and that the dogs do not form a pack.
I note that the Scottish Government agrees with concerns that the bill does not provide for the use of two dogs to search for and retrieve a wild mammal that has been injured and I look forward to seeing an amendment from the Scottish Government in due course to address that point.
I turn to trail hunting. The proposed pre-emptive ban is sensible, given the view that trail hunting here could be used as a cover for hunting wild mammals, because of the ban on hunting with more than two dogs in England and Wales. Concerns were raised, however, that the two-dog limit on the exception for training dogs to follow an animal-based scent could negatively impact the training of police and emergency rescue dogs. The committee heard that up to six dogs are trained at once by Police Scotland. However, the Scottish Government states that it is not standard practice to release more than two dogs at any one time. I would appreciate an assurance from the Government that all emergency and rescue training will be covered by the exception.
Work remains to be done on the details to ensure that the bill achieves its aims, but the Scottish Liberal Democrats will today support the general principles of the bill.
As a member of the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee, I am pleased to participate in the debate and in our deliberations. It is true to say that the committee has endorsed the general principles of the bill and that the evidence from stakeholders has been constructive and supportive. For example, NFU Scotland stressed the need to maintain effective, practical and pragmatic control of wild animals in the farming and crofting contexts and the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland rightly pointed out the flaws in the legislation from 20 years ago.
The challenges that are inevitably posed by definitions have loomed large in our consideration of the bill. There is a dilemma in deploying an inclusive and open-ended approach by way of extending terminology because there is potential for unintended consequences. That is a balancing act, but it has been successfully achieved in the bill.
As part of that balancing act, we are determined to close loopholes that might be exploited by those who wish to continue using dogs to chase and kill wild animals while, on the other hand, we recognise the need for the effective protection of livestock and wildlife from predation where there is no option other than using more than two dogs.
The evidence that the committee received from the police and the Crown Office has been invaluable, not least with regard to hare coursing, which remains a serious concern in Scotland. The inclusion of rabbits within the definition of “wild mammal” in the bill is part of a wider package that addresses that issue.
Does the member recognise the serious damage that rabbits can do to land, biodiversity, crops and all the rest of it, causing livelihood issues for farmers, if they are not controlled properly?
I do. I agree with the member in that regard. They can cause damage. However, as we heard in committee, there are other ways of controlling rabbits
, and we need to look at those other options that do not involve them being hunted down with dogs. In Scotland, we need to set the highest standards for animal welfare.
I do not think that I or anybody needs to hear evidence on whether hunting and killing rabbits without an actual need would be harmful in any way. If the member wants to narrow down his question a bit and say specifically what he means, I will be happy to give way again.
The bill is all about animal welfare. That is the principle of the bill. Did we hear any evidence that suggested that there are any animal welfare issues relating to rabbits?
I think that we heard plenty of evidence from a lot of stakeholders, but the main premise of the bill is to tighten up legislation and ensure that we have the highest animal welfare standards in Scotland. I do not believe—and others agree with me—that chasing down a wild rabbit with dogs fits with those high standards in Scotland.
The bill is part of a wider package that addresses the issues. The stakeholder and public consultation on the definition of “wild mammal” highlighted that those who are suspected of undertaking hare coursing, which is an illegal activity under the 2002 act, frequently use the cover that they are legally using dogs to hunt rabbits. As always, the committee has scrutinised the bill and deliberated, but it is key to enforcement that we build a greater level of public awareness of poaching and coursing as serious wildlife crimes. We must continue to build working relationships and communications and to share information between all agencies and organisations.
As a committee, we have also recognised that a degree of flexibility is required to meet individual contexts and circumstances. I doubt that I am alone in recalling the submission to us from Lord Bonomy that the two-dog limit could affect predator control,
“particularly on rough and hilly ground and in extensive areas of dense cover such as conifer woodlands.”
One size does not fit all, and the addition of a licensing scheme to enable the use of more than two dogs in certain circumstances is a viable approach, as the bill acknowledges.
Following this debate, there will rightly be a series of stakeholder engagement meetings, which will follow the shared wildlife management principles, to provide an open platform for stakeholders to discuss the subject and provide expertise on the development of such licensing schemes.
There has been a profound amount of work on the bill at committee level, but the time that I have to speak to it is, of course, limited.
Having packs of dogs kill and chase animals such as foxes has no place in modern Scotland. The practice has been illegal for 20 years, but a number of loopholes need to be addressed to end it once and for all, and the bill facilitates that.
At the outset, I should declare an interest—or perhaps a non-interest: despite being an urban creature who is most comfortable when surrounded by concrete and fumes, I sometimes pass through the clean air of the countryside, and have even been known to visit it, on occasion. What I am trying to say is that my knowledge of the subject is nothing like that of many other members. However, it is possible that not being a countryside dweller might even be helpful, as I do not have a dog in this particular fight—so to speak.
I begin by thanking Finlay Carson, my party’s convener of the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee, along with the other members. Finlay and my equally highly respected colleague, Rachael Hamilton, have great passion for Scotland’s rural communities, and real depth of knowledge.
Having been volunteered to speak in the debate, I realised that I needed to learn quickly. I have read numerous media reports and debate briefings that were submitted to members. I spent some of the recess digesting the committee’s stage 1 report on the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill—which is, of course, what we are dealing with this afternoon.
It is evident that much work has been done and many competing views have been expressed. Although there is some support for the bill, all members should listen to the strong and valid concerns that have been raised by numerous organisations. They include the Scottish Countryside Alliance, which describes the bill as
“unnecessary and contrary to the evidence”.
It contests the apparent premise of the bill, which is that the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 has somehow failed. It warns that the new bill, which is intended to replace the 2002 act, might not improve animal welfare as is intended, and that it could have the opposite effect. Its director, Jake Swindells said:
“We cannot have a situation unfold where a bill of this magnitude is waved through with potentially devastating consequences for rural Scotland and our countryside.”
“makes everything much clearer and simpler” and that it will be
“a great incentive for better enforcement of the law”?—[
Official Report, Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee,
15 June 2022; c 41.]
Indeed, Lord Bonomy said that. As I will come on to, I am illustrating the other voices that feel that perhaps they have not been heard properly, as they should have been. It seems that some people who oppose the bill feel they are not being heard, or worse, that the Government is just going through the motions.
That brings to mind my recent experience on the Criminal Justice Committee, of taking evidence from stakeholders on what became the Fireworks and Pyrotechnic Articles (Scotland) Act 2022. Industry representatives with decades of experience, and whose interests are served by safe use of fireworks, complained of being sidelined. They expressed frustration that their input felt more like tokenism or box ticking, and that blinkered ministers had already decided what they wanted to do.
