Late last year, it was brought to our attention that Forestry and Land Scotland, previously the Forestry Commission Scotland, was allowing foot packs onto its land to control foxes using dogs.
In November we submitted a Freedom of Information request (FOI) to find out. The communications released under the FOI revealed that it is indeed the case that FLS have been allowing foot packs onto their land to flush out foxes to be killed. At least one request for fox control from foot packs was from those that wanted to kill foxes to protect game birds, like grouse and pheasants, for the shooting industry to have a high number of birds to shoot on adjacent private land, for ‘sport’.
What’s more, appeals by foot packs to Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, Fergus Ewing MSP, appeared to have caused FLS decisions not to allow foot packs on the forest estate to be overturned.
What is a foot pack?
Fox hunting was technically banned in Scotland in 2002, but exceptions were made to allow the use of hounds to flush foxes to waiting guns. A foot pack is a where a huntsman, accompanied by colleagues acting as beaters, uses hounds to chase foxes out from cover to then be shot by the group.
On 11thNovember 2019, we submitted a FOI request to Forestry Land Scotland for information on fox hunting packs on FLS land over the past five years. We asked for information on the following:
- All correspondence between Forestry and Land Scotland and other people/organisations/local estates/members of the Scottish Parliament, over the last five years relating to fox hunting packs, including foot packs, seeking permission and operating on Forestry and Land Scotland managed land.
- All Forestry and Land Scotland internal communications, discussions and internal policy conversations relating to the operation of fox hunting packs, including foot packs, seeking permission and operating on Forestry and Land Scotland managed land.
- Communications, both internal and external, to Forestry and Land Scotland reporting on the numbers of foxes killed by fox hunting packs, including foot packs, operating on Forestry and Land Scotland managed land.
- Details of the conservation/other rationale/Forestry and Land Scotland policy for allowing neighbours to kill foxes on Forestry and Land Scotland managed land, and specifically in reference to the Meal Mor, Moy and Farr areas.
- Any material sent via the Chief Executive (or nominated officer) that authorises the killing of foxes on Forestry and Land Scotland land by fox hunting packs, including foot packs.
The Scottish Raptor Study Group had also submitted a request for information about foot packs. Between us, we obtained more than 100 files from Forestry Land Scotland under freedom of information law. We worked through these files to find evidence of FLS granting permission to foot packs to enter its land to flush foxes to guns. We also discovered that there had been ministerial involvement in influencing permissions to be granted.
Once we had a clear and chronological picture of foot packs on FLS land, we passed the files and our story to investigate journalism platform, The Ferret, who did a thorough piece on it here. This blog will explore the ministerial involvement, the failure of FLS to implement a more welfare-focused policy, and the Scottish Government’s plans to strengthen Scotland’s fox hunting legislation.
Foot packs on Scotland’s public lands
FLS owns 1/3 of Scotland’s forests on behalf of the public. A huge 87% of those resident in Scotland don’t support fox hunting, yet until just last week there was a foot pack with permission to control foxes on FLS public land. Permissions for fox control foot packs for the 20/21 year will likely be sought from June onwards.
In response to the Scottish Raptor Study Group FOI request, FLS confirmed that despite the rationale that foot packs operated a fox control service no foxes were killed by the foot packs on its land between 2017-2019. If no foxes were killed by the foot packs, it must be asked how the activities qualified as one of the permitted exceptions – “pest control” – under the 2002 Act.
FLS fox control policy
FLS internal fox control policy states that foxes can be killed to protect the interests of neighbouring agricultural and game management sectors and it clearly assumes that control will generally be carried out by FLS staff. Systematic control of foxes “will not be carried out, as an example to preserve large stocks of reared game birds” although the agency is prepared to respond rapidly to specific complaints.
So, given that FLS prefer that fox control is carried out by its own staff, and shooting is clearly a more effective method than using hounds, why were two foot packs granted permission to FLS public land in the past 3 years? It seems that Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, Fergus Ewing MSP, has had some influence.
Fergus Ewing involvement
FLS note internally that there was “considerable correspondence” from Ministers on the restraints being applied to foot packs. In one case FLS even expressed concern that if they further delayed clarifying their fox control policy or not accept the foot pack’s request to use local estate insurance, it would “escalate to ministerial level”.
