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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, May 18, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 18 May 2017

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Snaring, Partnership Action for Continuing Employment, Decision Time


Contents


Snaring

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

I ask those who are leaving the chamber, both in the public gallery and on the floor, to do so a bit more quietly, please. Thank you very much.

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-05012, in the name of Colin Smyth, on snaring. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament acknowledges the recent Scottish National Heritage report, Review of Snaring for the Scottish Government, which offers what it sees as only a limited number of recommendations to strengthen the legislation on snaring; understands that the League Against Cruel Sports considers the review to be a “wasted opportunity” given its limited scope and that OneKind has said that the report was “destined to fail” as it excluded consideration of whether snares should be used at all; notes that the October 2016 report, Cruel and Indiscriminate: Why Scotland must become snare-free, which was commissioned jointly by the League Against Cruel Sports and OneKind, suggested that, regardless of any future tweaks to the legislation, snares would continue to be cruel and indiscriminate; further notes that this paper cited instances of evisceration, strangulation and agonising deaths experienced by the animals, including non-target animals such as Scottish wildcats, mountain hares, badgers, hedgehogs, deer, otters, and even family pets, and notes the calls for the Scottish Government to consult on an outright ban on snaring in the South Scotland region and across the country.

12:49  

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

I refer members to my entry in the register of interests, which states that I am a member of the League Against Cruel Sports. I thank the many MSPs from across Parliament who have supported my motion, thereby allowing today’s timely debate on snaring to take place. I also thank the League Against Cruel Sports, OneKind, Cats Protection, Scottish Badgers and the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for providing the information that I requested to assist with the debate.

As members will be aware, snares are thin wire nooses that are set in order to trap animals around the neck—usually, foxes and rabbits. Legal snares are meant to tighten as the captured animal struggles, and to relax when the animal stops pulling. They are intended to hold the animal alive until the snare operator returns to kill it—usually by shooting—or to release it, if the snare has not caught the target creature.

Although their purpose is to immobilise target animals, the reality is often different. Most snares cause extreme suffering to animals, often leading to a painful and lingering death. They are also indiscriminate. They might aim to catch a fox, but are just as capable of catching cats, dogs, badgers, otters, deer, hares and livestock, which often suffer terrible injuries or are killed. Today’s debate allows us all to ask whether there is a place for such indiscriminate cruelty in Scotland in 2017.

It is six years since Parliament last debated the use of snares, during the passage of the bill that became the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011. At that time, Parliament regrettably chose not to ban snares, but instead to introduce a new regulatory regime. It was agreed that that regime would be reviewed before the end of 2016 and every five years thereafter.

The first review of snaring, which was carried out by Scottish Natural Heritage on behalf of the Scottish Government, was published in March. It has rightly been described by the League Against Cruel Sports as a “missed opportunity” and by OneKind as “destined to fail”.

The review group set itself three aims: to assess the

“efficacy of the legislation ...Review snare training and assess the effectiveness and compliance with the administrative procedure for obtaining snaring ID”,

and

“Consider any evidence of outstanding animal welfare implications in relation to snaring and whether these are sufficiently addressed through the provisions under section 11 of the”

Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

“as amended.”

It is clear that the review failed to meet the first and third objectives. If we look first at the brief section in the review on animal welfare, it states:

“It is not within the scope of this review to assess whether”

the

“degree of suffering is acceptable.”

The legislation that was passed in 2011 was supposed to be about improving animal welfare, so surely any meaningful review of the legislation would need to ask the fundamental question whether, in modern Scotland, that practice, under the new regulatory regime, is cruel. The lack of any proper focus on animal welfare issues is probably not surprising, given that in the review there was no meaningful consultation of the non-governmental organisations that have experience of animal welfare issues and carry out extensive fieldwork on the matter.

The review’s focus on numbers of offences as the measure of efficacy ignored the documented evidence that is available on animal suffering, and completely missed the point that even though snaring causes suffering to the target animals that are caught in those barbaric traps, that does not merit the term “offence”.