Similar recent criticism has been directed at the Government’s Gender Recognition (Reform) Scotland Bill. Women with legitimate and reasonable concerns feel that they are not being heard because their views do not suit Nicola Sturgeon’s agenda.
Whether it is about gender reform, fireworks, hunting with dogs, or any other bill, it is the job of members of the Parliament to listen and to consider all views—not just to pay lip service to them.
I am sure that those stakeholders will be reassured by the minister’s comments. Let us hope that what she said comes to pass.
Another issue with the bill that interests me relates to its enforcement, which will fall to Police Scotland. We ask so much of our police officers, who work gruelling shifts under immense pressure and whose numbers are at their lowest since 2008. Although it is generally supportive of the bill, Police Scotland has raised a number of concerns that feature in the stage 1 report. It disputes an opinion that was provided to the committee by the Law Society of Scotland in relation to the bill differentiating between ordinary dog walkers and those who are involved in the illegal act of hare coursing.
Police Scotland also raised concerns about the bill’s intended outlawing of trail hunting. The SNP Government’s aim is to ban trail hunting in Scotland, even though—as I understand it—it rarely, if ever, takes place here. The Government apparently has that aim because of a prosecution in England of trail hunting being used as a cover for illegal hunting. Police Scotland reasonably points out that its having happened elsewhere does not, in itself, justify banning it here. Another concern of the police relates to the possibility that elements of the bill might negatively impact on training of police dogs. I am sure that we will hear more about that in due course.
I return to my main point. I hope that the Government listens to those concerns along with those of others who know what they are talking about.
As a member of the RAINE Committee, I am disappointed by the tone that the Tories have brought to the debate. I had thought that the conversations that the committee was having were looking for balance and were constructive; that is what I hoped today’s debate would do. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.
I have 30 years of everyday experience—I mean “everyday experience” literally, because working on a sheep farm is a seven-days-a-week job. I have lived experience as a sheep farmer and shepherd, and I bring the unique perspective of a person whose professional livelihood could have been affected by the consequences of the bill. My hope is that my views are taken as balanced, proportionate and in keeping with the aims of the bill, which is trying to find the right solutions in order to close loopholes, while trying to allow people whose livelihoods and ways of life would be affected to have comfort that the bill will be workable in terms of how it affects each of them.
Predators such as foxes killing the odd lamb is what we sheep farmers would call “passing trade”: it is bound to happen. If one lamb gets lifted, that is the way it goes. If it happens a second time, we start to pay attention. If a third lamb is lifted or killed for trinkets such as ears or its tail, there is an issue in the lambing field: the field is going to be the larder or toy cupboard for a den over the coming season, and that is simply not sustainable for sheep farmers.
It is clear that foxes can do real damage to livestock, livelihoods and ground-nesting birds, so it is important that the Parliament affirms that a certain amount of wildlife control, or predator control, is a necessity for land managers, farmers and conservationists. That is at the heart of the bill and is what the bill intends to do.
That must be balanced against the absolute necessity to close the loophole that allows the obscenity that is people hunting foxes and other mammals with packs of dogs, for sport.
Does Jim Fairlie accept that the licensing scheme should be as flexible as possible and should, especially during the lambing season, give landowners and land managers the ability to control predators over a period of longer than 14 days, without their having to constantly apply to a bureaucratic licensing scheme?
I will come to the licensing scheme.
Throughout the committee’s discussions, I raised concerns about the potential granting of licenses to people who work more than two dogs and those who seek to address predator problems. Foxes will be foxes, and there is no way for a farmer to determine which fox will cause their business harm and over what period they will strike, so granting only a 14-day licence on the basis of a proven local issue is problematic, so I am not convinced that we have struck the right balance on timing. However, I am comforted by and welcome the minister’s commitment, which was given in response to my colleague Graeme Dey’s intervention, to look at that point with land managers. That will help to inform best practice in granting licences.
I understand the Government’s concerns about people using the licence as a loophole, but we are talking about walked-up hounds as opposed to ridden hounds. Use of the licence to exploit or create a loophole is, I believe, as unlikely as it is undesirable for people who use walked hounds for predator control.
I am still keen for the Government to explore the possibility of looking at how many guns are available being as important as the number of dogs that are used for flushing. I have raised that issue in committee on several occasions. If there are sufficient guns on the drive, there will be no room for foxes to escape the guns and then be hunted and killed by dogs.
My final point is that we must not unintentionally criminalise rough shooting and game shooting. At the start of my speech, I suggested that the focus on better definition is well intended. I completely understand the Government’s aims of trying to prevent rabbits from being hunted by dogs and of closing the loophole that exists for those who pursue hare coursing as a sport, but I would caution against the unintended consequence of criminalising people who, quite legitimately, pursue rough shooting and game shooting. I welcome the opportunity to discuss that in depth with the minister at a later date.
I will give one example. It is a scenario that I have used, as a sheep farmer. It took place in a narrow copse of wood running up about 250m. There were two guns either side, two dogs went through the middle and we shot the fox at the top. I will give you as many examples as you like, Finlay.
On the point that Mr Carson has just raised with me, the points that I make today are remarks on the real-world experience of farmers such as me.
I look forward to seeing the bill continue its path through Parliament. I believe that the Government has the tone right and that it will do the right consultation, and that the bill will do exactly what it says on the tin.
As a member of the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee, I begin by thanking the committee’s convener and deputy convener for their facilitation of a robust series of scrutiny sessions on the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill, and the committee clerks for their detailed and thorough work throughout. It is fair to say that we knew from the outset that the bill would stimulate lively debate. I believe that the committee’s stage 1 report reflects the diversity of views that we heard.
Representing, as I do, a large rural area in the north-east, I recognise that there are differing views about whether the measures in the bill are proportionate in respect of their impact on the rural sector, and whether they go far enough in strengthening wildlife protection. Nevertheless, the principles of the bill at stage 1 are to be welcomed, which is why Scottish Labour will be backing it today. As a party, we have long been committed to strengthening wildlife protection law and truly ending the practice of fox hunting in Scotland. The bill marks a welcome step forward in that regard and is a testament to the work of animal welfare campaigning organisations such as the League Against Cruel Sports, OneKind and Scottish Badgers, which have helped to secure some of the positive changes included in the bill.
However, there are a number of limitations in the bill that we would hope to see amended at stage 2.
I will take no interventions.
