MOUNTED huntsmen have been accused of defying Scotland’s fox-hunting ban by setting packs of bloodthirsty hounds on the fleeing animals which are torn apart when caught.

Legislation only allows foxes to be flushed from cover and shot dead for pest control, but undercover investigators say they have found packs of trained dogs chasing down foxes across open fields while huntsmen made no attempt to shoot them.

It was also alleged that in some areas members of the hunt rode around on quad bikes firing shots in the air to give the impression the hunt was shooting at foxes while hounds pursued them.

All claims have been strenuously denied by the Scottish Countryside Alliance which insisted all hunts have “operated within the law” since the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act was passed in 2002.

However, a dossier of evidence collated by the animal welfare charity League Against Cruel Sports Scotland (LACS) and seen by the Sunday Herald argues that Scotland’s mounted hunts regularly break the law a year on from a review of the existing legislation by Lord Bonomy’s.

The former judge recommended strengthening legislation that has led to only two convictions since fox hunting was banned. The Scottish Government opened a consultation on the review’s findings last week. The new hunting season begins on November 1.

Investigators from LACS filmed six of 10 Scottish hunts during last season and found “no discernible presence of guns waiting to shoot flushed foxes”.

A new report titled Tally Ho! Exposed: Fox Hunting in Scotland said: “There was no sight of guns being positioned at points where you might expect foxes to emerge. Neither was there any sight of guns being moved from one cover to another as the hounds moved on. In all the incidents recorded by our investigators it appears that there was no intention to shoot any foxes which might have been flushed from cover.”

The report went on to say that “token guns” were deployed. “These guns were usually to be seen on quad bikes well away from the flushing to guns.”

One LACS investigator who asked not to be named said: “I think our evidence proves without doubt hunts are not obeying the law. They’re not routinely using guns. The alternative to not having guns outside a cover which they’re running hounds through is that they’re intending to allow the hounds to hunt that fox once it breaks cover because there are no guns to shoot the fox.”

In one alleged incident a fox was flushed out by hounds and a mounted huntsman in a red jacket is seen following it across the field shouting “Tally Ho! Tally Ho!” – this is the traditional call by a huntsman to alert others that a fox has been seen and is running away from cover. There were no guns seen.

The report said: “The Tally Ho call is also used to encourage dogs on to either hunt a fox or to find the scent of the fox, which the hounds may not have seen escaping from the cover.

“The huntsman then sounded the traditional “hunt on” notes on his hunting horn, collected the dogs and led them towards the location where the fox was seen running.

“He then apparently becomes aware of the investigator and comes to a complete stop. He is then heard to say into a radio 'we’ve got company' before ceasing any further encouragement of the hounds onto the scent of the fox which had been seen.”

During the 2016/17 season investigators uncovered what they described as a “new development” where hunts claimed foxes were wounded by gunshot before dogs tore them apart.

There is a provision in the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 which allows packs of hounds to kill a wounded animal.

The League Against Cruel Sports’ report said: “In one case where a fox was killed by a hunt, hunting within the confines of the law, the animal’s body was recovered and sent for autopsy.

“The autopsy showed the animal had suffered extensively before it died and concluded that the fox had suffered severe trauma consistent with that caused by a dog or dogs.”

Director of The League Against Cruel Sports Scotland Robbie Marsland said: “Despite Scotland being the first place in the UK to ban foxhunting in 2002, the 10 Scottish hunts still go out two or three times a week each year between November and the end of March. They say they are using their hounds to flush foxes to waiting guns. Except our investigators could see no guns where you would expect to find them.

“We were pretty much convinced that it was business as usual for the fox hunters in the Scottish countryside.”

Jamie Stewart, Director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance, rebutted the claim saying that mounted foxhound packs have operated within the law since the act was passed in 2002.

“All of the registered foxhound packs in Scotland are required to have guns present when carrying out pest control and maintain a record of who was present on any day." Adding that Any claim that a foxhound pack was operating without guns present would be taken extremely seriously and should be reported to police.

“The Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 has been used successfully on many occasions. The League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) or any other individual has the ability to make allegations about the legality of hunting activity at any time.

“Indeed, the League Against Cruel Sports has previously made similar claims in a criminal prosecution that no guns were present during a pest control operation, that claim was found by the sheriff to be untrue. Piecemeal film clips from LACS covert operatives with added suggestive narrative is not factual evidence of illegal action.”

Hunt observers and hunt supporters play games of cat and mouse in the woods.

