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Huntsman charged under Scotland’s Hunting With Dogs Act

Matthew Wilkinson, huntsman of the Jed Forest Hunt, has made history as the first man to be charged under Scotland’s Hunting With Dogs Act. A second man, David Every of the Berwickshire Hunt, was arrested then released while the police make further enquiries.

The Hunting With Dogs (Scotland) Bill became an Act in March 2023, but it took until October 2023 for the hunting ban to become enforceable. Since then, some hunts have been flouting the law by claiming that they are drag hunting, which – unlike trail hunting – is legal under the legislation. Drag hunting is where a human drags a pre-scented material around a designated course which hounds then follow.

On 12 April, The Ferret reported that the League Against Cruel Sports had covertly filmed Scottish hunts over six months, and had handed over footage of six incidents to the police. The arrests then followed.

Following news of the arrests, Ariane Burgess of the Scottish Greens stated:

“The message from the government and Police Scotland must be clear: nobody is above the law. And that message must be backed up with rigorous enforcement. It [fox hunting] has no place in a modern Scotland and our work will continue until it’s stamped out for good.”

Incredibly, the Scottish Countryside Alliance (proving themselves typically on the wrong side of history and out of step with the vast majority of the country) was quoted making the ludicrous suggestion that “The video (ie footage of one incident involving the Berwickshire Hunt) is evidence of nothing other than dog walking…”.

brown fox on green grass during daytime
Photo by Chris Henry on Unsplash

Relentlessly sabbed

While it was very welcome news that Scotland passed its Hunting With Dogs Act, there were always concerns that hunts would attempt to use drag hunting as a smokescreen (although it hasn’t been tested how this would actually hold up in court), or that they would continue to kill foxes by using two dogs to flush them out to be shot – legal under the law.

Scottish Borders Hunt Sabs, often joined by their friends Glasgow Hunt Sabs, have relentlessly followed the Jed Forest Hunt – a farmer’s pack based in the Scottish Borders – throughout the 2023/24 season, and have repeatedly written about the hunt’s blatant breaking of the law. The sabs have often stated that the hunt has been eager to use a full pack of hounds, but on seeing the sabs have put the pack away and used only two dogs as per the Act.

On 23 December 2023, Glasgow Hunt Saboteurs reported that the hunt had killed a fox by shooting her:

“The hunt were frantically encouraging their hounds, surrounding a patch of gorse. A fox was spotted by hunt support, who were frothing at the mouth in excitement.

A shot was fired by the hunts shooter whilst a child stood next to him. He shot over a wall and into the cover itself. This reckless and dangerous act was the final moment for this beautiful fox.”

Support the sabs!

The new legislation has had a massive effect on hunts in Scotland, and these latest arrests will have other hunters running scared. It remains to be seen whether the Jed Forest Hunt will still be standing next season; the change in legislation signalled the folding of the Fife Foxhounds in January 2023, and then the closure of the Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire Foxhounds in March 2023.

But these latest arrests show how vital it is that we support monitors and hunt saboteurs on the ground; after all, none of the footage securing the arrests came from the police themselves. Next season, monitors and sabs will continue to be the foxes’ first line of defence. And it is only through their firsthand accounts and footage that we will see more hunters in court.

As for our criminal justice system, time will tell how seriously it cracks down on those still killing Scotland’s wildlife.

The new legislation has much harsher penalties than England and Wales’ Hunting Act. Under the Hunting With Dogs (Scotland) Act:

“A person who commits an offence…is liable—

(a)on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months or a fine not exceeding £40,000 (or both),

(b)on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years or a fine (or both).”

Wilkinson will, no doubt, be extremely anxious about the three charges he is facing in court. His upcoming trial will be a stark reminder to hunts in Scotland that their time is well and truly up.

As we say, none of this happens without the courage of sabs and monitors.

    • Donate to Glasgow Hunt Saboteurs here.
    • Donate to Scottish Borders Hunt Sabs here.