When I first showed our lawyer the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, she said: “That’s not a law that bans fox hunting. That’s a law that tells you when you can go fox hunting.”

When it came to fox hunting, Scotland was an early adopter. It was first in the UK to try to ban fox hunting in 2002. But like many early adopters it has lessons to learn. After many years of watching from the side lines, collecting anecdotal evidence that hunts were “still at it”, in 2014 the League decided enough was enough and the time had come to find out what hunts were really doing in Scotland. A team of undercover investigators were sent out to monitor the activities of the ten registered mounted fox hunts in Scotland to try and determine if the law had made any difference, or were hunts still hunting as if the law didn’t exist?

The law states very simply that it is an Act of the Scottish Parliament to protect wild mammals from being hunted with dogs. All self-explanatory - however, despite its simplicity the law contains a series of complex exceptions which render the law next to useless. These exceptions mean, for example, hounds can still be used to search for foxes in areas known as cover (long grass or dense undergrowth) and then flush them out into the open where they are supposed to be shot, known as “flushing to guns”. Another exception states that if the hunt attempts to shoot a fox and only wounds rather than kills, they can then send the hounds after the fox to dispatch it. The most fundamental change to traditional hunting imposed by the law is that where possible the fox should be shot rather than killed by hounds.

It very quickly became apparent that hunts had no intention of shooting foxes with the results of the League’s 2014 hunting season investigation revealing that there wasn’t a gun in sight. Day after day, the League’s videos showed huntsmen casting their hounds across the countryside searching for foxes but there was no evidence of any guns, suggesting the hunts would use their hounds to kill any foxes they found. The videos were made public and given to a specially convened meeting of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. The Environment Minister, Roseanna Cunningham, said she was worried by the evidence which in our view, showed blatant disregard for the law from Scotland’s hunting community. She asked for the situation to be reviewed which started an independent process to be chaired by one of Scotland’s leading lawyers – Lord Bonomy.

With hunting activity under such public scrutiny surely by 2015 the hunts would have learnt their lesson and would be behaving themselves? Not a bit of it. Once again, hunts careened around the countryside searching for foxes which were subsequently chased and terrorised by hounds. The League’s investigators were more interested in establishing patterns of behaviour (like the absence of guns) than securing prosecutions but one incident was so blatant that we had no choice other than to show the evidence to Police Scotland who took it to the Procurator Fiscal. They agreed that charges of illegal fox hunting should be made against the Jed Forest Hunt’s master and huntsman and the trial was awaited. On this occasion, the hunt was seen to actively encourage hounds to chase a fox, clearly with no intention of shooting it.

In the meantime, the League submitted over a hundred hours of footage to the Bonomy review that showed whatever the hunts said they were doing, they weren’t flushing to guns. The League recommended that the law should be strengthened to remove the opportunity for hunts to use flushing to guns as a false alibi. In essence a complete end to hunting. Police Scotland also made a submission to Lord Bonomy. They concluded that the current law is “unworkable” and “provides opportunities for exploitation by those who continually and deliberately offend”.

As one of a few people who gave personal evidence to Lord Bonomy I can testify that he was rigorous and robust in his questioning. We even went out with a mounted fox hunt on a specially organised “flushing to guns” event. Although a shot was heard, and a fox was said to have been shot, there were lengthy periods when we witnessed a huntsman encouraging a pack of hounds to search through gorse without the presence of a single gun begging the question of how the hunt intended to kill a fox should they find one?

While we were waiting for Lord Bonomy’s findings, the Jed Forest case went through the courts. The ensuing nine days in the Jedburgh Sheriff Court laid bare the complexity, some of the duplicity and the weaknesses around the Scottish ban and how it was attempted to be interpreted by the Scottish fox hunting fraternity. Sheriff Paterson, presiding over a court more used to dealing with issues of petty crime committed by local youth, found his court full of specialist lawyers trying to explain why the defendants were guilty or not guilty of illegal hunting.

Much of the evidence revolved around questions of what constituted “cover”, basically was the fox running in long or short grass when the hounds were chasing it, and whether the guns present were positioned in places which would allow them to shoot the fox. In the end Sheriff Paterson found Johnny Riley and Clive Richardson to be the first people in Scotland guilty of illegal hunting since the law’s introduction in 2002. Video evidence showed the fox had escaped the hunt by going underground, the hunt then spent over an hour digging out the fox before releasing it back into the open where hounds were waiting. Despite having ample opportunity to shoot the fox the hunt chose not to, instead allowing the hounds to give chase, therefore making this activity illegal.

