Forestry and Land Scotland issues controversial licence permitting Moy Estate gamekeepers to hunt foxes in public forests

Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) has granted a controversial licence permitting Moy Estate gamekeepers, and others from the Three Straths Fox Control Association, to hunt and kill foxes on Scotland’s national forest estate, partly for the benefit of privately-owned grouse shooting estates, including Moy Estate.

This is the same Moy Estate that has been at the centre of police investigations into alleged raptor persecution crimes for over a decade (e.g. see here) and is currently serving a three-year General Licence restriction, imposed by NatureScot, after evidence of wildlife crime (raptor persecution) was again uncovered on the estate.

This is a map I produced a few years ago showing reported raptor persecution incidents in the region between 2005-2016. There have been many more since.

Wildlife campaigners are understandably furious about this decision, not least because FLS’s own experts strongly advised against it due to, amongst other things, the potential for illegal activity.

Journalist Billy Briggs has written an excellent article, based on Freedom of Information responses I received this autumn. His article is published today by The Ferret (here, behind a pay wall) and also here in The National, as follows:

LICENCES for a foot pack to kill foxes were issued by Forestry and Land Scotland despite strong objections from internal experts who feared there was potential for “illegal activity” and protected species such as badgers to be disturbed.

A foot pack – in contrast to ­traditional fox hunting with riders on horses – is where a huntsman, ­accompanied by colleagues acting as beaters, uses hounds to chase foxes out from cover to then be shot.

Critics who want hunting with packs of dogs banned in Scotland are urging Scottish Government ­ministers to outlaw foot packs as well as mounted hunts.

The Ferret previously revealed that foxes were being chased by hounds and shot by foot packs in forests used by the public.

Our investigation prompted angry responses from wildlife groups who have condemned Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) once again for issuing more licences. FLS is responsible for managing and promoting Scotland’s national forest estate.

A freedom of information request was submitted to FLS by campaign group, Raptor Persecution. The ­reply revealed internal discussions at FLS in September and October after Three Straths Fox Control ­Association (Three Straths) applied for licences for fox control in the south Inverness area.

The documents, passed to The ­Ferret, showed that FLS experts strongly advised against the foot pack being allowed to hunt.

Map showing the woodland where FLS has permitted the hunting & killing of foxes during the 2022-2023 season. Released to RPUK under FoI.

The licences were issued, however, prompting condemnation by critics. They included the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland which said it was “quite staggering” FLS granted permission in the face of “vehement concerns” by its own staff.

In reply, FLS said it appreciates that fox control is a “contentious ­issue” but under existing legislation the activity is legal in Scotland and “closely regulated”.

Three Straths told The Ferret it ­always adheres to the law to “ensure public safety and to avoid non-target species”, adding that it provides a “public service at no cost to the ­public purse”.

The licence application said Three Straths represented a “number of sporting estates” seeking to hunt ­foxes on the Moy, Farr, and ­Dalmagarry estates. Each hunt would typically involve 30 people including local gamekeepers, 20 to 30 guns, 15 hounds and a huntsman.

The hounds are used to flush the fox from cover to a line of waiting guns where the animal is shot.

The foot packs are overseen by a wildlife team at FLS, but some staff still opposed Three Straths’ ­application.

Internal documents revealed one person wrote: “As a minimum we should request a protocol for how the operators (the foot pack) will deal with encounters with protected ­species. This was asked for at the last permission request but I have not yet seen it. As discussed before, without this I feel the activity cannot be done without potentially disturbing legally protected species and could lead to an illegal activity.”

They added: “As this is a known activity any disturbance could be classed as reckless under the law and would constitute an offence. FLS as the landowners would also be liable for allowing the activity to take place. Given the risks, lack of mitigation information and lack of rationale for why the activity is needed, I would strongly advise it is not allowed.”

Another expert — a species ­ecologist — also objected and wrote: “As I [sic] have pointed out several times ­previously, fox ‘control’ at this time of year has no impact on fox density the following spring. This is a matter of scientific fact. If the intention is to reduce (assumed) fox impacts on the shootable ‘surplus’ of grouse in 2020, it is a pointless exercise.”

They added: “Furthermore, I am not aware of any evidence that these ­foxes actually eat game birds on ­adjacent estates. To sanction this ­controversial activity without any evidence of an actual problem is ­inadvisable. For the record, and for the reasons I have listed in previous communications, I reiterate my ­advice that we should not give permission for this activity.”

It was also noted that internal ­concerns had been raised in previous years regarding requests by Three Straths to hunt, which were “not ­adequately addressed”.

Staff also pointed out that foxes are “part of the forest ecosystem” and “we should not be unsustainably removing any native species”. They said: “As we have no idea of the current population (no surveys have been undertaken) then effectively this could extirpate foxes on our land. We know foxes play a valuable role in keeping populations of other ­predators in check and in reducing rabbit and hare populations, thereby reducing damage to restock sites.”

