By Jamie Stewart, director of The Scottish Countryside Alliance

When the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act was passed in 2002 all reasonable people considered that the political debate over hunting had been settled. The Act banned ‘traditional’ hunting with dogs, but allowed most other forms of fox control to continue.

The hunting community was not happy with the unjustified restrictions, but adapted to ensure the use of firearms to dispatch the wild mammal, flushed by dogs, in accordance with the law whether operating on horseback, quad bike or on foot. For better or worse the fox hunting debate had been resolved and for over a decade barely anything was heard on the subject.

As Lord Bonomy noted the operation of the Act has never been raised as a topic in the Plenary Group of the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime Scotland, consisting of Police Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, animal welfare charities, land management organisations and government agencies. In 2015, however, following a debate over hunting legislation in England and Wales animal rights groups suddenly decided that there was an issue with the legislation which they had forgotten to mention for the previous 11 plus years. Using the leverage of online activism they persuaded the Scottish National Party to reopen the long settled debate over hunting legislation and commission an independent review under Lord Bonomy.

That review suggested the law was not perfect, which is no surprise, given its history. It started as a private members Bill promoted by Lord (Mike) Watson and was considered by the cross party Rural Development Committee which concluded that “the Bill is so controversial, and the evidence on cruelty in hunting so inconclusive, that a moral stance has been adopted”. The Committee voted not to support the principles of the Bill, and further recommended that the Bill should be dropped. Unfortunately the political debate about hunting has rarely been logical and eventually, on February 13 2002 the Parliament voted to pass the Protection of Wild Mammals Bill.

Contrary to the desperate revisionism being peddled by anti-hunt activists now, when the law was passed the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) was absolutely clear in its own publications that it “bans fox hunting, hare coursing and fox baiting. And, despite the claims of the Scottish hunters, there are no gaping loopholes or flaws.” Even 12 years later LACS celebrated the anniversary of the Scottish ban in 2014 with a clear endorsement of the law: “The Protection of Wild Mammals Act is a hugely important piece of legislation, as it seeks to protect foxes and other mammals from the sickeningly cruel blood sport of hunting.”

The use of dogs to find, flush and shoot foxes was accepted by those people who promoted the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act back in 2002 because it does not involve the chase and kill by dogs which was the element of traditional hunting that they objected to. For instance the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) submission to the Scottish Rural Development (now Rural Affairs) Committee stated: “The key element is the method of kill and for that reason the Society is not opposed to other activities involving dogs such as retrieving, or flushing for the purpose of shooting.”

So why does LACS now argue that the law is so fundamentally flawed? Why does it march its few hundred supporters and ‘celebrities’ down the Royal Mile? Because its cause was never about foxes. It was about prejudice not animal welfare. About politics not principles. It simply cannot accept that the huntsman in a red coat survives, regardless of the fact that his actions are legitimate.

And let us be clear they are completely legitimate. What the anti-hunting movement cannot accept is that controlling foxes is necessary and that using packs of dogs to find them so that they can be shot is often the most effective way of culling them. That is not my opinion, or that of the hunts. That is the finding of Lord Bonomy, a Scottish law lord appointed by this government to review the legislation. In his review of the legislation he concluded that “the use of packs of hounds to flush out foxes to be shot remains a significant pest control measure, both to control the general level of foxes in an area as well as to address particular problems affecting a farm or estate”. In response to calls to restrict the number of dogs that can be used to find and shoot foxes he found “not only that searching and flushing by two dogs would not be as effective as that done by a full pack of hounds, but also that imposing such a restriction could seriously compromise effective pest control in the country, particularly on rough and hilly ground and in extensive areas of dense cover such as conifer woodlands”.

Those opponents of mounted fox control who initiated high profile campaigns to argue that illegal hunting is widespread might enjoy some credibility if it were not for the fact that Police Scotland and the Procurator Fiscal’s Office statement that they received very few complaints of illegal hunting between 2002 and 2014.

On January 3 2016 the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee (RACCE) held an evidence session on the annual Wildlife Crime in Scotland report with Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. It was clear from the discussion that the police will, and do, prosecute where there is evidence of an offence. Detective Chief Superintendent Sean Scott also noted the close co-operation between the police and Scotland’s foxhound packs in the light of the sudden allegation of widespread law breaking and noted that “we will continue to work with them to ensure that all matters are and appear to be transparent and legal”.

I am uncertain to whom Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm Graham referred to, regarding wildlife crime, when he stated “those who continually and deliberately offend”. It was most certainly not Scotland’s mounted Foxhound packs. Answering direct questions from MSPs, Detective Chief Superintendent Sean Scott, Police Scotland’s Wildlife Crime lead, confirmed that there is no evidence to suggest that the mounted hunts are acting outside the law.

Like any other law, where there is the necessary evidence then a prosecution will be brought and will succeed. Official statistics show that there have been 210 charges brought under the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) between 2002 and 2014, involving some 87 convictions. Of those charges which proceeded to trial 53% resulted in a conviction.

To date, one mounted foxhound pack has been found guilty of a breach of the Act and punished accordingly. Despite the verdict in the Jedforest case - in which a father and a son were found guilty of breaching the law - Sheriff Patterson declared that activity “pest control” not hunting. He also accepted that guns were indeed present and that the fox had been shot; discrediting the evidence presented by LACS’s covert surveillance team.

Failing to prove that mounted packs were breaking the law, LACS reverted to the deceitful tactic of “trial by media”. Media rightly plays a vital role in informing the wider public of events, be they local, national or global but it can also mould the opinion of the society and is capable of changing the whole way in which people perceive various events. The self-styled animal welfare organisations such as the League Against Cruel Sports and OneKind have taken to this tactic like the proverbial duck to water, in choosing to submit partial or edited recorded footage to the Scottish media for public exposure as opposed to Police Scotland for criminal investigation.

Choosing to use the same tactics to submit over one hundred hours of footage to the Lord Bonomy review dramatically back fired when he stated:

“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”

Rather than selectively misquoting Lord Bonomy, the Scottish Mounted Foxhounds immediately acted on his report to introduce a new form of reporting and recording system for operational activities, including the opening up of an incident file with Police Scotland in advance of taking part in pest control - detailing times, locations and contact details for all operational staff. Far from hiding from the law.

One thing, however, is for certain: voters really do not care. This was confirmed by an online survey conducted by the Scottish Countryside Alliance and YouGov which asked Scottish voters what issues had the most impact on their vote at the General Election last year. Of the 1,031 adults asked not one single respondent listed hunting when asked for their opinion unprompted.

The researchers went on to list 15 issues from Brexit to Land Reform and asked voters to rank the top five influences on their vote - 98% of voters said hunting was not in the top five issues that affected their vote. Meanwhile the overwhelming majority of Scots (61%) support the right of farmers to shoot foxes to protect their livestock as the law currently allows.

It could not be clearer that the issue of hunting is of utter irrelevance to the majority of Scottish people bar a few misguided individuals who still think that the pursuit of packs of hounds is somehow progressing a class war agenda. This is quite simply bad politics.

The Scottish Government has begun the process of implementing Lord Bonomy’s recommendations. Whatever the arguments about the necessity of that review it will continue to have the support of the Scottish Countryside Alliance and the rural community.

Those politicians who believe that there is any justification for creating a new and unnecessary debate over the extent of the law will have to answer to the evidence laid out by Lord Bonomy, and to the priorities of an electorate which wants them to focus on issues of real concern.