The Scottish Government has been clear that the bill seeks to address inconsistencies and ambiguities in the language contained in the
Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002. Those inconsistencies and ambiguities often undermined attempts to investigate and prosecute alleged offences. However, as has been highlighted by the Law Society of Scotland, the bill still contains ambiguities. The Law Society identified a lack of clarity around certain definitions and acts described in the bill, and emphasised the importance of clarifying language to improve understanding and enforcement. It makes a number of suggestions, such as clarifying what is meant by “invasive non-native species” by providing a list of common names of such species to be included in the bill. I urge the Scottish Government to address some of the ambiguous language in the bill in order to strengthen understanding, interpretation and enforcement.
The Scottish Government’s stated aim for the bill is to achieve the highest possible animal welfare standards, but it is clear that the proposal to allow even one dog below ground undermines that. Animal welfare organisations highlighted to the committee the difficulties in controlling a dog below ground, which increases the likelihood of conflict between a dog and a wild mammal. Such conflicts pose serious welfare risks to both animals. The Scottish Government has acknowledged the view that such practice is incompatible with the highest standards of animal welfare and has not sought to refute it, yet it has chosen to retain the exception in the bill for the use of one dog underground. The Scottish Government refers to that as “balance”, but the minister cannot have it both ways. She cannot compromise on avoiding cruelty in the same bill that she claims will achieve the highest standards of animal welfare.
I also agree with animal welfare organisations that question why the bill permits the use of birds as a method of killing. It is not credible for the Scottish Government to suggest that the killing of an animal by a bird of prey rather than by a dog is better from an animal welfare perspective. In its written evidence the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission told the committee that:
“The impact on the welfare of the hunted animal is likely to be similar whether killed by a dog or a bird of prey.”
Although the bill will strengthen fox-hunting laws, it will also introduce a licensing scheme that will allow hunting to continue in some circumstances. Under the proposed scheme, packs of dogs could still be used. As a result, such packs would be exempt from the proposed two-dog limit. That is evidently a loophole that could be exploited by people looking to get around the rules and continue with hunts.
As I have already stated, I welcome the bill’s underpinning principles of strengthening wildlife protection and animal welfare. However, it evidently needs further changes in order to strengthen it, including addressing the ambiguity of some of the language used in it, which could undermine both interpretation and enforcement. As the bill would also fail to end the use of any dogs below ground, there would continue to be welfare risks for both dogs and wild mammals. Further, the bill should not permit use of birds of prey as a method of killing. The proposed licensing scheme also has an inherent loophole that could be exploited by people who seek to continue hunting.
If the Scottish Government is unwilling to make the needed changes to the bill, Scottish Labour will lodge amendments at stage 2. Failure to make such changes would risk wasting the opportunity that the bill provides to deliver real and lasting changes to wildlife protection and animal welfare in Scotland.
During the recess I had time to reflect on the subject of the debate.
Only a year ago, we were facing the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—yet I speak at a time when we are still deep in a climate and nature emergency. That is the unavoidable backdrop to everything that we do in the Parliament. It is the context that we need to keep fully in our minds as we shape and scrutinise legislation. For the life of me, I cannot fathom why Governments and Parliaments around the world are not approaching the issue with the speed and focus with which we tackled the pandemic. Let us show the way and act like this is a real emergency, because it is.
Turning to the bill, I will start from the perspective of a wild animal—say, a fox. Imagine the terror of being chased, relentlessly and breathlessly, by 36 hounds—something that a fox has not evolved to do; imagine the desperation of finding that its underground escape routes are blocked, and the horror and agony of being torn limb from limb while still alive.
Hunting wild mammals with packs of dogs is illegal in Scotland, but it continues. In the Borders, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire, 10 hunts go out two to three times a week, from November to March, each and every year. As well as the hounds, there can be dozens of riders on horseback, plus terriers—all working together to prevent the animal’s escape. That is not humane and it is not justifiable.
In the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee and at meetings with stakeholders, a question formed in my mind: are we legislating for a Scotland of the past or a Scotland of today, or are we—as we should be—legislating for a future Scotland? Some 87 per cent of the Scottish public, and 100 per cent of under-35s, support a ban on fox hunting. However, it is not just foxes that need protection.
No—I am not going to take any interventions.
That is why such sports are an excluded area in the Bute house agreement with the Scottish Government. We can therefore push harder for more ambitious legislation that would give wild animals the protection and respect that they need and deserve. There are areas where we agree, and I am confident that there will be scope to work with the Government and other parties to strengthen the bill as it makes its way through Parliament.
The Greens will support the bill at stage 1, but to retain our support, it is essential that three loopholes in the legislation are closed. It is already an offence to use a dog to chase and kill wild mammals. However, exceptions in the current law act as loopholes, providing cover for illegal hunting to continue. Those loopholes include training dogs to follow an animal’s scent or using dogs to flush out foxes for falconry. Make no mistake: if the bill establishes a licensing scheme for using more than two dogs, illegal hunting will persist. Instead, we must close off those loopholes, just as the hunts close off the foxes’ escape routes.
The Scottish Greens are not interested in licensing cruelty. At stage 2 I will lodge an amendment to remove the licensing scheme from the bill. A strict two-dog limit would put an end to illegal hunting with packs. Hunts will not want to go out with just two dogs, and if they do, it will be much easier for prosecutors to determine when the law is being broken. The evidence shows that it is not necessary to use more than two dogs to manage wildlife or achieve environmental benefits—as my colleague Jim Fairlie just indicated. I understand and sympathise with farmers in their need to minimise the loss of lambs. A two-dog limit will not prevent farmers from protecting their livestock or crops, but it will encourage the use of more humane and effective stock management measures.
Licensing is not the only loophole in the legislation that needs to be closed. The exception for management of foxes and mink below ground needs to be removed as it provides a smokescreen for terrier work in fox hunts. Even if the aim is to flush the fox or mink in order to kill it in a more humane way, sending terriers below ground often results in something akin to a dogfight underground, with horrific injuries to the animals involved.
The Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee report questions whether the use of dogs below ground at all is compatible with the bill’s pursuit of the highest possible animal welfare standards, and it is doubtful that it would align with the international ethical principles for wildlife control.
Finally, the loophole for using dogs in hunting for sport must be closed. There is no need to kill animals for sport. That is altogether different from killing them for food or to protect certain species, livestock or biodiversity. Of those who support the bill, 89 per cent object to the exceptions for falconry, game shooting and deerstalking. We cannot allow such exceptions to be another loophole for fox hunts, as happens in England, where hunts sometimes carry birds of prey as a token to circumvent the two-dog limit.
