When we last had parliamentary proceedings on foxhunting it was before email and campaigning websites like 38 Degrees had become fashionable. Overwhelmingly, correspondence was delivered by a postman. The strength of a constituent’s opinion on a matter, and the determination to convey that opinion to their MP, would be tempered by the need to write a letter and purchase a stamp.
Now that foxhunting is back on the parliamentary agenda however, there is no similar restraint: your MP is only one easy click away. Consequently, I have had to spend much of my time clearing my inbox of hundreds of emails – in equal numbers from constituents on either side of the hunting argument.
I am afraid that many of my correspondents have got quite the wrong end of the stick. This week’s parliamentary proceedings are not about the principle of the hunting act and they do not seek to amend it. The Government has laid a statutory instrument before Parliament in response to the complaints of upland farmers about the problem of foxes killing lambs. The statutory instrument makes a number of small changes to regulations, not to the Hunting Act itself, to align them to what currently works in Scotland.
These technical amendments to the regulations will not lift the ban on hunting with dogs: Changes to regulations, secondary legislation (like statutory instruments) cannot be used to defeat the purpose of the original Act . The Hunting Act will remain in place and will continue to prohibit the pursuit and killing of a wild animal by dogs. What the changes do is to amend the exemptions – that Members on all sides of the House of Commons agreed during the passage of the Act – where they are necessary for the purposes of “pest control”.
The purpose of the amendments to the regulations is to:
Enable farmers and gamekeepers to make a judgement, based on the terrain and other circumstances, as to whether it is appropriate to use more than two dogs to flush out foxes and other wild mammals. This is particularly important in upland areas where the use of two dogs across large and difficult areas of ground, often covered by woodland, is not regarded as effective or practical. There is no limit on the number of dogs that can be used in Scotland;
To maintain the current restrictions of only one dog being used below ground in stalking and flushing out animals, but to enable the current provision for the protection of game and wild birds to be extended to livestock as well. This amendment will help provide upland farmers with an additional tool against livestock predation. A dog may be used below ground for a much wider range of purposes in Scotland;
To amend the requirement to produce evidence of land ownership or landowner consent in cases where a dog is used below ground. In Scotland there is no such requirement. This amendment will mean that the evidence does not need to be carried by the person carrying out the activity but can be presented at a police station within seven days. This is in line with the timeframe for presenting a driving licence under road traffic law;
To extend the scope of the “rescue” exemption to include “diseased” animals. This is a logical extension of the provision that enables hunting to be undertaken to relieve a wild mammal of suffering when it is injured.
These changes do not lift the ban on hunting with dogs and whilst placing greater trust in farmers and gamekeepers – those who know the land and terrain they operate on best – the controls remain more restrictive than those in Scotland. Any pests still have to be killed by shooting, and not by the dogs.
Foxhunting with a pack of hounds in the traditional sense that we have known it, remains banned. That is a battle that has yet to be refought. The Government had a manifesto commitment to put it to a free vote. I don’t know when that vote will come, but when it does, I am confident that my email inbox will know all about it.