THE Sunday Herald observed a fox hunt in Fife with League Against Cruel Sports Scotland (LACS) investigators and when we returned to our vehicle a man was in the woods filming us.

He emerged wearing camouflage and holding a mobile phone. He followed investigators who then began filming him and his vehicle, which had a quad bike in an attached trailer.

Earlier that day the Sunday Herald had used binoculars to observe huntsmen on horseback riding across fields with hounds alongside them. We also saw a gathering of huntsmen and hounds at a Fife farm. Though we cannot say for certain that there were no guns, from the various positions we took up over two hours we could not see any guns.

When the man holding the mobile phone was asked by the Sunday Herald why there were no guns apparent he refused to answer.

He wouldn’t give his name but said: “I’m a countryman. We were on a fox drive. I didn’t see any hunting whatsoever. I saw hounds, I saw horses and I saw an attempt at a fox drive. I didn’t see any hunting.”

He continued filming LACS investigators until they drove away.

Liz Bell, secretary of Fife Foxhounds, said: “My response is no comment to your inquiries. However I can confirm that there were guns out on Wednesday.”

LACS investigators told the Sunday Herald they are regularly confronted when they observe hunts.

One LACS investigator who spoke on condition of anonymity said: “When we posted our video footage of the hunts for the first time, many of the hunts went underground in terms of advertising where they are going to be. If they are hunting within the law they should allow us to observe and not try to keep it a secret.”

The Tally Ho! report describes an incident when investigators “were surprised by a man in full camouflage gear who emerged from undergrowth wielding a camera and shouting the name of our investigator”.

The report said there is now “organised anti-surveillance activities around Scottish hunts”.

The report adds: “In the 2016/17 season it was common for hunts to carry guns and to occasionally fire them for no apparent reason. It is also becoming common for look outs to be posted around the flushing to guns and for any empty parked vehicles to be scrutinised by people associated with the hunt.”

Jamie Stewart, Director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance, said: “The fact that you didn’t observe guns is neither here nor there. Despite filming them LACS investigators tried that one in court, the sheriff didn’t accept it. Remember Lord Bonomy stated that it is said that the camera never lies. However, the way in which film is presented does not always show the whole picture. A full account of the circumstances may provide a complete answer to any suggestion of illegal hunting.”

Only two fox hunting convictions in fifteen years since the ban was introduced

Only two people have been found guilty of breaching Scotland’s 15-year-old fox hunting laws despite the claims from protestors that hunts regularly use dogs to chase down and tear apart foxes.

The first convictions under the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 saw two men fined for deliberately hunting with dogs in the Scottish Borders.

Their defence lawyer insisted they had used hounds to flush out a fox from cover to waiting guns but depute fiscal Fiona Caldwell argued the two men had broken the law at Townfoothill near Jedburgh on February 16 last year.

The huntsmen were found guilty of illegal hunting. John Clive Richardson was fined £400 and Johnny Riley was fined £250.

Fresh calls for an outright ban on “all forms” of fox hunting

The Scottish Government has been urged to introduce an outright ban on “all forms” of fox hunting after fresh allegations that huntsmen are flouting the law.

A consultation to review the legislation which bans hunting in Scotland was launched on October 5 by environment minister Roseanna Cunningham.

She said the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 recognised the need for dogs to flush foxes to assist with pest control provided that the target animal is shot.

She said the legislation meant “the practice changed markedly”, however, she accepted that “some would say it has not changed enough” and recognised Lord Bonomy’s 2015 review recommended improvements.

Bonomy, a former judge, said Scotland's “unduly complicated” fox hunting laws should be changed to make prosecutions easier and suggested introducing independent monitors to randomly check hunts because there were grounds for suspecting that illegal hunting may still take place.

Mark Ruskell MSP, the Scottish Greens’ environment spokesman, said ministers must “take a tougher stance against all forms of foxhunting and include a total ban option in any future consultation. Hundreds of foxes are killed each year in Scotland in hunts and I doubt that sits well with the public.”

Labour MSP David Stewart, the party’s animal welfare spokesman, said: “We must be sure that any loopholes in the Scottish legislation should be strengthened, with the conclusions and recommendations of the Bonomy report.”

Jamie Stewart, Director of the Scottish Countryside Alliance, said Bonomy review was “absolutely clear about the necessity for pest control to prevent predation on lambs, ground nesting birds and other livestock and the effectiveness of using packs of hounds to flush foxes from cover to be shot”.

The Sunday Herald asked to speak to the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Roseanna Cunningham but a spokesman declined because “that could be seen to potentially prejudice/influence the process”.