We support the intention of the bill—to protect wild mammals from being chased and killed by packs of dogs—so we will vote in favour of its general principles. However, there is no doubt that the bill is flawed and that those three loopholes must be closed. I look forward to working with the minister and members from across Parliament to achieve that and to finally ban foxhunting in Scotland.
As a result of everyone sticking to their time limits and accommodating interventions within those, we have a little more time in hand. My successor in the chair might be able to be a little more generous.
I want to declare less of an interest and more of an objectivity: my constituency of the Western Isles has no native fox population. There was a single sighting some 14 years ago, which can convincingly be explained as a fox only if it was either an exceptionally good swimmer or a very sly CalMac passenger. I have tried to approach my role on the committee from that dispassionate starting point.
I thank everyone involved in the stage 1 report, including all the other committee members, the witnesses, those stakeholders who provided written evidence and, not least, the committee clerks. It is important to remember that the aims of the bill grew out of the response to Lord Bonomy’s report on the review of the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, by producing better and less ambiguous legislation on the hunting of wild mammals. Doing so requires considering two objectives: on the one hand, preventing cruelty, and on the other, recognising the legitimate needs for pest control that farmers and other land managers have.
Although it is inevitable that not all will agree with the committee’s findings in the stage 1 report, I believe that the committee has taken balanced evidence on the many questions before it and has done so in more measured tones than one or two of the contributions in the debate suggest we have.
This is undeniably a difficult and technical issue. Rather than engage with inevitably polarising articles of faith around the question of hunting with dogs, I believe that the committee’s stage 1 report is instead an effort to examine the facts. Not only does it seek to examine the Scottish Government’s proposals, it requests, as others have mentioned, further information from the Government on points of the bill where further information was, in the committee’s view, still needed. The Government has already responded to that call, which is very welcome, and the Government’s response to the report will, I believe, help to inform the bill as it goes forward.
A number of stakeholders have already commented that the bill represents a significant clarification of the law. Perhaps most notably, as I alluded to in an earlier intervention, the author of the 2016 review, Lord Bonomy, in giving evidence to the committee, said that he regarded the bill as a
“very well-crafted piece of legislation” and an improvement on the existing law. He said that the bill
“solves the problems that I identified about the loose and variable use of language. It makes everything much clearer and simpler, which, in itself, should be a great incentive for better enforcement of the law, because the police and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service were struggling with the effective detection and prosecution of offenders.”—[
Official Report, Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee,
15 June 2022; c 41.]
In the same evidence session, Dr Pete Goddard from the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission said:
“There are some small points on which greater clarity and less confusion could be introduced but, in general, it is moving towards questioning practices and looking for solutions that follow international ethical principles for wildlife control”.—[
Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee
, 15 June 2022; c 12.]
He said that it was “very supportive” of such moves.
However, the report also acknowledges the views of a minority of committee members on various specific issues such as the inclusion of rabbits in the definition of wild mammal and whether the bill could create a liability for dog walkers where a dog chases a wild mammal while being exercised. Incidentally, for my part, I believe that the evidence that we heard answered any questions about that last scenario very convincingly, and that view was shared by the majority of the committee.
Other issues on which we took extensive evidence included the proposed two-dog limit and, as others have discussed, the licensing scheme that would provide for exceptions to that; the introduction of deprivation orders, which would allow the courts to intervene in relation to any dogs or horses used in an offence; allowing exceptions for the training of dogs; the use of dogs underground; and the inclusion, as we have talked about, of rabbits in the terms of the bill, which, as others have alluded to, is intended to address the fact that those suspected of hare coursing frequently use as a cover the explanation that they are legally using dogs to hunt rabbits.
I was interested in the argument that not allowing rabbits to be used as a defence for hare coursing would lead—nobody has said this—to an increase in the number of prosecutions for hare coursing, but I am not sure whether including rabbits in the scope of the bill is strong enough, because so far there have been very few police prosecutions for hare coursing.
I thank the member for raising the issue. My recollection from the evidence that was given to us by the police is that they would welcome measures that would address the issue of individuals using the excuse of hunting rabbits as a cover for illegal hare coursing. That is a sensible measure that the bill seeks to bring in.
To conclude, in our stage 1 report, the committee recommends that the Parliament approves the general principles of the bill. That has perhaps not always been emphasised in the course of the debate, so let me emphasise it now: the committee report recommends that we as a Parliament approve the general principles of the bill, and I hope that Parliament will now do so.
I direct members to my entry in the register of members’ interests in relation to owning a landholding in the Highland Council region.
At the outset, I state that Conservative members want to see the highest animal welfare standards and robustness in dealing with those who intentionally flout the law or put the lives of wild animals at risk for no reason. However, it is clear from the significant correspondence that I and, I am sure, other members have received from our constituents that the bill could have unintended consequences and that many people are worried. Emails have come from concerned farmers, crofters and other land managers who believe that the bill in its current form is too restrictive due to its limitations and that the proposed licensing scheme will create problems in respect of pest and predator control. Emails have come from constituents of mine who live in rural communities across the Highlands and Islands. They feel that, although the principles behind the bill are sound, the manner in which the Government has presented the bill will do more harm than good.
I share those concerns. Although Conservative members will support the principles of the bill, we believe that significant changes are needed before it comes back to secure our support.
Almost two thirds of the 1,300 consultation comments on the bill were against it. I will focus on some of those issues.
The central point of concern is the proposed licensing scheme in the bill. Members will be aware of what the bill states in that regard. There are worries about the workability of the scheme. The suggested reforms include the need for licences to be granted to groups of farmers and landowners, the need for licences to be issued for livestock protection on any 14 days in a year rather than in one 14-day block, and the need for licences to be issued where the use of dogs will make a significant contribution to the prevention of serious damage to livestock or the natural environment. The Scottish Conservatives are sympathetic to those requests for changes, and I urge the Government and the minister to consider them carefully. On the matter of the 14-day licence, our belief is that the existing proposals should be reviewed and altered and, in particular, that the time period is too restrictive and is not long enough to cover periods in which pest control is needed, as Lord Bonomy found.
I note from the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee’s stage 1 report that the minister indicated that she would be open to looking at the time period if it is seen not to be workable. Given that some members and external stakeholders have raised that issue, I hope that the Scottish Government will consider amending that.
More broadly, the committee’s report notes the lack of clarity about the details of the licensing scheme, and the committee has asked the Scottish Government for more information. It is disappointing that we do not have that information. I think that it has been said that the detail cannot be provided until after stage 3. That is simply unacceptable. I urge the Government to at least give some detail about what form the licensing scheme will take. If the Government is pinning the bill on a licensing system, it has to give some indication of what that licensing scheme will look like.