Between 2017-2019, Fergus Ewing MSP was asked to intervene in three cases where foot packs were denied permission to enter FLS public land to flush foxes to the guns and in two cases this involvement was influential for the overturning of FLS’ decision.
In 2017, when FLS became aware that the Head Huntsman of Three Straths Fox Association, who had been denied permission to access FLS land south of Inverness for fox control purposes, had contacted Fergus Ewing, they offered to meet with the Head Huntsman to “resolve” the situation “as soon as possible”.
Months later FLS overturned its decision to deny the pack permission to hunt using hounds. Permission was granted to the foot pack to use hounds to flush out foxes to the guns in three public forests south of Inverness until September 2018.
In a 2018 case regarding a request for foot packs to enter FLS land neighbouring Glen Prosen Estate, Graeme Dey MSP forwarded an email from his constituent in relation to a denied foot pack permission to the Cabinet Secretary for comment. Mr Ewing’s office “fast-tracked” a meeting with Graeme Dey and FLS were contacted to provide a response. The letter from FLS to Fergus Ewing was addressed to him in his ministerial capacity.
FLS did not overturn their decision in this case. The foot pack was not granted access as they did not have the necessary licence required because the land was home to Scottish wildcats, a European protected species.
This permission was sought from the driven grouse shooting industry, who commented in their email to Graeme Dey MSP that they needed to hunt foxes with hounds because:
“Number one priority for me is to have a shootable surplus of grouse each summer…”
In the third and most recent case in 2019, Fergus Ewing was cc-ed into an email from Three Straths Fox Association to FLS. The email complains about FLS imposing constraints on their fox hunting activity and accuses FLS of trying to “exclude us from FLS land completely.” Fergus Ewing being cc-ed into this email chain alone was enough for FLS to consider the situation as a potential “hot topic”.
North Region Delivery Manager, Alex MacLeod, suggested that FLS meet with the Three Straths Fox Association to reach “an amicable agreement”.
Head of Corporate Support at FLS, Michael Hymers commented:
“We had considerable ministerial/parliamentary correspondence involving several members of the Cabinet including Mr Ewing in March 2018”
Permission for foot packs to enter the land was subsequently granted and remained in place until 31stMarch 2020.
We are very disappointed that on two occasions Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) overturned its original decisions not to allow foot packs access to the public forest in Scotland, following the involvement, or potential involvement, of Fergus Ewing.
We appreciate that Mr Ewing is the MSP for one of the areas involved, but the FLS saw this as ministerial involvement and correspondence was conducted on the basis of dealing with a Cabinet Secretary.
FLS change in policy
As recently as last August, a draft policy was taking shape to prohibit the use of packs of hounds for fox control on the national forest and land estate, in part because FLS acknowledged these packs as “inappropriate” on the ground of “animal welfare” and the packs’ lack of efficiency for fox control.So, we were concerned to learn that FLS no longer plans to implement this policy.
Why was this pulled? If the policy document had proceeded, it would have provided much-needed consistency and reduced pressure from foot packs and prevented the situations described in FLS’ correspondence, where intervention by the Cabinet Secretary appears to have caused decisions not to allow foot packs on to the forest estate to be overturned.
OneKind does not support lethal fox control, but it is true to say that shooting by FLS officers on forest land accounts for much larger numbers than flushing with hounds.
FLS should set out its policy once and for all and ensure that any fox control deemed necessary is carried out in the most humane way possible.
Scottish Government plans
The Scottish Government has committed to reforming Scotland’s fox hunting legislation to make it more effective and enforceable. While flushing by dogs will still be permitted, it proposes to restrict the number of dogs to two, except under licence. We will be urging the government not to license any packs of dogs- wild animals need protection from unnecessary suffering. Unfortunately, although a consultation on the new measures was imminent, it was announced on 1 Aprilthat the planned bill has now been halted, as a consequence of focusing government resources on efforts to deal with the COVID-19 virus.
The vast majority of the Scottish public do not support fox hunting in any form, so to allow dogs to pursue foxes in Scotland’s national forests goes against public opinion.
These beautiful forests are a place for the people of Scotland, where they can visit to appreciate Scotland’s nature and wonderful wildlife. Scotland’s residents should be able to visit in full confidence that our wild animals are not being persecuted on the land, just for the sporting interests of a few.
OneKind has been campaigning for a real ban on fox hunting in Scotland for decades. Read more about our most recent work on this issue here.