The focus on offences was also ineffective because the review group did not have access to the numbers of snaring crimes that were recorded by the previous local police forces or even by Police Scotland, because they could not be provided in a suitable format. It is little wonder that the report acknowledged that

“It is important to note that the sample size is too small to perform statistically significant analysis of the incident,”

standard prosecution reports

“prosecution and conviction data”.

The consequence was a report that failed to look at all the available evidence and that proposed only a small number of recommendations, including tweaking snare designs. I have no objection to any of those recommendations, but they simply do not go far enough.

As part of the review process, a technical assessment group was set up in parallel with the review group. The technical assessment group made 26 suggestions, but the overwhelming majority were completely ignored in the review group’s final recommendations, with no explanation or even reference to them in the body of the report.

Not surprisingly, prior to the publication deadline of SNH’s review, OneKind and the League Against Cruel Sports in Scotland worked together to commission their own report into snaring in Scotland, called “Cruel and Indiscriminate: Why Scotland must become snare-free.” The report concluded:

“Snares inflict unacceptable suffering on thousands of wild and domestic animals in Scotland every year. Continuing to permit the use of these cruel and indiscriminate traps flies in the face of modern concerns about animal welfare, conservation and the wider environment.”

I repeat: the report talks about “unacceptable suffering” and says that the practice is “cruel and indiscriminate”. It is astonishing that, in Scotland today, we still allow devices that cause such suffering in an indiscriminate way to be used in the name of control.

I could give members countless examples from South Scotland alone that demonstrate the appalling harm that snaring causes to animals. In June last year, a pet cat returned home to her family in Ayrshire with a snare caught around her neck and front leg. The cat suffered atrocious injuries, which the vet believed were caused by her chewing herself free from the snare. The vet also informed the family that, had the cat been caught around the neck alone, she would most certainly have died.

In Borgue, near Kirkcudbright, there was a recent case of a family Jack Russell that became trapped in a snare that was set close to a path that is used by walkers. Despite its being a free-running snare with a stop on it, it did not have an ID tag, which rendered it illegal—a common issue.

In Cumnock in 2015, a brown hare leveret was born while her mother was trapped in an illegal untagged snare. In that case, the mother had already died and, despite expert care, the baby hare also later died.

Late last year on the Leadhills estate in my South Scotland region, OneKind responded to a complaint from a member of the public about a fox being caught in a snare. Unfortunately, the responding unit was unable to find the fox and, on returning to the site the next day, found it with horrific injuries, piled on top of a stink pit. I know that Christine Grahame will speak about that later, but I will read a brief description from the member of staff who found the fox, who said:

“It looks like the snare killed the fox by causing that massive wound. There were gobbets of flesh on the grass and blood and fur. The fox’s eye was bulging out so much ... which must have been due to being strangled by the snare.”

Just last week at a farm in Dumfries and Galloway, a badly decomposed snared badger was discovered. Although the police responded quickly to the discovery, no charges are being pressed.

Protected species including badgers and otters as well as domestic animals are regularly caught in snares. In fact, the “Snarewatch” website suggests that the non-target capture rate is consistently between 60 and 70 per cent. Despite tightened legislation on snaring, non-target catch continues to be an issue, which stands in direct conflict with our conservation objectives in Scotland.

What is the alternative? We do not have to look far from the report to see that alternatives to snaring exist and are working effectively. SNH does not employ snaring on any of the land that it owns or manages directly, including its 36 reserves. In 2010, its head of policy stated:

“We think that other methods are effective enough for our purposes and we are concerned about the possibility of bycatch.”—[Official Report, Rural Affairs and Environment Committee, 29 September 2010; c 3131.]

Other methods such as cage traps, exclusion fences and habitat management, and even novel deterrents such as llamas being used to guard livestock from predators, have all been shown to be effective alternatives to cruel and indiscriminate snares.