Concerns were also raised over public safety and “verbal assurances” given by Three Straths that hounds would only chase foxes. There was a “real risk” that a bolting fox could go down the entrance to a protected ­species den or sett to escape the dogs, it was noted, and people firing guns on a badger sett “would be a ­disturbance in itself”.

Dr Ruth Tingay, of Raptor Persecution, who submitted the freedom of information request, pointed out that Moy Estate is currently serving a three-year general licence restriction, imposed by NatureScot, for wildlife crimes against birds. Moy ­Estate ­reportedly said it was ­extremely ­disappointed by the decision and would be considering an appeal. [Ed: Moy Estate has already lost its appeal against the General Licence restriction – see here].

Tingay said: “The rationale behind the restriction is that NatureScot can no longer trust Moy Estate to comply with the terms of the general licences after evidence of raptor persecution was provided by Police Scotland.

“So why on earth has FLS ­entrusted Moy Estate to comply with the terms of a licensed fox hunt, in a public forest, with what looks like ­minimal oversight and scrutiny? Don’t these licensing agencies talk to one ­another?”

Bob Elliot, director of the animal welfare charity, OneKind, argued that FLS fox control policy should ­reflect the views of the Scottish public who “overwhelmingly do not support fox hunting”.

He added: “It is incredibly ­disappointing to see that once again, despite several serious objections raised internally by Forestry and Land Scotland staff, FLS has ­granted permission to allow foot packs to kill foxes in Scotland’s public forests this winter.

“We know from our previous freedom of information requests to FLS that many of the concerns raised by FLS staff, including the non-necessity of fox hunting foot packs, the importance of foxes to the ecosystem, and the threat to other wild animals, have in fact been raised before.”

His views were echoed by Robbie Marsland, director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, who said it was “quite staggering that ­despite vehement concerns” the ­licenses were issued.

He added: “The situation at FLS is yet another reason why it is ­imperative the new Hunting with Dogs Bill passes through parliament in the most robust form possible, ensuring hunting with dogs is really banned in Scotland once and for all.

“The existing legislation is so full of loopholes it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on and time and time again we’re seeing those who wish to hunt wild mammals with dogs for fun, ­simply ignoring the fact this activity is supposed to be illegal.”

A spokesperson for Forestry and Land Scotland said that in “all ­aspects” of its land management ­activities it has a duty to “follow the law and existing policies” when ­considering requests. “Only if there was a change in law and Scottish Government policy would we be in a position to review our procedures,” the spokesperson continued.

‘ORDINARILY FLS only controls foxes to meet specific conservation interests. However, we also appreciate that neighbouring land managers’ priorities might differ from our own and will assist where it is deemed appropriate. We continue to have our own staff monitor fox control activities.”

A spokesperson for Three Straths accused FLS experts of having a ­“personal bias” against predator ­control, adding that none of the ­objectors had come out with the foot pack to witness a hunt for themselves, despite being asked.

“We always have FLS staff out with us on days we are in the forest and in the 25 years I have been involved, not one of them has raised any ­complaint about our practices,” said the ­spokesperson. “On the point about controlling foxes at the time of year we do, making no difference. That is nonsense, areas where foxes are ­controlled all year round have a far smaller fox population and ground nesting birds breed far more ­successfully because of the control.

“We also used to hunt into the spring and summer on FLS land which did do a lot of good but we were stopped by the same ecologist who quotes that we are hunting at the wrong time of year now. His comment about no evidence to suggest foxes eat ground nesting birds just goes to show how far removed from reality some of these people can be.”

The spokesperson continued and said Three Straths controls foxes for the “good of all ground nesting birds”, not just game birds. “Many of these species are in dire straights [sic] at the moment and need all the help to survive they can get,” they added.

“Upland sporting estates are their last stronghold and their last chance of survival.”

A Scottish Land & Estates spokesperson said: “The predation of wild birds such as capercaillie, black grouse, curlew, golden plover, grey partridge, lapwing and oystercatcher continues to be a huge problem, with widespread declines in populations of these birds across Scotland since the 1960s.

“The control of foxes, alongside ­other predators such as crows and pine martens, is important in ­improving the breeding success of these birds. Predator control takes place when it is deemed necessary and in accordance with regulations.”

The Hunting With Dogs (Scotland) Bill – published in February and ­currently going through the Scottish Parliament – seeks to replace a widely criticised 2002 law which aimed to ban fox hunting in Scotland.

Both Farr Estate and Dalmagarry Estate were asked to comment. We were unable to contact Moy Estate ­directly so made an indirect approach through Three Straths.

ENDS

This isn’t the first time that a licence permitting fox hunting in public forests around Moy has been a source of controversy. Last year, Freedom of Information requests to FLS by campaigners from animal welfare charity OneKind revealed that FLS staff suspected that gamekeepers were visiting the forests to look for fox dens to block up, which also happened to be beside Schedule 1 raptor nests, some of which have been repeatedly attacked in previous years (see here).

And of course it’s not just FLS turning a blind eye to wildlife crimes uncovered on and around Moy Estate (e.g. see here, here, here).

