New legislation will eradicate “potential loopholes” in Scotland’s fox hunting laws, the Rural Affairs Minister has said.
Mairi Gougeon said the proposed new law will seek to limit the number of dogs which can be deployed against wild animals to two, except in circumstances where using more is necessary.
Campaigners have called for an outright ban on fox hunting, arguing current legislation is failing.
Fox hunting with dogs was banned in Scotland through the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act in 2002, with an exemption for using dogs to flush out foxes for pest control or protecting livestock or ground-nesting birds.
Mounted hunts in Scotland have since offered farmers, landowners and estate managers a pest control service, but a review by Lord Bonomy published in 2016 found there were “grounds to suspect” fox hunting takes place illegally and he recommended having independent monitors to police hunts.
In a statement to the Scottish Parliament, Ms Gougeon said: “Despite the ban on hunting introduced by the Protection of Wild Mammals Scotland Act 2002, it is clear to me that there remains considerable public concern about fox hunting in Scotland and doubts about the operability of the legislation as it currently stands.
“I believe that Parliament should therefore be given the opportunity to consider the reform of the 2002 Act, in the interest of furthering the welfare of wild animals.
“I plan to bring forward a Bill to deal with this and other wildlife and animal welfare issues in the course of the current Parliament.”
Ms Gougeon said the Government is “specifically trying to tackle any potential loopholes that are perceived to be in the legislation at the moment”.
She added: “We want to close any potential loopholes that are there. This is about closing loopholes, not creating any new ones.”
The proposed law would consider the need for a licence if the use of more than two dogs is necessary, in order not to “undermine the need for legitimate pest control”.
The Bill would implement most of Lord Bonomy’s recommendations, which include tightening up the language of the 2002 Act for “consistency and clarity”, considering making landowners culpable for any offence committed during a hunt on their land, and extending the time limit for bringing prosecutions.
Ms Gougeon said recommendations which can be introduced without legislation, including hunt monitoring and a code of practice, will be brought in as soon as possible.
Animal charity the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland said it is “cautious” about the potential for a new loophole in opt-outs to the two-dog limit, but it is confident the fresh legislation will “address a major weakness in the law”.
The Scottish Gamekeepers Association warned two hounds will “not work”, adding that “reducing the ability to control foxes in forestry will be a disaster for wildlife and farm stock”.
Green MSP Alison Johnstone, who plans to introduce a Member’s Bill for an outright ban, said she hopes Parliament will support a “comprehensive ban”.
Further animal welfare changes proposed by Ms Gougeon include plans to increase the maximum penalty for offences against service animals from one year in prison to five years.
Other proposals include requiring all abattoirs to have CCTV, introducing a licensing scheme for animal sanctuaries and rehoming centres, and revamping pet shop licensing.