The FOI also reveals that FLS have been unable to stop ongoing wildlife crime which has been taking place on Scotland’s public lands since 2016, and which FLS suspect to be committed by gamekeepers. External reports of ‘out of control’ hounds in the FOI also highlight just how weak Scotland’s fox hunting legislation is and why reform is urgently needed.
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. And FLS is allowing this cruel activity to take place in Scotland’s public forest.
Freedom of information request
On the 15th February, we submitted a FOI request to Forestry Land Scotland for information on the following: fox hunting packs on FLS land; raptor persecution on FLS land; and correspondence between FLS and Soil Association (the charity that audits FLS to ensure it’s complying with the UK Woodland Assurance Scheme). Specifically, we asked for:
- All correspondence between Forestry and Land Scotland and the Soil Association relating to fox foot packs and the UK Woodland Assurance Scheme standard since 1st July 2020.
- All internal communications and discussions at Forestry Land Scotland, since 1st July 2020, which relate to fox hunting foot packs and the UK Woodland Assurance Scheme standard.
- All correspondence since 12th November 2019 between Forestry and Land Scotland and other people/organisations/local estates, including foot packs, seeking permission and operating on Forestry and Land Scotland managed land.
- 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, since 12th November 2019.
- All internal and external correspondence, or reports, relating to alleged raptor persecution on Forestry Land Scotland’s land in Moy Forest, Inverness, since 1st January 2014.
Fox hunting foot packs granted access to Scotland’s public lands
Last year, we revealed that FLS was allowing fox hunting foot packs to access Scotland’s public lands to kill foxes. In The Ferret exclusive on our findings, FLS stated that managing the environment was ‘extremely complex’ and admitted that decisions made by local branches of FLS were not always consistent with FLS’ national policy. Despite plans in 2019 to prohibit the use of packs of hounds for fox control, partly on the grounds of ‘animal welfare’, FLS subsequently halted this policy change. This was extremely disappointing.
Despite public outrage regarding FLS’ fox hunting foot pack policy, our recent FOI revealed that FLS continued to grant permission to fox hunting foot packs to access public lands. The Fox Control Association were permitted to flush foxes to guns between 26th October 2020- 31st March 2021 in Loch Farr Wood, Farr Wood and Meall Mor.
FLS Uncertainty of its own fox hunting policy
The FOI materials released to OneKind included correspondence between FLS staff and an external party seemingly working in, or at the very least interested in, conservation. The external party, amongst other things, questions the level of training required for hounds that access FLS land. When drafting a response to this question, a FLS staff member seems to be uncertain as to FLS policies and Scotland’s fox hunting legislation. Referring to the estate they write ‘They have a legal right to use hounds to flush foxes to guns on certain areas of our land- is this statement correct??????’
Uncontrollable fox hounds
On the topic of prescribed training standards for foot pack hounds, FLS draft a response stating that ‘fox hounds are not interested in any other species than fox as this would be counterproductive to the objectives of the event’. This is immediately followed by an internal note from a colleague stating: ‘Good statement, but can we actually factually verify this’. FLS also admit that they don’t require any level of training for foot pack hounds to be demonstrated by the applicants.
Further external communications released under the FOI confirm that foot packs were reportedly banned by FLS in Achormlarie because the dogs were ‘uncontrollable’ and encountering elderly dog walkers. Last December, an external source also reported on social media that they had received eyewitness accounts of a ‘loose hound’ from a fox hunting foot pack on the forestry estate between Camserney and Aberfeldy.
A condition of FLS granting permission to foot packs is that all dogs are to ‘remain under control and stay within the identified work area’ and that a member of the FLS wildlife team ‘observes the activity closely, but in a manner that they are not involved or cannot be accused of disrupting the event’. It is unclear how this is implemented in reality. Indeed, when FLS are asked by an external source in the FOI materials whether they are present at ‘each and every locus’ they refuse to answer and instead cite Scotland’s fox hunting legislation Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002, which states the following:
‘a hound is under control if the person responsible for the dog is able to direct the dog’s activity by physical contact or verbal or audible command; or the dog is carrying out a series of actions appropriate to the activity undertaken, having been trained to do so.’
OneKind is completely opposed to the use fox hunting foot packs. Out of control hounds may not just target foxes but may also put more species of animals at risk of being targeted, injured or even killed. We also appreciate that out of control hounds will raise concerns, as protected species live in Scotland’s public forest managed by FLS.
Alongside our foot pack concerns, we also had reason to believe that wildlife crime was an ongoing issue in Moy Forest, Inverness. The materials released under the FOI showed that wildlife crime was indeed taking place in this area. Minutes from a meeting about this issue attended by FLS, Police Scotland and RSPB Scotland in 2016, revealed that FLS were seemingly unable to tackle this wildlife persecution.
Internal communications released by FLS under the FOI also state that suspected members of the ‘gamekeeping community’ were seen breaking the UK’s first lockdown.