To clarify the point about the detail of the licensing scheme, I refer Donald Cameron to sections 6 and 8, which set out a huge amount of detail on what will be included in the licensing scheme. I cannot complete the accompanying guidance until the bill is in its final form. Surely that is a reasonable position.
With respect, I do not think that it is a reasonable position. The guidance is needed to explain the scheme. How else will stakeholders be allowed or expected to implement it or to try to qualify under it? That is completely unreasonable.
That is one of the reasons why a licensing scheme was not included in the 2002 act. Lord Bonomy stated:
“it is not clear that establishing a formal system of licensing would do more for the protection of wild mammals than amending the legislation would ... The bureaucracy and expense involved are unlikely to be adequately reflected in resultant benefit.”
I want to touch briefly on the issue of the two-dog restriction. The Scottish Conservatives believe that it is right that pest control using dogs is a regulated activity, but we note that various stakeholders have raised concerns about the implications of that specific restriction. Scottish Land & Estates has argued that dog limits would make fox and pest control almost impossible and would have a negative impact on ground-nesting birds. The Scottish Gamekeepers Association, to which other members already referred, has argued that that might result in the effectiveness of dog packs being limited and that the loss of revenue and limitations in operating might mean that owners would have to put their dogs down.
I listened with great interest to Jim Fairlie’s comments on his experience of using two dogs in a wood. I have no reason to doubt that, but I have also seen hill packs of more than two dogs operating in the west Highlands in Forestry Commission woodland where the only way of doing pest control effectively is to have more than two dogs. For example, on steep ground covering large areas of woodland, it is the only way to do it humanely and effectively.
The Scottish Government has said that it believes
“that a two dog limit is workable, reasonable and appropriate”,
but it is clear from what stakeholders have indicated and the comments from other members that that will not always be the case, and I urge the minister to reflect on that.
We want the bill to improve animal welfare while maintaining effective, practical methods of pest control. There are many worries about the current proposals and I am encouraged that the Government has recognised that. We will work constructively with it to improve the bill.
Our farmers, crofters and land managers are the custodians of our countryside. It is right that we pass legislation that helps them to do their job rather than hinders them.
I am using my Surface to speak from for the first time, so, if it all falls apart, so will I.
Though I am not a member of the committee, I am pleased to speak in the debate and to thank the committee and all witnesses, whatever their position on the bill, for their evidence, which has led to the considered stage 1 report. I also note the Scottish Government’s response. I add that I support the general principles of the bill but will make some general comments.
I quote from the minister’s response to the stage 1 report:
“I have tried to strike a balance between closing down loopholes … and the need for the effective protection of livestock and wildlife from predation”.
The minister is doing well in trying to strike that difficult balance when there are undoubtedly ingrained and genuine views on the edges of the debate.
I welcome Jim Fairlie’s speech, which I listened to with interest. We have often debated the matter privately.
I will mention a comment from Lord Bonomy, who chaired the review of the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002. Incidentally, the act was a member’s bill, introduced in the early days of the Parliament by Tricia Marwick and Mike Watson, if I recall correctly. It meant well and I supported it, but it was flawed, as the years have demonstrated.
Lord Bonomy has been quoted already, but it is worth saying again if anybody says this of any legislation. He said:
“It solves the problems … about the loose and variable use of language” in the act and
“should be a great incentive for better enforcement of the law”.—[
Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee
, 15 June 2022; c 41.]
Those are endorsements well worth repeating on any piece of legislation.
Another useful quotation from the stage 1 report is from animal welfare organisations, which argued that the bill is
“an opportunity to re-think the solutions to the problem of wild mammal predation on agricultural land.”
We need to do more of that, and it must be a collective effort. I agree that there are opportunities to make improvements, subject to the detail of the licensing scheme—to which I will come in a moment—and the amendments that lie ahead.
We are now eliminating, at least as far as is legally possible, the use of dogs predating on wild mammals for sport. That sport was sometimes—often, I would say—conducted in the guise of pest control. That is gone. Broadly speaking, we have the use of two dogs above ground and the use of one below. As I understand it, that is with a view to preventing pack behaviour, ensuring control and ensuring that the use of dogs is a last resort for the swift and humane dispatch of the mammal. I emphasise that it should be a last resort after other measures have failed.
Scent trails will be banned, except with an individual dog or, at most, two dogs for training purposes, such as for police dogs. I understand that, in England and Wales, experience has demonstrated that scent trails have developed as a means of continuing to hunt foxes with packs.
The 2002 act was flouted, as we know through criminal prosecutions. However, I also saw it for myself. I say to Donald Cameron that, on a dark, rainy day some years back, in the middle of the Borders hills, I unexpectedly came across folk on quad bikes, with headlights blazing, careering downwards as they followed a pack of hounds. I saw for myself what a pack does to an exhausted animal. The pack tore that animal to shreds; it was strewn across the hillsides. The parts of the animal—whatever it was—were retrieved by the people on the bikes. There was nothing humane in that. No one would be out in the wilds in that weather policing that. I saw that just by chance.
The ban on scent trails and hunting with packs is to be welcomed.
The member is asking me for a specific day—I said that it was some years back. Actually, it was on my son’s birthday, so I should be able to remember. It was on 14 January some years back.
The other issue is that I could not identify the people. There was a row of Land Rovers and the people in them were watching what was happening. When they saw me—it was just by accident that I appeared there—they soon scooted up the hill and disappeared, so it was impossible to identify them.
I say to Ms Hamilton that that happened. The incident shocked me. It seemed as though that was being done surreptitiously, in the middle of nowhere, on a day when nobody would be about, except for the people who were following the hunt and anyone who might be there by chance, as I was.
I will turn to the issue of rabbits, which members keep going on about. I repeat that rabbits are included in the bill. The hunting of rabbits, as the police have said, was a device that was used by—and provided an alibi for—people who were hare coursing. I will not repeat the quotes that I mentioned earlier when intervening on Finlay Carson. However, I will mention that Police Scotland and the procurator fiscal supported the inclusion of rabbits in the bill, as it would assist in hare-coursing prosecutions. This is about having law that is detailed and effective. There are other, more humane methods of rabbit control.
There is absolutely no doubt that everybody here wants to do all that they can to prevent hare coursing, but including rabbits in the bill is a lazy option, as there is no suggestion that there are any welfare issues surrounding rough shooting of rabbits.
The police and the procurator fiscal’s office were surprised when we raised that issue, and they questioned whether the approach being taken was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. What other steps does the bill take to address hare coursing?
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer.