I believe that the time has come for Parliament to be bold and courageous and to do what is right for animals in Scotland. We see the Conservatives in England singing the praises of fox hunting yet again. When it comes to animal welfare, we in the Scottish Parliament all have to ask ourselves whose side we are on. I believe passionately in a ban on snaring; I know that many members share that view. More important, so do the vast majority of the public, as is shown in poll after poll. They know that we simply cannot regulate cruelty.

I therefore ask the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform to acknowledge that the review that was carried out by Scottish Natural Heritage did not go far enough, and to ask SNH to revisit its report to ensure that it fully meets the objectives and to go further and commit to consulting the public on the outcome of that review, including gaining views on an outright ban on this outdated, cruel and indiscriminate practice.

12:58  

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

I apologise in advance to members because, as you know, Presiding Officer, I cannot stay after my speech, as I have almost immediately afterwards to chair a meeting of committee conveners.

I congratulate Colin Smyth on securing the debate. Like me, he is a fully paid-up member of the cross-party group on animal welfare. Pertinently, animal welfare was the very issue that was not considered in the review of snaring legislation that SNH carried out, which has been highlighted by OneKind and the League Against Cruel Sports. I have been, and still am, wholly opposed to snaring, notwithstanding the fact that legislation and regulations have been introduced to police it.

I took part in the stage 3 debate on the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Bill in 2011, and I said the following in support of an amendment to prohibit snaring:

“I speak not just with my heart but with my head, which is no bad combination. I say to the minister that I fully acknowledge that pest control is a necessity of life.

I have a long-standing opposition to snaring, and it is not the result of blind prejudice. Indeed, I recently chaired a debate that the cross-party group on animal welfare held, when we had the gamekeepers and land managers on one side and the animal welfare groups, such as OneKind and the SSPCA, on the other. The debate was straightforward and it was held in a very civilised and informed manner. The result was 13 each—no white hats, no black hats.

The SSPCA in particular showed respect to the gamekeepers. It made it plain that much intelligence on animal cruelty and unauthorised pest control is brought to its attention by those very gamekeepers—who incidentally pled the succinct case that if there were a more humane means of fox control in particular, they would opt for it.

However, the evidence from, for example, veterinary pathologists who appeared at previous meetings of the cross-party group proved to me beyond reasonable doubt that snares can be indiscriminate and can cause severe distress and result in a prolonged death, not just for target species but for badgers, roe deer and domestic pets. I am not yet convinced that the stops and the regulations that have been brought in will prevent those instances. Regulation and licensing is better than what we have, but it is not enough.

Let us look at reporting and policing. How would a member of the public who came upon a dead or dying animal in a snare know whether the snare was licensed? They would not know.

I think that Parliament will accept that people with no scruples will lay illegal snares—or even legal snares—and not check them or even set them properly. In a previous debate, I asked who would go out in the various valleys in the pouring rain to check snares. Will everybody go out within 24 hours to check a snare? I doubt it.

For me, simplicity in law and enforcement are key tests. I therefore ask members to consider whether they accept that cruel, slow deaths will still occur, notwithstanding regulation and reviews. The simplest, cleanest and most enforceable thing to do is to ban snaring—no ifs, no buts.”—[Official Report, 2 March 2011; c 33639-40.]

That was six years ago, and nothing since has persuaded me that enforcement—indeed, obtemperance—of the law is satisfactory.

I conclude by making reference—as Colin Smyth did—to a motion that I have lodged called “Stink Pits Stink” that has already, within hours, secured cross-party support for debate. It is closely tied up with the issue of snares, as those open pits comprised of decomposing carcases of deer, rabbit, fox and even, on occasion, a domestic cat, are used to lure animals into snares that encircle the pit. That practice and the use of snares would and does turn the stomach of more than three quarters of the Scottish population. Let us start with a ban on snares; then we can tackle a ban on stink pits.

