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Scottish Parliament seeks hunting ban

THE SCOTTISH Parliament is poised to approve its controversial anti-hunting Bill when it reconvenes in early January. The Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Bill is about to have its third reading and, if passed, will make hunting with dogs illegal.

A sizeable majority of MSPs are likely to steamroller the Bill through and onto the statute books, despite what has been described as "almost universal" opposition to it in rural Scotland.

On Sunday, December 16th, over 15,000 rural protesters marched through Edinburgh to voice their disapproval of the Bill and to make it clear to the Scottish Parliament that they feel their views have been wilfully ignored.

The Bill was devised almost two years ago by Lord Watson of Invergowrie, a vehement opponent of fox hunting. Despite this, Lord Watson recognised that, in its original form, many parts of the Bill were unworkable which, despite approval by MSPs, was referred to the cross-party Rural Affairs Committee which carried out a painstaking analysis of the Bill and hearing external evidence of the effect such a ban would have.

It concluded that the Bill was full of anomalies, poorly drafted, and failed to achieve its principal aim of curtailing cruelty to animals. Far from protecting the fox, the legislation would expose it to far greater suffering, because it banned the use of dogs for everything - including finding and killing wounded foxes or abandoned cubs. The Bill, the Committee concluded, was unworkable.

The MSPs, however, voted by a large majority to overturn the committee's recommendations. Lord Watson, as the Bill's proposer, reassured the committee that any anomalies would be addressed at the second reading. But without a second chamber to consider amendments, the changes had only one place to go - back to the Rural Affairs Committee, which had rejected the Bill in the first place.

Knowing that Bill was unworkable, the committee began approving wholesale amendments. It accepted, for instance, that foxes were a pest which needed to be controlled; it recognised the interests of the many hill-packs in the Highlands - dogs which are used to control fox numbers in hilly areas where mounted hunts cannot operate; it acknowledged the interests of falconry and shooting, where more than one dog is used to flush out game; it realised that terriers would have to work underground to get foxes out of their dens; it allowed dogs to kill foxes by mistake; it said that dogs could kill foxes if shooting was unsafe, or if the fox was diseased or injured, or orphaned.

Finally, the Committee was urged to bring in compensation for all those whose jobs were threatened by the abolition of hunting. Here, however, the Scottish Executive drew the line. By a majority of one, Labour members defeated the amendment, to the great relief of ministers, who thought they might have had to sign a blank cheque. Now, if hunting is banned, no one will be compensated for loss of employment.

The problem which lies ahead for the Bill, however is that, under the Scotland Act, the third reading is intended as little more than a final 'polishing' process. Only one afternoon is given over to the Bill, and it is up to the Presiding Officer - or Speaker - to select the few amendments which can be accommodated in this time. In effect he will have the power to decide whether hunting is effectively banned or that the Bill, as amended, stands.

If hunting is banned, the Scottish Countryside Alliance has indicated that it will take legal action in the High Court under the Human Rights laws, which may well find in favour of the hunters and rule the legislation illegal. To this end, the Westminster Parliament will be watching developments closely. In Scotland, the final blast of the hunting horn may still be some way off.