The other steps in the bill include the two-dog limit and all the other things that apply to all wild mammals. If the member wants to suggest that Police Scotland has got it wrong and if it does not provide further evidence, he should take the matter up with the organisation through his committee.
I will turn to the exception to the exception—the crucial proposed licensing scheme. I note the minister’s response that that aspect must wait for the bill to move through its amendment stages. So far, I am willing to compromise on the proposed licensing scheme, but the details of that scheme are crucial. Therefore, I am pleased that NatureScot, the Scottish Government and all stakeholders, which will include farmers and gamekeepers—I meet many of them and I have high regard for them—will be fully engaged in the scheme’s development. The detail is extremely important. If some members in the chamber are compromising like I am by even accepting the need for a licensing scheme—I am prepared to go that far—we will need to see the details, to ensure that such a scheme cannot be abused. The minister said that the scheme will have a high bar, and it will need to have if the measure is to proceed. I am reserving my view on that until the details are published.
I say to my colleague Rachael Hamilton—who made me feel a bit angry—that I need no lessons in representing my rural constituents, as I have done it for the past 23 years, which is more than she has done.
I will be following the next stages of the bill with interest.
I am sure that there will be many—that seems to be the case every time that I get up to speak, Presiding Officer.
Today’s debate has shown why the bill is not only needed but is long overdue. I welcome the consensus on supporting the principles of the bill. However, it is clear from the debate that not only is the ending of hunting with packs of dogs unfinished business, but the bill itself is very much unfinished business. We need to deliver a better bill than the one that is before us. It needs to be effective, and it must not seek to close existing loopholes by creating new ones in, for example, a licensing scheme.
It is clear from the debate that those who oppose the two-dog limit do so not because they believe that we should license the use of more than two dogs in certain circumstances. They actually believe that people should be allowed to use more than two dogs in all circumstances. I think that they will seek to use the licensing scheme to bulldoze the two-dog limit through.
In its written evidence to the RAINE Committee, the Scottish Countryside Alliance said:
“if fox control is to be effective in Scotland, a restriction to two dogs would ... make that impossible.”
First, I take offence—as, I am sure, everybody in the Scottish Conservatives does—at the idea that we do not hold animal welfare standards in high regard. Such standards are what we want to achieve through the bill.
Will Colin Smyth admit that we heard evidence that, in many circumstances, limiting the number of dogs to two could actually increase the potential for animal welfare issues through prolonged chases and in relation to the dogs catching the fox? There are circumstances in which using only two dogs would be less acceptable in relation to animal welfare issues.
I think that Finlay Carson gives the game away. He said very clearly that he opposes the two-dog limit. That reiterates the view of the Scottish Countryside Alliance, which opposes the two-dog limit. It does not say that it wants a licensing scheme; it just does not want a limit of two dogs. I do not agree with that position. The committee was provided with numerous examples to illustrate that wild mammals can be controlled effectively using two dogs.
Nonetheless, Finlay Carson and the Scottish Countryside Alliance have a clear position. What is not clear—what is, in fact, utterly contradictory—is the Government’s position. On the one hand, it says that it wants to limit the number of dogs to two for animal welfare reasons; on the other hand, it will disregard animal welfare considerations by issuing licences for the use of more than two dogs without defining the criteria for such licences.
On 29 June, the minister said that the two-dog limit
“is based on ... the fact that it will substantially reduce the ability to chase and kill”.—[
Official Report, Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee,
29 June 2022; c 16.]
I agree, but the minister ignores her own words by continuing to allow the use of packs of dogs. The minister told the committee that the most important element of licensing is that the dogs be under control. However, as the SSPCA said in its evidence,
“Keeping under control a dog that has been trained to go for a scent or to attack an animal is, unless you physically restrain it, damn near impossible.”—[
Official Report, Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee,
15 June 2022; c 16.]
I want to probe the member on why he thinks that it is acceptable to ignore the comments of the senior Scottish judge, Lord Bonomy, who looked into the matter. He said that there is certain terrain on which two dogs would not allow a farmer, a land manager or an environmentalist to carry out a lawful activity of flushing an animal to waiting control.
The reality is that Lord Bonomy was not asked to look at the animal welfare issues. He was asked to look at the effectiveness of the existing legislation and its implementation. I believe that animal welfare issues should be prominent in the bill, but that is obviously a difference between me and the minister. Lord Bonomy was not asked to look at animal welfare issues at all.
I want to clear this up for members. Lord Bonomy said:
“The licensing scheme is, I think, what makes it viable to have the two-dog limit. There must be circumstances in which people can justify that it is appropriate to have more dogs, and licensing will allow for that.”—[
Official Report, Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee,
15 June 2022; c 45.]
Let us stop arguing about what Lord Bonomy said, because that is what he said.
“it is not clear that establishing a formal system of licensing would do more for the protection of wild mammals than amending the legislation would. The same difficulties of proof and enforcement would remain.”
That is the quote from Lord Bonomy that Donald Cameron read out.
We can keep going back and forward with quotes from Lord Bonomy, but it is absolutely clear that Lord Bonomy was not asked to look at the animal welfare issues. It is absolutely clear from the evidence that the ability to chase and kill a fox is increased far more by using a pack of dogs than it is by limiting the number of dogs to two.
Lord Bonomy was absolutely clear that licensing would bring the same difficulties of proof and enforcement with a pack of dogs. That would not change just because someone had a licence in their pocket.
To go back to the issue of how to restrain a pack of dogs, following her evidence to the committee, the minister said in a letter:
“I think it is self-evident that it is easier to keep control of a smaller number of dogs than a larger pack of dogs.”
She went on:
“Two is also the maximum number of dogs permitted in England and Wales”— which Conservative members seem to have forgotten about today. The minister says one thing but the bill does another. Who would have thought that the current UK Government would be more progressive on fox hunting than the Scottish Government when it comes to a limitation on the number of dogs?
Ariane Burgess says that the Green Party supports Labour’s position against licensing, but the problem is that the SNP-Green Government is proposing a bill that includes licensing because the Green Party decided to opt out of field sports and animal welfare in the Bute house agreement. As a result, the SNP has been given a free pass to ignore the views of Ariane Burgess and the Green Party. I have to say that it is disappointing that animal welfare was not given far higher prominence.
I repeat what I said in my opening speech. Labour will lodge an amendment to remove licensing. If others vote to continue the use of more dogs, one thing that has been suggested by the Scottish Government’s Scottish animal welfare commission and groups such as OneKind is that the international consensus principles for ethical wildlife control should be used to guide decision making on any licence scheme. One of the big issues that members have raised is about the lack of detail on and criteria for any licensing scheme, and that is why many people are incredibly sceptical about the inclusion of licensing in the bill. Five months ago, I brought a members’ business debate to the chamber in which I called for Scotland to lead the way on how we deal with wildlife intervention by incorporating those seven principles in law and embedding them into Scottish Government and societal practice of wildlife management.