13:02  

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

Fox and rabbit control in Scotland is necessary to ensure that damage to crops, livestock, trees, game and other wildlife and their habitats can be reduced to acceptable levels to maintain Scotland’s often fragile and unique rural biodiversity.

A range of methods are used by gamekeepers, farmers and other custodians of our countryside, and snaring is one of the vital tools to achieve those ends. Why is snaring required? The diversity of Scotland’s countryside and landscape means that a range of methods are required to control populations of a number of species, including foxes and rabbits. The figure is a little out of date, but back in 2010, it was estimated that Britain’s 40 million rabbits cost more than £260 million a year in damage to crops, businesses and infrastructure—not to mention the impact on our natural environment, which all of us can see when we walk in the countryside.

In my constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries, fox control is a crucial part of countryside management, whether it is to protect the particularly vulnerable species, such as lapwings and curlew, or to prevent predation of lambs and free range and domestic poultry. Other control methods, such as shooting, can be impractical in some areas, particularly in spring and summer because of vegetation coinciding with a time when foxes can do the most damage.

We need to conduct the debate on the basis of fact, in terms of the requirement to control the numbers of some species in our countryside. The vast majority of snaring results in live capture, not injury. One point of clarification that may be useful in the debate is that snares are not used to kill. Snares are live-capture devices that are used by gamekeepers and farmers, and are designed to catch a fox or rabbit without injury until it is dispatched humanely.

We know that injuries are rare. Biologists have been using snares for decades as an efficient way to catch foxes and badgers alive in order to fit radio tags so that they can study the animals’ ecology. After release, tagged animals show no abnormal behaviour, survive normally and breed normally.

On the issue to do with domestic pets, a person who is operating under the guidelines should not set traps near homes.

A study by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust found that less than 1 per cent of snare-caught foxes were injured as a result of capture. That equates to about 95 foxes per year, and to put that into perspective, the Mammal Society estimates that 100,000 foxes are killed by cars each year. Less than 1 per cent of the badger population is caught in snares and most, or all, animals are released uninjured.

What is the current law? Under the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011, snaring legislation must be reviewed every five years. The Scottish Conservatives welcome the additional level of scrutiny that the approach brings. There is now a significant amount of legislation on snare use, including the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004, the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, the Snares (Scotland) Order 2010 and the Snares (Training) (Scotland) Order 2015.

All that means that snaring is now heavily regulated in order to ensure that it is conducted in an increasingly humane way. That is absolutely right. The law states that snares must be checked at least every day, at intervals of no more than 24 hours, and that snares must not be self-locking.

Anybody who wants to operate snares in Scotland must be correctly trained to do so. Currently, around 1,500 individuals in Scotland are accredited to use snares. That means that anyone who puts out snares understands how to set them properly to ensure least injury to animals and to best avoid unintentional capture of non-target species.

I condemn wildlife crime of any kind and snaring that breaks the law, which of course should be fully investigated by the police. Many of the examples that Mr Smyth cited were illegal snaring, so perhaps we should look a bit more at the policing.

My Scottish Conservative colleagues and I support the regulations that I mentioned, but would not welcome an outright ban on snaring. When used appropriately, snaring remains an effective and humane form of fox and rabbit control, particularly in places where alternative methods are not effective, such as areas of high vegetation or rough terrain. Snaring is crucial to avoiding damage to Scotland’s crops, livestock, trees, wildlife and habitats.

13:07  

James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

I welcome my colleague Colin Smyth’s work on the important issue of snaring, and his having secured this members’ business debate. I commend not just his work in Parliament but his campaigning in his region.

The issue’s importance is highlighted by the opposing views that we have heard across the chamber and by the number of emails that members of the Scottish Parliament receive on the matter. I was a member when we debated snaring in 2011, and I remember that there was an extensive email campaign—I think it was because people felt very strongly about the animal welfare aspect of the issue. I remember from the debate that members had strong feelings—I recall Christine Grahame’s speech. At the time, it seemed that Parliament was erring on the side of caution.