The first mention of wildlife crime in the released FOI materials is in a minutes document dated 1st September 2016. The meeting took place between Forestry Enterprise Scotland (one of the two agencies established to manage Scotland’s national forests and land prior to Forestry and Land Scotland), Police Scotland and RSPB Scotland. The meeting was, in part, to discuss options to prevent the alleged persecution of protected species in Moy forest, following the recording of illegal activity in the area.
The Detective Sergeant present at the meeting suggests that Police Scotland could inform a contact (name redacted) that the area was being monitored due to illegal activity and ‘remind’ them of vicarious liability under the Wildlife & Natural Environment Act 2011. It was believed this contact would then pass that information through to the estate.
The meeting minutes also state that:
‘It was not felt productive for FES to hold the same conversation with the estate. General discussion concluded experience showed that partnership working in this field was unproductive. The complexity of the criminal activity being committed and the relationships within the principal group associated with the activity simply undermine the ability to facilitate positive change by talking.’
This statement is very telling as it suggests, based on experience, that those present at the meeting believed that the unnamed estate would be unwilling to co-operate on the issue of wildlife crime.
No further documents from 2016 were provided in the materials released, so we are unaware whether Police Scotland took any further action.
The next set of documents that we received on the issue of wildlife crime are from June and July 2020.
Internal FLS emails reveal that FLS’ retrieved camera images from trail cameras left out before lockdown near Schedule 1 raptor nests in Moy. The images apparently showed people with a spade entering the forest during lockdown, and not socially distancing, thus breaking Scottish Government restrictions. FLS believed that it was ‘highly likely’ that these people were from the ‘gamekeeping community’ and that they were looking for fox dens to block during the day and to return to check for any excavation in the evening – this is so they know which dens are active for targeting foxes. We would suggest that this could be illegal activity, there is a strong potential that these dens could have been occupied by badgers, and it is a crime to obstruct access to any entrance of a badger sett in Scotland and disturb a badger while it is occupying a set. The FOI material states that the group were also operating beside Schedule 1 raptor nests.
The group could not be identified as the camera on the access track, which would have recorded the vehicles, was stolen. FLS note, however, that while they don’t have evidence that links to an estate or individual, that they will ‘clarify and record the access rights through Moy’ by ‘adjacent estates’ and inform these estates that they will be ‘mounting a watching brief’. A FLS Environment Forester also comments that the area has a ‘proven history of wildlife crime’ with ‘evidence of shooting of raptor nests…and illegal snaring.’ FLS seem concerned as to the reaction of the estates when FLS increases its presence in the area.
No further communications were released on this particular incident, including any information as to whether potential crimes were reported to Police Scotland or whether any further action was taken. However, it would appear that FLS and its predecessor organisation, Forestry Enterprise Scotland, have struggled to prevent wildlife crime from taking place on Scotland’s public forest since at least 2016 and, if the materials released under the FOI are representative of the extent of action they took, then it could be argued that their approach to tackling wildlife crime has failed.
Soil Association audit
In July 2020 we raised our concern about fox hunting foot packs being allowed access to Forestry Land Scotland’s public land with Soil Association. FLS is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified, which is key to FLS timber sales & revenue and Soil Association is the charity responsible for auditing FLS to ensure that they are complying with the certification’s standards.
We asked them to investigate the use of foot packs in line with the UK Woodland Assurance Standards (UKWAS) and raise our concern at the Soil Association’s annual audit of FLS. We believe that fox hunting foot packs are incompatible with the UKWAS standard 4.9, which states that:
- Landowners are required to consider impacts on priority habitats and species and other native species, and;
- That predator control should be carried out in line with best practice.
We suggested that the use of fox hunting foot packs could not be best practice in line with UKWAS standards as hounds are unable to be closely monitored and FLS’s own preferred method of control is to shoot foxes themselves. However, Soil Association simply quoted the Wild Mammals 2002 Act to state that this activity is legal. Unfortunately, there was no mention of animal welfare in the public audit documents, and any concerns raised by Soil Association appear to be conservation concerns.
It appears that Soil Association did not analyse whether the use of foot packs is indeed best practice in terms of animal welfare, but rather just asked FLS to confirm that they’re acting within the law.
We are very disappointed that despite public outrage at the use of fox hunting foot packs on Scotland’s public forest estate, FLS continued to allow these packs to kill foxes and disturb wildlife in the forest. The majority of Scots are opposed to fox hunting, and so, as the public body responsible for promoting Scotland’s land, FLS should amend its fox control policy to reflect public opinion, as it had previously planned to do.
Our findings reveal just how weak Scotland’s fox hunting legislation is and demonstrate why it cannot be said that Scotland has a real fox hunting ban. So long as exemptions for ‘pest control’ exist, people will be able to hunt foxes under this guise. It is also clear that wildlife crime is an ongoing issue in Scotland and that FLS have been unable to tackle it.
The Scottish Government has committed to reforming Scotland’s fox hunting legislation in this parliamentary session 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 and to end fox hunting for good. Wild animals need protection from suffering too.