It is absolutely clear to me that it does not minimise the impact on animal welfare to use a pack of dogs instead of limiting it to two dogs. It is clear that using a pack of dogs would not be compatible with those ethical principles.
The Government and NatureScot say that they are very much aligned to those particular principles in the licensing scheme. The test of that will be whether the Government is prepared to incorporate those principles into the bill.
Numerous reasons have been highlighted as to why the bill is very much unfinished business. Labour will work with the Government to see whether we can maximise the importance of animal welfare in the bill, but we will not support a bill that continues to try to close some loopholes by creating other loopholes that increase the impact on animal welfare.
This stage 1 debate is important, because of its implications for improving animal welfare, for the rural sector and for the best management of wildlife across Scotland. Therefore, it is little surprise that a wide variety of stakeholder groups have been expressing their views to MSPs over the past few months and that opinion is sharply divided over the merits of the bill.
I cannot compete with Jim Fairlie’s professional expertise, but I have been interested in the bill because I live in Perthshire among communities that will be directly affected by it. I stress at the outset that those communities want the highest standards of animal welfare to be adopted everywhere. They want good land management that safeguards animal welfare, enhances our countryside and preserves the jobs and livelihoods that are connected to it. Despite what Mr Smyth might allege, my colleagues and I whole-heartedly support them in those aspirations.
As I see it, the main challenge of the bill is to deliver better animal welfare and at the same time to protect the interests of the rural economy and all those who live and work in it. That challenge is tough, but we will succeed if we deliver crucial amendments to the bill. In other words, we have to deliver good law. To remind the Parliament of previous debates in the chamber, good law is the basis for effective legislation and, as such, it requires the following: clarity of purpose; to be strong in its evidence base; to be workable; to be accepted by the public; and to be set out in simple language that can be understood.
On that last point, the bill as drafted has run into some trouble, despite the best intentions to resolve the issues with the 2002 act, which was deemed to include too many inconsistencies and ambiguities.
The deliberations of the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee when discussing the issue with the ministers made it clear that difficulties about language and the intended meaning remain. We have seen from previous legislation passed by Parliament examples of what happens when inconsistencies and ambiguities remain.
“a very well-crafted piece of legislation” that
“solves the problems that” he
“identified about ... loose and variable ... language”.—[
Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee
, 15 June 2022; c 41.]
That seems to contradict Liz Smith’s contribution.
I entirely accept what Lord Bonomy has said. The committee is asking the minister for specific commitments to improve the bill in terms of its language and to ensure that none of the ambiguities and inconsistencies remain.
With regard to that, I note that the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee has also made a specific request that the Scottish Government should provide additional information about the licensing scheme. It is true that some has been provided, but, as Christine Grahame rightly pointed out, there is not sufficient evidence within that to ensure that we are moving in the right direction. Again, I come back to previous legislation in Parliament. I know exactly what has happened when the information that underpins a bill has not been as precise as it should have been. It ends up as bad law, which is something that we have to avoid.
No one doubts for a minute that crimes remain within the countryside, because, as Rachael Hamilton put it in committee, there is a small minority of malevolent individuals who operate in our countryside. They are determined to break the law and kill or maim animals, and it is vitally important that those crimes are detected and the perpetrators prosecuted. However, it is just as important that the law is clear. Both Finlay Carson and Jim Fairlie raised questions at committee citing scenarios where, unless the law was clarified, there would be doubt in people’s minds as to how they should stay on the right side of the law. They said that the definition of “intent” was unclear and could not be measured, and l agree with them on that point.
Now we come to the important issue about rabbits being included in the definition of mammals. No one doubts the minister’s intentions to address illegal hare-coursing, which we all want, but by including rabbits in the definition there will clearly be unintended consequences on rough shoots and various trials such as at kennel clubs, because the inclusion of rabbits as mammals might sound very good in theory—in fact, it does sound very good in theory—but the practice tells a different story. Therefore, we ask the Scottish Government to look at the issue again.
The second big issue is about licensing. Any licensing system must be both understood and workable, so that it can be fair and practical for farmers and land managers to protect their livestock, their livelihoods and species such as nesting birds. Rachael Hamilton mentioned the capercaillie. Failure to manage predators appropriately—and, indeed, undermining the control toolbox—has real-life consequences for our wildlife. It is very clear from what many stakeholders are saying that there are concerns about how effective pest control can be managed, in some circumstances, with just two dogs. Lord Bonomy himself said that in some instances that is impractical. There are also serious concerns about how flexible the proposals are, because at the moment far too many stakeholders are telling us that that is just not the case.
At the end of the day, the bill remains controversial. Nine major organisations support the bill and 10 major organisations oppose it, and that is not mentioning the hundreds of individuals who have expressed their views to us as MSPs—again, heavily divided. There are far too many unanswered questions and there is too little evidence to underpin the bill which—although this is not intended—leaves the rural sector heavily exposed yet again. That is why there are so many unhappy stakeholders.
The balance is surely to permit legitimate predation control by dogs and to improve animal welfare, but as yet the bill does not have the correct balance.
I begin by reflecting again on the comprehensive set of legal requirements that the bill provides, looking first at the offences because we have not done that today.
The offences include those of hunting a wild mammal using a dog; as a landowner, knowingly causing or permitting another to hunt on land that you own; and, as a dog owner, knowingly causing or permitting another to hunt using a dog that you own or are responsible for. Those are three robust offences that carry robust penalties. Where there are exceptions to an offence, they are available only for defined purposes and with statutory conditions.
I take the example of section 3, which provides an exception for the management of wild animals above ground. The exception is available for the purposes of preventing serious damage to livestock, woodland or crops; preventing the spread of disease; and protecting human health, which I hope that members accept are important purposes.
Despite those important purposes, the bill goes on to provide conditions on the exercise of the section 3 exception, which are that only two dogs are used, or more via the licensing scheme where no other option exists; that any dog that is used is under control, which is a really important provision because it puts a strong onus on anyone who purports to use a dog in the countryside, and whether a dog is under control should be readily identifiable; that the dogs do not join with others to form a pack, which again is visible and it is readily identifiable when that condition is not complied with; that permission of the landowner has been obtained; and that the animal that is being flushed is dispatched as soon as reasonably practicable.
That one example, where there are defined purposes and robust conditions, allows me to strongly refute any suggestion that the bill does not represent a comprehensive ban on illegal hunting.