The issue has come up again because people find the practice of snaring to be absolutely barbaric—especially when we consider the number of animals that are trapped. Colin Smyth described the appalling injuries that animals sustain and the appalling deaths that sometimes ensue. That cannot be acceptable in a humane society.

Scottish Natural Heritage was charged with looking again at the issue, but from reading its report and listening to what members have said, it seems to me that SNH has not addressed the fundamental issue, which is whether an all-out ban on snaring should be introduced. I accept that pest control is required, but I also agree with Colin Smyth and Christine Grahame that snaring is a barbaric practice that should not be allowed to continue.

The matter needs to be revisited. I will be interested to hear the cabinet secretary’s view on that when she winds up the debate. Revisiting would allow us to have a proper debate and discussion on snaring. If SNH were to look again at the report and concentrate on animal welfare, on how to protect animal stocks and on whether an all-out ban on snaring could be effective and could be legally enforced, that would allow us not only to continue the debate but to produce more evidence. I am sure that if robust evidence were produced it would reinforce the views of Colin Smyth, Christine Grahame and others. I hope that Parliament will be able to reconsider an all-out ban on snaring.

13:11  

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

I thank Colin Smyth for securing today’s debate and for his well-argued and compelling speech. I am grateful to all the animal welfare organisations that have helped to brief us for today, and in particular to OneKind and the LACS for their work over many years in leading the campaign for an outright ban on snaring, which is inhumane, indiscriminate and non-selective. Their briefing today makes difficult and disturbing reading.

I have always supported calls for a ban because snaring is a cruel and ineffective method of predator control that indiscriminately captures, maims and kills all manner of animal life, including family pets. There are many effective alternatives.

During the passage of the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011, the Greens argued against the Scottish Government’s chosen option of regulation rather than a ban. We are firmly of the view that Scotland needs a complete ban on manufacture, sale and possession of all snares, such as other countries have introduced. For example, Switzerland has a complete ban on all snares and neck snares are banned in 10 European Union member states.

A 2005 report of the United Kingdom Government’s independent working group on snaring highlighted the difficulty in reducing the proportion of non-target animals caught in fox snares—even to around 40 per cent, as has been borne out by evidence since.

OneKind runs the “Snarewatch” website, on which members of the public can report findings of animals that have been trapped in snares, and can raise concerns about possible misuse or other issues. Of the first 127 reports that it received, 72 concerned snaring of family pets, a quarter of the animals that were reported as having been caught were protected species, including 25 badgers and four otters, and just 19 of the animals that had been discovered were the supposed target species.

In 2016, I called for the Scottish Government to conduct a review of the laws that govern snaring in Scotland, hoping to see a robust evidence-based review, including consideration of the welfare of animals. The report from SNH that is highlighted in the motion for debate this afternoon recommended that the Scottish Government consider how a code of practice on snaring could be better enforced through legislation. However, as has been discussed, the review did not consider the option of a ban, which is a missed opportunity and has failed to improve animal welfare.

No systematic attempt was made to evaluate the impacts of snaring on the welfare of target and non-target animals. However, the review reaches the welcome conclusion that snaring of mountain hares causes “unnecessary suffering”, so SNH will no longer issue licences to allow that. The report says:

“concerns have been raised with SNH over the welfare impacts of snaring hares to the effect that it is difficult to advise on a method of snaring that does not cause unnecessary suffering—that they cannot be used effectively as a ‘killing’ trap because animals take too long to die and are not effective as a restraining means because there is too high a risk of killing or injury. The lack of any apparent means or guidance to avoid this means that SNH will not be minded to issue licences unless the contrary can be evidenced.”

If snaring causes “unnecessary suffering” to mountain hares, where is the evidence that other animals experience snaring differently? I would be grateful to hear the cabinet secretary confirm whether the welfare impacts of snaring foxes and rabbits have also been evaluated. If so, has their suffering been deemed necessary or will that practice, too, be banned?

