I’m very pleased to open this debate on the general principles of the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill.
And I want to give my thanks, initially, to the Rural Affairs and Natural Environment Committee for their considered scrutiny of the Bill, and to all those who gave extensive evidence at Stage 1.
Presiding Officer, it has been 20 years since the Scottish Parliament passed the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act. In doing so we became the first part of the UK to ban the use of dogs to chase and kill wild mammals for sport.
As a country, it was at that point that we decided that it was unacceptable and unlawful.
Unfortunately, this legislation has not proven to be as robust and effective as was intended.
Indeed in my own legal training, I actually studied this bill for its deficiencies and legal uncertainty.
Now, bringing forward the Hunting with Dogs Bill I intend to draw a line in the sand and to finish the work that was started 20 years ago.
Concerns about the current legislation led the Scottish Government to ask Lord Bonomy to review and report on whether it was achieving its intended purpose.
He came to two main conclusions. Namely, first that there were deficiencies in the drafting of the bill and secondly that there is reason to believe that that was leading to instances of illegal hunting.
In this regard he said, and I quote:
"there are aspects and features of the legislation which complicate unduly the detection, investigation and prosecution of alleged offences"
And secondly, that:
"there may be occasions when hunting, which does not fall within one of the exceptions, does take place and that the grounds for that suspicion should be addressed."
Importantly Lord Bonomy noted that despite the majority of fox control being undertaken without dogs, he said "it appears that in general 20% or more of foxes disturbed by hunts are killed...by hounds"
This Bill therefore takes as it starting point the need to address issues identified by Lord Bonomy.
We have corrected deficiencies of the past, we have worked to prevent future deficiencies from opening - and we've done all of that in pursuit of the highest possible animal welfare standards.
However, as we seek to tackle illegal hunting, we must be clear about the need for farmers, land managers, conservationists and environmental groups to continue having access to legitimate and legal control methods. To protect livestock and ground nesting birds, to manage deer, to tackle invasive species. And, bearing in mind, Police Scotland also use dogs to detect evidence of wildlife crime.
All of these are legitimate purposes for which dogs are used in our rural nation. The Bill has been designed to balance the safe, considerate and appropriate use of dogs in permitted circumstances with the need to stop illegal hunting.
And where there is suspicion of illegal activity, this Bill will make it easier for the Police and the Crown Office to detect, investigate and prosecute.
Presiding Officer, the provisions in this Bill are the result of many years of work, Lord Bonomy’s review, the widespread engagement that I have mentioned with land management and animal welfare stakeholders and indeed two public consultations.
And whilst the Bill broadly replicates the provisions of the 2002 Act it makes certain important modifications which I will try to outline quickly just now.
Firstly, the Bill addresses the concerns with the language of the Act by unambiguously setting out the purposes for which dogs can be used.
The Bill also introduces a two dog limit for that lawful activity of searching for, and stalking and flushing wild animals.
I will continue to trying to make some progress now, Presiding Officer.
And I will do that with reference to some points from the Committee Report.
Firstly, I'm very pleased that the Committee agreed with the general principles of the Bill.
Their report raised a number of important points which I've addressed in my written remarks and I won’t rehearse them here.
But I just wanted to touch on the licensing scheme.
I am clear it's is an exception to an exception, it must be construed narrowly and available only where other options are not available. However, I am equally clear that when farmers, land managers, environmental groups - when they find themselves in those very circumstances the Scheme must be available, it must be workable and it must be sensible.
And so me and my officials and NatureScot will continue to engage with stakeholders throughout the passage of the Bill and during the implementation phase to develop and to refine the scheme.
I’d also in the time I have left just like to briefly mention the issue of rough shooting . Presiding Officer, these have been raised with me during the latter stages of Stage 1.
And while I have tried to give definitive view of the treatment of rough shoots when asked, it soon became clear to me that people have very different views on what actually constitutes a rough shoot – and I think that is inherent in the name. It's a loose and informal term.
So, my officials have been working, particularly since appearing at committee, to better understand the various permutations of a rough shoot and how they are treated under the Bill.
For today's purposes I can say, that it’s clear there are circumstances where what is regarded as a rough shoot could operate within the Bill. For example, where one person uses their own two dogs to flush their own quarry, not working in proximate or with others in pursuit of the same quarry and not allowing other dogs to join with them.
However there are activities that have been put to me as rough shooting that would not be permissible under the Bill. For example a gamekeeper using 5 dogs to flush wild mammals to be shot by paying customers.
But it's a broad term and it’s impossible to treat it singularly. So I will listen to views that are shared on that today and I will keep working with members in advance of Stage 2.
By way of conclusion, I was very pleased to hear Lord Bonomy’s comments during his Committee session where he says that he considers this Bill to be “a very well-crafted piece of legislation” which “solves the problems of the 'loose and variable use of language'" and “should be a great incentive for better enforcement of the law”.
I very much look forward to hearing members’ contributions today.
And with that I move that the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill.
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