Having set that out, I will move on to the interaction between the two-dog limit and the licensing scheme, which has dominated much of the debate.
With all due respect to Russell Findlay, I am not here to speak to the speeches that were made by other members. I cannot even recall which member said that. I think that Rachael Hamilton raised a point of order about it at the time but was told that it was not a point of order. I am not concerned with responding to that, but I thank Russell Findlay for his contribution.
As I said, I want to talk about the more important issue of the interaction between the two-dog limit and the licensing scheme. I am confident that the two-dog limit is the right approach, because the majority of wildlife control in Scotland already does not use dogs; because, where dogs are used, two dogs are already used, in general, including in deer stalking and for invasive non-native species; and because a two-dog limit has already been instituted in England and Wales, as members have said.
However, Lord Bonomy was clear that there are certain terrains where control needs to be carried out but where two dogs would not allow individuals to successfully carry out the legal activity of flushing wildlife as part of legitimate control. In this Parliament, as we take action to end illegal activity, we must guard against impinging on lawful and legitimate activity that is undertaken for a range of reasons throughout our rural country. The two-dog limit, together with a narrowly defined but practical and available-where-necessary licensing scheme, achieves that.
The minister said to the committee that
“a licence has to be construed as the option that is available when there are no other options.”—[
Official Report, Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment
, 29 June 2022; c 18.]
Does the minister accept that the difficulty that people have with that is that the Government has not really set out what it means in practice? An option that has been proposed is that we incorporate in the bill the ethical principles that I have talked about on several occasions as the guide to what would be used in a licensing scheme—notwithstanding that I do not support a licensing scheme. Rachael Hamilton asked in what way a licence would not meet the ethical principles. However, it would not be the scheme itself but individual applications that would have to be consistent with the principles. That is surely one way to set out the legislation and to deal with people’s concerns that there is a lack of detail.
In another debate in the chamber, I said that I am interested in the ethical principles and the way in which they can be applied to the various pieces of wildlife legislation and work that the Government is undertaking. It is no different in the case of the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill, so I am considering the application of those principles.
To return to the interaction between the two-dog limit and the licensing scheme, some have called for the scheme to have more liberal terms to ensure that it will meet what they see as an essential purpose, while others have called for there to be no licensing scheme at all. Some members have made it clear that they view the licensing scheme as essential to enable effective operation in certain circumstances. My response to that is that the scheme is designed to operate on an extraordinary basis. Therefore, it will be available where it is truly essential, but where the use of two dogs or some other method of control would work, it will not be essential.
I will talk about the content of the scheme. A bit of a myth has arisen this afternoon that no detail is available. I can clarify that. Sections 4 and 8 of the bill point to a series of criteria that must be met as a framework for the licensing scheme. They speak about the particular species of animal having to be confirmed and say that the licence will have to be granted to a particular person and they set out the tests that will have to be met.
My question is about licensing. Will the minister lodge amendments that will address some of the worries and concerns that stakeholders have regarding the 14-day limit? Will that be in the bill, or will we have to wait until the bill is passed before she comes forward with detail?
I struggle to see how amendments to primary legislation could be brought after stage 3, so I am not sure what Mr Carson is referring to. However, the 14-day licence period is in the bill, so if that were to be amended it would have to be done via the parliamentary process. I hope that clarifies the point.
I have already said that we cannot clarify the accompanying guidance until the final form of the bill is known. That may be what Mr Carson is referring to. I commit to continuing engagement and to raising awareness of the requirements.
For the benefit of Rachael Hamilton, it is not late. This is the standard approach to developing accompanying guidance. We cannot develop the guidance to accompany a statutory regime until the final form of the statute is known. That makes perfect sense.
I was about to say that Mr Carson, when he responded on behalf of the committee, asked for an oral update to the committee about that. I am more than happy to provide that. I have no concern whatsoever about keeping the committee and stakeholders engaged with the development of the guidance.
Some members would like there to be no licensing scheme at all in the bill. I am open to hearing the views of any member or group who wishes to raise them with me, as I have been throughout. However, I must ask, as I asked Colin Smyth earlier, why those members think it acceptable to ignore the findings and specific comments of Lord Bonomy.
Why do those members think that they can ignore Lord Bonomy’s findings on terrain? How would they explain to hill farmers who have lambs on hilly ground, where lamping and enclosure are not possible, why those lambs would simply be allowed to be predated on? What would they say to environmental groups that need more than two dogs to successfully deal with invasive non-native species, as they do on Orkney and on Uist? We would be saying to them that, even in tightly restricted circumstances, the option of using more dogs would not be available. I do not think that that is reasonable. I ask those members to remember that the bill provides for a licensing scheme only where no other option exists and that that tightly defined circumstance will be overseen by NatureScot.
As we all consider the ban, the two-dog limit and the exceptional licensing scheme, I ask members to reflect, as has been done a number of times this afternoon, on Lord Bonomy’s evidence, where he said:
“The licensing scheme is, I think, what makes it viable to have the two-dog limit. There must be circumstances in which people can justify that it is appropriate to have more dogs, and licensing will allow ... that.”
Importantly, he went on to say:
“The idea of keeping licences restricted is also a good one.”—[
Official Report, Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee
, 15 June 2022; c 45.]
I intend to do that.
If I may—if I have time—I will briefly touch on a couple of other issues that were mentioned. First, I am not sure whether Rachael Hamilton could substantiate her claim that I do not understand rural Scotland, that the man behind me—Jim Fairlie—does not, or that a lot of the men and women behind me do not. However, I will leave her to consider that.
Secondly, and very briefly, I confirm to Beatrice Wishart that my officials spoke with Police Scotland’s dog handlers after the committee session and we are content that the bill will not negatively impact on how they train their dogs.
I will consider the points about dogs underground, which were very well made.
The Tories seem very concerned about the inclusion of rabbits within the protection. I believe that it is right to protect rabbits, as we do hares, from being chased and killed by dogs, and I will continue to defend that.
Time is against me. I conclude by saying that the chasing and killing of a wild mammal with a dog for sport or otherwise has no place in modern Scotland. The Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill will finish the work that was started 20 years ago by delivering a comprehensive ban. Through the bill, I want both to close loopholes of the past that have allowed an unlawful activity to persist and to take action to prevent others from opening.
I am doing that in pursuit of the highest possible animal welfare standards while recognising that we are a rural nation and that we must have access to legitimate control methods. The bill has been designed to balance those needs for lawful operation in our countryside with my determination and the Government’s determination to end illegal hunting once and for all.