If we are serious about animal welfare we need, rather than maintaining outdated and inhumane traditions, to do more and better than merely regulate methods that are as crude and barbaric as snaring. Let us move on to an outright ban.

Snares and stink pits are often found in close proximity to each other. Many people in Scotland will be horrified to learn that stink pits are legal, that they exist and they have even been seen in our national parks. That is not an image of Scotland that we can be proud of.

We in the Scottish Parliament have a responsibility to show leadership on this issue—especially while the most backward-looking of UK Governments at Westminster demonstrates such cruelty and callous and cowardly disregard for animal welfare. Scottish ministers must rethink their position on snaring and bring about a snare-free Scotland without further delay.

13:15  

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

I thank Colin Smyth for bringing this important topic to the chamber.

I appreciate that there are loud and powerful voices in the countryside lobby, but today I speak on behalf of those whose prime concern is animal welfare and preventing cruelty. For my constituents who have contacted me on the matter, and for myself, there is simply no way to reconcile animal welfare with snaring.

The snare-free Scotland report by OneKind and the League Against Cruel Sports sets out horrifying examples of the agonising pain and deaths that are experienced by animals that have been trapped by snares, including non-target species such as Scottish wildcats, mountain hares, badgers, hedgehogs, deer, otters, and even family pets.

The inherent and unavoidable cruelty of snaring is just as clear, if less explicitly so, in the code of practice for snare users that accompanies the current legislation. In the section on “Dealing with Injured Non-target Animals Accidentally Caught in Snares” it is advised that

“Wild animals are often capable of surviving significant injuries, although they may suffer prolonged pain in the process.”

Elsewhere, snare users are given chillingly dispassionate instructions on how to dispatch, or kill, various species—target and non-target.

When discussing the situation with regard to mountain hares, the SNH review appears to accept that snares are indefensible in terms of animal welfare. It states that

“it is difficult to advise on a method of snaring that does not cause unnecessary suffering”

and goes on to explain

“they cannot be used effectively as a ‘killing’ trap because animals take too long to die and are not effective as a restraining means because there is too high a risk of killing or injury.”

Snares are indiscriminate and cruel. They result in agonising suffering and death for the animals that they intend to trap and those that are trapped unintentionally. It is clear that if we are to accept snares, we must be prepared also to accept the grotesque and indiscriminate suffering and deaths of both target and non-target animals. No amount of enhanced regulation or subsequent reviews can change that. Some things are just wrong.

In preparing for the debate, I concluded that there is simply no way to use snares without causing unacceptable and intolerable agony and suffering for animals. Tinkering around the edges is not enough. For that reason, I share the disappointment that is expressed in the motion, and that of animal welfare organisations, that the SNH review did not even consider the option of an outright ban. Rather, the review appears to somewhat sidestep the animal welfare and suffering aspect of snaring by stating:

“The primary objective of the changes to snaring legislation was to better assure that practices were not causing unnecessary suffering. It is not within the scope of this review to assess whether that degree of suffering is acceptable.”

It might not have been within the scope of the review to address that question, but for me personally, and for the scores of constituents who contact me on the issue, the suffering that is caused by snares is absolutely unacceptable and unnecessary.

As Theresa May plans to ignore the 84 per cent of the public who are against the cruel and barbaric practice of fox hunting and instead to bring it back, it is clear that we in Scotland have a power of work to do to stand up for animal welfare here.

13:19  

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

We all know that there has been much controversy on the issue of snaring and it is important that any action that we take as a Parliament is well considered and takes in the views and concerns of all.

I start with the fundamental question of why there is a need for snaring. I approached the debate with an open mind and read the briefings from various groups, many of which have been mentioned today, and spoke to farmers and rural experts. Scotland has diverse rural biodiversity and no one can deny that there is a need for fox and rabbit control in many parts of Scotland. I think that we all agree on that.

We should be aware that crop damage can have a devastating financial impact on our farmers and on wider agricultural communities, with costs stretching into the hundreds of millions of pounds.

