THE Sunday Herald has uncovered what appears to be the systematic harassment of animal rights activists by Police Scotland and an apparent bias towards fox hunts allegedly involved in illegal activity.

Our investigation can reveal that Police Scotland told members of the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) they could not monitor fox hunts, and that officers have detained activists and threatened them with arrest while they were trying to monitor hunts.

We can also reveal that Sunday Herald journalists were threatened with arrest while investigating allegations of illegal hunting in Fife.

Our findings have prompted criticism of Police Scotland’s tactics and an investigation is now underway into the policing of hunts in Fife.

There have been mounting allegations that fox hunts regularly break the law, claims that have led to the Scottish Government ordering a review of the Protection of Wild Mammals Act, which bans hunting with packs of dogs.

As it stands, the legislation allows hunts to pursue foxes with dogs for pest control but the hounds must only be used to flush the creatures from cover to be shot by waiting gunmen.

The premise was that shooting a fox is more humane than allowing animals to be ripped apart by hounds but critics argue that the law is weak and regularly flouted. Scotland’s fox hunts insist that they always hunt legally.

We spent 12 months investigating and our findings have prompted concern over Police Scotland’s commitment to impartiality and its willingness to fully investigate allegations of criminality by mounted hunts.

To date, there’s not been one single prosecution and the HSA has accused police of acting as a personal security force for hunts instead of investigating alleged criminality.

Three videos obtained by the Sunday Herald show police stopping and detaining hunt saboteurs and threatening people with arrest for refusing to provide personal details.

Animal rights activists are concerned they are being branded domestic extremists and that details are held on a database alongside terrorist suspects. In footage taken near Leuchars, Fife, on Sunday, September 20, 2015, a wildlife police officer tells animal rights activists they are not allowed to monitor local hunt coordinators Fife Foxhounds. He asks the HSA to stop filming but is unaware that his voice is still being recorded.

He says: “You are not allowed to monitor anything. I can quite legitimately detain you. You’re not allowed to come into the countryside and record people.”

The officer asks the activists to turn out their pockets and says he can seize their recording equipment.

He adds – words viewed by the HSA as a threat: “We’ve got legislation up to our eyeballs. We can get around pretty much anything to find the right piece of legislation. So, just to confirm, details please sir?”

The HSA said that it is not against the law to film in public or monitor a hunt. They also pointed out that they actually called Police Scotland that day.

Other footage from Saturday, September 26, 2015, shows police stopping activists in a car following a fox hunt in Fife and threatening people with arrest.

The officer demands their personal details citing section 13 of the 1995 Criminal Procedure Act. This section means that potential witnesses to a crime can be detained by police if they refuse to give personal details.

Another video taken on Sunday, December 6, 2015, shows the HSA attempting to monitor another hunt in Fife and again being stopped. Two police vans attend and officers are filmed detaining people, questioning them and requesting their personal details.

We can also reveal that Police Scotland acted after we contacted Fife Foxhounds with questions. The Sunday Herald later learned that the hunt contacted a wildlife liaison officer on receipt of our questions.

The Police Scotland press office then contacted us to ask about our report.

When asked later why they alerted Police Scotland to our article, Fife Foxhounds said: “As part of our commitment to responsible conduct we are in regular contact with the wildlife liaison officer assigned to us by Police Scotland, to allow two-way dialogue regarding matters of mutual concern.”

The Scottish Branch of the Hunt Saboteurs Association said: “Our members are out in the field to prevent illegal, inhumane death, we always ensure that we act in a legal manner. We find it appalling that Police Scotland will send out numerous police officers and vehicles to harass and intimidate our members despite doing nothing illegal. We currently have no faith in Police Scotland and find it difficult to believe that in the current financial climate that Police Scotland wishes to waste so much public money harassing our members and allowing illegal hunting to continue.”

In reply, Police Scotland said it had received a complaint about the policing of hunts in Fife that is under investigation and as such it would be inappropriate to comment further.

Police Scotland added: “It would be inaccurate to suggest that we do not investigate wildlife crime. Police Scotland thoroughly investigates all reports of wildlife crime. Tackling wildlife crime is not just about law enforcement, it is about working with partners and the public to raise awareness and to prevent it happening. Lastly, we do not comment on investigative and operational processes.”

Alison Johnstone, Scottish Green MSP and deputy convener of Holyrood’s Cross-Party Group on Animal Welfare, said: “The public will be astonished and angered to hear of incidents alleging heavy-handed behaviour by the police towards animal welfare activists, who are doing a public service by keeping tabs on organised hunts. I have viewed footage obtained by the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), which suggests that cruel and unnecessary fox hunts are still happening. Police Scotland have a duty to ensure that this stops.”

Last month, two of Police Scotland’s most senior wildlife crime officers told a Holyrood inquiry they could find no evidence that mounted hunts were breaking the law. But last year, the LACS claimed nearly half of hunts were acting illegally.

LACS’s investigators secretly filmed five hunts between December 2014 and March 2015 and saw no shotguns on 16 separate outings. They also secretly filmed the Duke of Buccleuch’s Hunt and alleged their video revealed “illegal hunting”.

LACS believed the hunt’s activities were so “blatantly unlawful” in terms of the use of hounds that police would take action. However, Police Scotland told them it was unable to identify anyone thought to be committing a crime.

At the time, a lawyer representing the Buccleuch Hunt said they had no comment to make but Scottish Countryside Alliance director Jamie Stewart said that the Scottish Government’s most recent wildlife crime report “failed to support the scandalous and unfounded allegations of widespread illegal fox hunting in Scotland”.

He added: “The release of this subjective and contrived footage containing material spliced from more than one foxhound pack attempts to confuse the public but only confirms the weakness in the League Against Cruel Sports’ campaign and obsession to end any form of wildlife control.

“Scottish foxhound packs work under a strict protocol drawn from the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 and work closely with Police Scotland during the operation of legal and much-needed fox control.”

It was announced in December that Lord Bonomy would review the efficacy of the Protection of Wild Mammals Act. He is currently taking evidence.