26 thoughts on “Forestry and Land Scotland issues controversial licence permitting Moy Estate gamekeepers to hunt foxes in public forests”

  1. Oh how I hate to read about foxes being shot like this , I dread the foxes I feed to have their lives ended in this way .

  2. “The control of foxes, alongside ­other predators such as crows and pine martens, is important in ­improving the breeding success of these birds. Predator control takes place when it is deemed necessary and in accordance with regulations.”
    Dear God, when are these monsters going to be stopped from interfering in nature…..it is beyond disgusting to sanction this kind of slaughter in the 21st century. Those doing so are as bad as the cretins who get a kick out of murdering OUR wildlife….

  3. So let me get this straight, it’s apparently a ‘conservation objective’ for some to license the killing of red grouse for fun but now some of the same folks are kicking up about licensing the killing of foxes. Hmm. Anyone else see the contradiction here? The wonderful world of licensing eh? The shape of things to come..?

    1. No contradiction at all. You are trying to kid everyone that the noun ‘licence’ means the same in different circumstances. It does not.

      Gamebird shooting is not currently ‘licensed’. It is a commercial free-for-all. The proposal for ‘licensing’ is a political response from those in power who currently decline to ban the activity. But the terms of the ‘licence’ are open for consultation. No one knows what its contents will be.

      It could be good… or bad.

      Conservationists are arguing for it to be good: rather than ignoring the issue and letting the shooting industry set the terms.

      The licence terms for shooting foxes are known. And in this case, conservationists disagree that the licence should have been given. Conservationists do not argue that no fox should ever be shot.

      Driving licences (and all the other licences which govern our lives for the better) have yet other different terms (to those for shooting foxes). Slaughterhouses have licences. Veterinarians have licenses. There are scores and scores of licensing boards in the UK.

      They all have different terms.

      Trying to conflate the unknown terms of gamebird shooting to the known terms of fox shooting, just because they both may be controlled by a ‘licence’, is a con,

      1. In would say complain to T Coffee, but of course she’s England, and of course, would not give a damn anyway. Actually probably knows less than zero about any of it, just like she knows anything about any other aspects of the environment, and wildlife concerns.

        1. Irrelevant, because it is a devolved matter to Scotland. Concerns about this situation must be addressed, first, to MSPs.

  4. There is deep politics at play both within FLS and with its relationship with Scottish Government and the MSP for Inverness and Nairn. Why is sound conservation advice being over-ruled for an activity that has no social or environmental benefit? Politics and money and weak leadership.

  5. It is beyond belief. Things just seem to go from bad to worse in the wish of some to go out and kill indiscriminately, whether it be fox or grouse. And we wonder why we have no wildlife.
    What don’t we see going on I wonder

  6. A few years ago, while out birding in central Wales, I had the misfortune to witness a “foot pack” in action. At no time were the dogs under control. Three or four gunmen posed no closer than 200 yards (in order to make it look good), while making no attempt to prevent the dogs from killing a fox, rather than flushing it. Two of us watched this event with bins, and despite both being prepared to make statements, and back them up in court. The police (predictably) claimed “insufficient evidence”.

  7. The game shooting lobby have so much influence over the Scottish Government it’s not surprising that there is no effective measures to reduce the high level of raptor persecution here.

    1. So much influence in fact that they are having a licensing system imposed on them ‘here’ in the teeth of their opposition. Have you responded to the consultation, demanding effective terms and enforcement ?

      1. Have you responded to the consultation? Naturally.
        When/if its implemented, will it be effective? We will have to wait to see.
        Despite being in government for years there is still no clear distance between Scotland and England & Wales in terms of effective measures to deal with raptor persecution.

  8. The only hope it seems is for the public to take land back from these morons.
    Read, ‘The Book of Trespass’,by Nick Hayes and ‘Who Owns England’, by Guy Shrubshole.
    A lot of common land was taken by big landowners under the Enclosure Acts. Could there be a legal case for reclaiming it?

  9. Ever since the first big public forestry plantations were started in the inter-war years in scotland and in england the default view / “the lore” has always existed in these areas that they are morally in the wrong for imposing “their vermin” on their neighbours shooting interests and thus lowering their bags and land values. Blind eyes by FC have often been turned to letting keepers do “what they need to do”*. And of course even if a local forestry manager objected he would likely not get authority from his supervisors to “rock the boat” and use staff to try to keep them out. At least these arguments are now creeping out into the public eye / light of day and the general public are waking up to what occurs in their forests.
    *traditionally (in england in at least three large forests – cymag gassing all known fox earths several times a year, flinging dozens poisoned half-rabbit baits into dense plantions, blasting out any crow and raptor nests at first light.

  10. It appears to be a way of avoiding the laws and allowing a free for all for wholesale slaughter of wildlife generally. That estate has a bad reputation and it cannot be trusted. In the event an appeal is submitted, any refusal could be challenged by Judicial Review which might give a more independent method of challenge.

  11. Staff also pointed out that foxes are “part of the forest ecosystem” . And of course there is a healthy balance of red grouse, partridges and pheasants that need to be protected at all costs.

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