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

Will the member take an intervention?

Jamie Greene

I am afraid that I have only four minutes.

That is a significant price to pay for not controlling wildlife populations, especially at a time when farmers’ budgets are considerably squeezed. Farmers have told me that crops are being destroyed and that livestock are being lost, and Jonathan Hall, head of rural policy for NFU Scotland, has said:

“The hill farming view on snaring is that it remains an absolutely vital tool in protecting livestock, particularly lambs around lambing time, from fox predation”.—[Official Report, Rural Affairs and Environment Committee, 7 September 2010; c 3010.]

I have heard from Jonnie Hall on a number of occasions and on a number of rural issues, and I value his knowledge and expertise.

We should acknowledge that many people have concerns about the impact of snaring on animals, and members have received many letters on the issue.

Colin Smyth’s motion notes that a number of

“non-target animals such as ... hares, badgers ... deer, otters, badgers”

and even household pets can fall into snares. He is right to note that and those cases sadden me. We should work to minimise those instances by ensuring that there is strict compliance with existing regulations and that suitable recourse is available to deal with those who break the rules.

We should play our part in reducing the impact on non-target animals, but an outright ban could be damaging to Scotland’s rural economy. Rather than having a ban, we should be working to improve the current system. That is why the SNH review made practical recommendations, which many in the rural community have welcomed.

The majority of caught animals are released, moved or killed humanely, but I would prefer that that were the case for 100 per cent of animals, and we need to work towards that.

There is existing legislation, such as the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004, the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 and the Snares (Scotland) Order 2010, to name a few, and rules are in place to ensure that snaring is done in a humane manner. All snares must be checked at least once every 24 hours, and those who own and operate snares are licensed and trained to do so properly. There are about 1,500 such people in Scotland. Legislation also states that snaring legislation must be reviewed every five years—I welcome that—which ensures that legislation is up to date and open to scrutiny and takes into account all views concerned.

I want to be clear that I do not support illegal snaring that breaches the rules that have been set in place. When those incidents occur, they should be investigated and the full weight of the law should be applied. I take any violations of those rules very seriously.

I am a big believer in constant improvements to farming practice and I have never met a cruel farmer. If snaring is indiscriminate, the farming community has a duty to develop better alternatives; but, until widespread, practical alternatives are available, we must improve what we have.

I welcome the debate and I thank Colin Smyth for bringing it to the Parliament. It is an important issue and I am passionate about it. Listening to the evidence of local farmers in my region has led me to conclude that, at the moment, snaring is an important method of capturing animals, but one that requires strict policing and regular scrutiny by this Parliament.

13:24  

The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (Roseanna Cunningham)

It has been a short but important debate. I understand very well why so many members here and so many members of the public are opposed to snaring. It has always been a difficult and emotive issue.

Colin Smyth referred to harrowing descriptions of animals caught in snares, particularly in illegal and badly set snares, and I will come back to that in the course of my remarks. It is fair to say that nobody really actively likes snaring, but it is something that we believe remains a necessary part of the land manager’s toolbox. In picking up some of the points made in the debate, I hope that I can justify to members why we believe that it remains a necessary option that we need to retain for effective predator and pest control.

Is snaring needed? It is said sometimes—indeed, it has been said in this debate—that snaring and other forms of predator control are unnecessary and that foxes have only a relatively low impact on agriculture. It is true that, on average, fox predation is well below 5 per cent of lambs, piglets or poultry, but despite the low average losses, it is important to remember that those losses occur against a backdrop of widespread fox control on site or on neighbouring land and that without some form of fox control, average losses would very likely be considerably higher.

Snaring also remains an important tool in dealing with losses to agriculture caused by rabbits. Based on rabbit population estimates made in the mid-2000s, the annual cost to agriculture in Scotland is approximately £59 million every single year—the damage is caused mainly by grazing of grass and cereal crops, as well as to horticultural crops and forestry. That is a big economic impact. Shooting is not always a practicable or effective alternative. It is often not possible to get clear or safe lines of sight in which to use a rifle, and the risk is that more animals would be wounded rather than killed outright—an unacceptable animal welfare outcome that would no doubt become a target for many of those who, at bottom, do not like to see any animal killed. The truth is, I suppose, that none of us does.