On November 21, Lord Bonomy revealed the findings of his review. He concluded that the law was being broken and recommended it needed clarification and amendment. Crucially, he said that there is “supporting evidence that the flushing from cover for pest control exception is a decoy for the continuation of some traditional hunting practises”. He also responded to the fox hunters’ assertion that they were providing a pest control service by saying “among mounted hunts pest control can appear incidental to the primary objective of exercising horse and hounds”. While some media attention has concentrated on his novel call for voluntary protocols and independent monitors, his fundamental recommendations revolve around strengthening and amending the law.

He recommends clarifying the definition of what “fox hunting” is - as the present definition is confusing to the police. He wants amendments that would reverse the present onus of proof. For example, he suggested that if hunts say they are flushing to guns and there is evidence that there are no guns present, then the hunt must prove that there were. If that had been the case in 2014- 2016 when the League filmed hunts all over Scotland with no guns visible, the courts would have been very busy.

But what of the 2016 and 2017 hunting seasons? Surely, after the continuing brouhaha, the Jed Forest conviction and the Bonomy report, the hunts would be far more conscious of their behaviour? Again, not a bit of it. The League’s team of investigators continued to film packs of hounds being encouraged to search for and then chase foxes through the Scottish countryside in clear breach of the law. Two hunts now await to hear what happens next after they were charged with illegal hunting.

The ball is now firmly in the Scottish Government’s court. On January 31 it announced that it was going to strengthen the legislation in line with Lord Bonomy’s findings. It also invited individuals from both pro and anti-hunting organisations to discuss and, if possible, agree a voluntary code of practice for Scottish hunts and on how independent monitors could be deployed. A voluntary code of practise is nearing agreement – but importantly it relates only to the period from when it is agreed until the legislation is strengthened. Realistically, that will be just the 2018/19 fox hunting season starting this coming September. After four years of filming Scottish hunts running a coach and horses through the present legislation the League Against Cruel Sports has little long-term faith in voluntary self-regulation and self-restraint. The fox hunting fraternity has made it clear for many years that they regret that their sport was “banned” and it seems highly unrealistic that they could be expected to police their own activities.

More important than voluntary codes, we await the exact details of the legislative changes that are to be made arising from Lord Bonomy’s findings. The Government has acted swiftly and decisively so far. It has the backing of 83% of the Scottish public who Mori polling reveals are dead set against illegal fox hunting. Last February marked the 15th anniversary of the hunting ban. More than 20,000 people have signed a petition to strengthen the law and around 30,000 people responded to the Government’s consultation on Lord Bonomy’s findings. On March 24, over 800 people marched down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile to the Scottish Parliament “For the Foxes”. Speakers from the SNP, Labour and Greens called for fox hunting to be really banned. The crowds were also pleased to see and hear messages of support and encouragement from Bill Oddie and Chris Packham.

The Government has a real chance to end fox hunting in Scotland – for good. The public, the media and politicians were delighted when they thought that Scotland had led the way in these isles by being the first to ban the cruel and unnecessary tradition of encouraging packs of hounds to chase and kill wild animals. Unfortunately, it has now been shown and agreed by an independent senior Law Lord that the law is just not strong enough to stop those who are determined to drive a coach and horses through it.

The League looks forward to a robust set of amendments that will make fox hunting a thing of the past. We also agree that it should be hunts that have to prove they are acting legally when using exemptions. Most importantly though, we agree with Lord Bonomy that the “flushing to guns” exemption is used as a decoy for traditional hunting and, when used by mounted fox hunts, has little or nothing to do with pest control. Flushing to guns should be removed as an option for mounted hunts.

Why Lord Bonomy was happy to say that there is supporting evidence to show that the flushing to guns exception is used as a decoy for traditional hunting and yet didn’t recommend removing that exception is a mystery. I know that he was struck by the “social cohesion” of the activity we saw on that day we observed the specially arranged flushing to guns event. And maybe he agrees with the Duke of Buccleuch when he said that fox hunting is a part of the social fabric which helped to “knit people together” in rural communities. The last time I looked, it wasn’t a part of my social fabric or anyone else’s that I know.

As I write this, it looks like fox hunting will really be banned in Scotland – but it’s not clear by who. Alison Johnstone from the Scottish Green Party has said that if the Scottish Government only go as far as the Bonomy recommendations she will either introduce a Members Bill or amendments that will remove the flushing to guns exception and reduce the number of hounds to two. Like the League Against Cruel Sports she is convinced that these further steps to the Bonomy package are critical to ensure hunting is really banned in Scotland.

Once more, the ball is in the Government’s court. They can really ban fox hunting, or they can let another political party take the credit. But why would they? The present Government prides itself as being a progressive force on many fronts and it has recently made some good inroads on animal welfare. However, when it comes to Scotland’s wildlife they seem strangely hesitant to act. If the Government listens to the vast majority, in both town and country, who are proud and protective of our wonderful wildlife, then they should take the moral high ground and not side with a small but disproportionately, powerful minority who see Scotland’s wildlife as a commodity which is simply fun to kill.