You know me: I always focus on the positives, so I’ll start with two pieces of good news: Scotland has a new wildlife crime officer and there are plans for new laws on the breeding of dogs and cats. However, a YouGov poll has also shown that 80 per cent of Scots want tougher legislation on animal welfare, so I thought now would be a good time to issue a report card on the Scottish Government’s performance on the issue. In the words of my old maths teacher, Beaky Morton: it really isn’t good enough, is it?

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Policing and enforcement: It’s undoubtedly positive news that there’s a new wildlife crime officer and Gavin Ross seems like a good guy. But PC Ross’s appointment does not increase the size of the team – he’s replacing another officer who retired. The people I speak to in the animal welfare movement also tell me the same thing over and over again: there aren’t enough wildlife crime officers to make a significant difference.

The other problem is detection and enforcement. Other countries have specialist environmental police forces that focus on wildlife crime. Scotland does not. The police work also needs to be much more intelligence-led than it is. And it doesn’t matter how tough your laws are if the chances of being caught are small, and in Scotland they’re small. As for sentencing, it’s woeful. Last year, just 4.5% of convictions resulted in a custodial sentence. The chances are if you commit a wildlife crime, you’ll get off with a fine or get off completely.

Raptor persecution: In 2020, you may, like me, have followed the story of Marlin and Hoolie. Marlin and Hoolie were hen harriers who fledged in 2018. They were tagged by the RSPB and spent time in Yorkshire and Ireland before returning to Scotland. And then, in April, their tags suddenly stopped transmitting and no trace has been found of the birds since. You probably don’t need me to tell you where they disappeared: it was in an area managed for grouse.

So, what is the Scottish Government doing about it? Not much. There has been some talk of a licensing system for grouse shooting, but the Government hasn’t really shown any willingness to tackle the deeper problem, which is that driven grouse shooting is effectively based on the idea of removing all predators, which in turns leads to the killing of raptors. The model itself is flawed. The other problem is that the people who are illegally killing birds of prey are unlikely to be deterred by licensing if they’re not deterred by the law as it stands. Tinkering round the edges is not going to protect birds like Marlin and Hoolie.

Live animal exports: Good news here and an encouraging decision by the Scottish Government even if it did have to be dragged out of them. Until last year, Scotland, shamefully, was the last place in Britain where male dairy calves were still being exported abroad and the conditions they endured were terrible. Taken from their mothers on day one. Insufficient food and water. And shunted over to Europe to be fattened and killed. There’s only one word for it really. Uncaring.

So why did the Scottish Government spend money and time on defending a bad practice? Compassion in World Farming said the Government was breaking the law and their argument was due to be heard in the Court of Session. But then the Government did a U-turn on the quiet. We should be pleased they backed down, but the Government shouldn’t be backed into a corner on animal welfare. It should be taking the lead. Anything else is inconsistent with its message that animal welfare is one of its priorities.

Snares: Another fail, I’m afraid. Snares are nasty and indiscriminate They catch badgers, cats, deer, swans, and God knows what else. Often, the animal’s death is painful and slow. However, the Scottish Government, for some reason, is resisting a ban and has opted for changing the regulations instead; they have also said – as they’re prone to do – that the Scottish system is tougher than England’s. Who cares? It’s not good enough. A legalised system of snaring gives apparent respectability to a practice that doesn’t deserve it.

Fox hunting: Let’s face the facts on this one right away: the law on fox hunting is being broken in Scotland, regularly and blatantly. I remember an undercover investigator spelling it out for me. “It’s like hare coursing,” he said. “They may dress a little better and they may ride horses, but that’s the only difference. When you see them out in the field, it’s savage.”

The Government has said it will take action. We’re still waiting. It could also have fast-tracked Alison Johnstone’s private member’s bill to close the loopholes in the law. It didn’t. Which leaves us with an unpleasant truth: men and women are out there breaking the law on fox hunting in Scotland. And only one solution: a complete ban on the use of dogs.

Elsewhere, there has admittedly been some progress. The new rules on the breeding of cats and dogs, for example. And the apparent ban on the mass culling of mountain hares, although we’ll wait to see how the licensing system works. Then there’s the intention to ban salmon farmers from shooting seals (albeit for commercial reasons – ministers were worried the US might ban Scottish salmon imports).

Other animals have not been so lucky. Squirrels for example. Why is the Scottish Government still sanctioning the killing of grey squirrels? Greys can be killed whenever you want and in whatever way you want, and the obvious question is: how long does an animal have to be in this country before it’s considered Scottish enough? (The greys have been here for 120 years).

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The result of all of this is confusion. Some animals are loved, some are hated. Some are persecuted, some are protected (but not enough). Some animals are killed to protect the right to kill other animals (and the perpetrators get away with it). It needs fixed. It needs consistency. And commitment. But above all, it needs to be driven by one simple, essential idea: compassion.

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