A number of members have referred to the snaring review, including Colin Smyth, Christine Grahame and Ruth Maguire. The review was carried out within the parameters laid down by the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011. It confirmed that the legislative changes made to snaring in 2011 have reduced the number of reported incidents of snaring-related offences and that the administration procedure is working satisfactory. It also recommended several changes that would further refine and codify snaring practices and components. I have already asked SNH to take forward work to revise the code of practice in line with the recommendations. The Scottish technical assessment group, which is made up of key stakeholders that contributed to the SNH review, will also consider the recommendations in the report, and the snaring review considered animal welfare.

Colin Smyth

The minister has referred to the technical assessment group. Does she acknowledge that most of its recommendations were completely ignored in the final review group’s report? Given that, and given the fact that the SNH report ignored a lot of the evidence on animal welfare that is out there, will she at the very least ask SNH to review its report and to look in more detail at some of the animal welfare issues that have been raised by members today? It is only one page in the report, but the issue surely deserves detailed consideration a lot more than every five years.

Roseanna Cunningham

I have indicated that the review was already looking at animal welfare. The technical assessment group will go on to consider—as will SNH—a number of aspects of the issue, and I will ensure that that happens.

As a number of members have said, Parliament explicitly considered and rejected an outright snaring ban in 2011 when we looked at amendments to the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Bill. Instead, we changed the legislation to improve animal welfare outcomes. Part of that package of changes was a commitment to review how well those intended improvements were working in practice, and that is the review that we have just carried out.

The review found that compliance with the new snaring regulations appears to be high, judged by the number of snaring offences reported to the procurator fiscal. Members have referred to specific incidents of bad practice, but we have reduced and will continue to reduce the number of such incidents by carefully thought through and implemented technical changes. Many of the worst incidents that we see and hear about involve illegally set snares. Banning snaring will not prevent those who are operating outside the law from continuing to do so.

On the catching of non-target species, which a number of members raised, it is incumbent on land managers to reduce the risk of that through the use of good fieldcraft and training. In other words, good snare operators should set their snares in locations and in such a way that they are most likely to catch only the target species. Technical improvements will continue to help with that.

Alison Johnstone raised the issue of the snaring of hares. There is currently a lack of specific guidance on the snaring of hares, so I will instruct the technical assessment group, as a priority, to consider how the welfare issues in question could be addressed before we decide on whether legislation requires to be introduced. Given the welfare concerns and the fact that snare operators might be open to the risk of committing offences in relation to the use of snares for hares, I will ask SNH to set up a meeting with key stakeholders with the aim of putting in place a voluntary moratorium on the use of snares to control brown hares until we have definitive advice from the technical assessment group.

Christine Grahame raised the issue of stink pits, on which I know that she has lodged a motion. I appreciate that it is a sensitive issue. The technical assessment group will look at the use of stink pits as part of its consideration of the snaring recommendations, but regardless of where a snare is set—whether in a stink pit or somewhere else—it is the responsibility of the snare operator to take into consideration the location and to avoid places where there are likely to be non-target species.

I am not an enthusiastic supporter of snaring, but the position of the Government has always been that we need to control pests and predators to protect livestock and to ensure that fragile hill farms are able to survive. Sometimes snaring is the least bad option. Our approach has been to seek to improve animal welfare standards through training, technical improvements and monitoring and record keeping. In that approach, we have led the way in the United Kingdom.

Our support for snaring as a technique is not unconditional. If a review showed that there was a lack of compliance with the law, we would of course be prepared to look again at whether snaring should be retained, but that is not the situation in which we currently find ourselves.

13:32 Meeting suspended.  14:30 On resuming—