Last year we celebrated two decades since hunting with dogs was banned in Scotland – though ‘marked’ or even ‘ignored’ might be a better word to use around some dinner tables. Not the one at which Springwatch presenter and environmental campaigner Chris Packham sups, however, though more on him later in the programme.

Either way it was in February 2002 that Holyrood passed the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act by 83 votes to 36, three years on from its proposal by Labour MSP Mike Watson. He represented Glasgow Cathcart, not noted as a hotspot for red-clad, bugle-toting huntsmen and women but there you go.

On the day, members of a pro-hunting group called the Rural Rebels formed a noisy demonstration outside Bute House in Edinburgh. They donned orange boiler suits for the occasion, an interesting choice given the associations those garments would assume when the Guantanamo Bay Detention Centre began accepting long-stay guests from Afghanistan later the same year.

The Holyrood legislation stopped activities such as hare coursing as well as the hunting of foxes by people dressed up and on horseback – or “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable,” as Oscar Wilde memorably put it.

But ever since then we’ve been arguing about that Act, and gnashing our teeth over its various loopholes. Some of these appear wide enough to have ridden a top-notch hunting mount down (for what it’s worth, the most prized of these creatures have “a face like a Duchess and a bottom like a cook” according to The Field magazine, founded in 1853 for those “who loved shooting, fishing, hunting and could sniff out a decent claret at 1,000 paces.” Just thought you’d like to know).

A few weeks ago, a bill which finally attends to those loopholes received royal assent. The Hunting With Dogs Bill was passed by Holyrood in January, and the subsequent Act bans trail hunting, cracks down on illegal hunting, and introduces a new two dog limit in the course of legal hunting. A licencing scheme will be introduced to allow for hunting with more than two dogs but only in “certain limited circumstances.”

End of story? Up to a point. The minister overseeing the Bill, then-Environment Minister Màiri McAllan, said: “The chasing and killing of a wild mammal with a dog, for sport or otherwise, has no place in Scotland.” But she also called the Bill a “step forward” which strikes a “balance” between animal welfare standards and the practice of what she called “legitimate wildlife management.”

As ever, the Devil’s in the detail.

Exceptions to the Act include managing wild animals above ground and foxes below it. The Act also allows for the use of dogs in connection with falconry, game shooting and deer stalking. Labour claims this means hunting with packs could continue in practice and, though the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland has welcomed the legislation, its warm words come with a caveat – that the licensing system be “very strict” – and a warning. “Despite the best of intentions to ban hunting, the determination and deep-rooted defiance among those who wish to chase and kill foxes should not be underestimated,” said director Robbie Marsland.


In Beastly, a new book to be published by Canongate on April 6, author Keggie Carew looks at the history of humankind’s relationship with animals. “Chasing foxes on horseback was an inalienable human right, until it wasn’t,” she notes wryly, before pointing out that farmers once tolerated foxes on their land mainly because of the ‘sport’ they offered their local hunts. Now they manage foxes more aggressively in order to facilitate their own populations of grouse and other game birds.

Carew also cites the Burns Inquiry into fox hunting, set up in 1999 by then UK Home Secretary Jack Straw. Charged with considering whether hunting was cruel, it “considered a tidal wave of statements in evidence from interested parties and concluded that to be chased by a pack of hounds all day before being ripped apart ‘seriously compromises the welfare of the fox’.” Despite that, the subject is still “a minefield.”

Which is why, predictably, there’s still a strong whiff of the culture wars to it. We’ve been used to that at least since the 1980s when phrases such as class war and hunt saboteur entered the lexicon (and the wardrobe, at least for those who donned balaclavas and filled the pockets of their army surplus duds with aniseed to throw off the dogs).

But today the polarities feel even starker – Left versus Right, city versus country, young versus old, combat trousers versus those weird red cords – while the debate, such as it is, has become ever more poisonous.

It’s becoming dangerous too. Chris Packham, not generally backward about coming forward and offering an opinion on subjects close to his heart, has become a sort of lightning rod for it all. He is held in contempt by many as both a member of the ‘Wokerati’ and a hypocrite and, when he isn’t being attacked or traduced, he is mocked. See the response to his Twitter eulogy for a badger he found dead on the road near his home.

Long before the brouhaha over Linekergate, he was being called out for his perceived impartiality. Items A, B and C for the prosecution are his voicing of support for Extinction Rebellion, his reference to hunters as “the nasty brigade” and, most recently, his poking fun at a Peak District grouse shooting party which was disrupted by saboteurs. “Oh dear, what a shame,” he tweeted, meaning not a word of it. “More top work by @HuntSabs”. Among the shooters going home empty handed was one Ian Botham.

But along with the insults have come death threats. There has been what you might call direct action – a stolen Land Rover was set on fire up outside his home (it burnt down his gate). Dead crows have been left strung on his fence.

Packham is currently involved in a legal case against the Fieldsports Channel, an online TV channel dedicated to hunting, guns, more hunting, more guns, and that camouflage gear you might see in Decathlon or (ironically) on the back of hunt saboteurs. He says they claimed, falsely, that he made up the death threat and that they have stirred up online hatred against him. Meanwhile he has a separate defamation case running against the rather innocuous-sounding Country Squire Magazine. It will be heard next month.

In a video to launch a crowdfunding site to pay for the legal costs of the Fieldsports case, Packham says: “I sometimes leave or return to my home wondering if someone will be there waiting – someone who is so excited by these accusations that they feel motivated to extreme violence.”

At the time of writing, the site had pledges amounting to £104,825, just shy of the £110,000 target. Meanwhile Chris Packham talks darkly about what he calls “hate terrorism”. It’s all a long way from watching baby birds hatching on a nest-cam. Too far, in fact.

In truth we will probably never come to an accommodation with fox hunting, or with animals in general. We’ll continue to eat them, chase them, cage them, skin them, exploit them and, yes, hunt them with dogs. And we’ll continue to argue about it. About what our relationship could and should be – and about the extent to which our treatment of them reflects our values and acts as a measure of our own moral limitations.

That we will do until the cows come home – and if Oscar Wilde has a helpful quip, I’ve love to hear it.