THE Scottish Government has said it will "monitor" hunting activities after concerns have been raised that some groups may use equestrian sport as a "smokescreen" for illegal foxhunting.

Drag hunting – an equestrian activity which does not involve pursuing any live animals – is a type of hunt using hounds which follow a non-animal scent, typically foxhounds trained to recognise a specific smell or bloodhounds which follow a human scent.

The track where the scent is laid is designed to be a good ride for those involved, with various jumps to be taken along the route.

The sport has a long history in England and Wales, having been practiced since the 19th century, and has been seen as a positive alternative to fox hunting by those opposed to blood sports. But anti-hunting campaigners have raised concerns that with the Hunting with Dogs Act 2023 coming into effect at the start of this month, those intent on catching foxes will use now start using the sport as cover for illegal foxhunting.

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The new law introduced a swathe of new restrictions on hunting, prohibiting the use of more than two dogs unless granted a license in specific circumstances and banning trail hunting outright.

Trail hunting is defined as “the activity in which a dog is directed to find and follow an animal-based scent which has been laid for that purpose”.

Anti-hunting campaigners have long argued the practice was simply a guise for illegal foxhunting, as the scent typically used was fox urine, meaning that if a dog found a fox and chased and killed it – the owners could claim that it was merely an accident.

With trail hunting now banned after years of campaigning, fears that drag hunting could play the same role are rising.

Robbie Marsland, director of animal charity the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) Scotland, said: “We’ve always said go drag-hunting instead because you get all of the pageantry and all of the riding, but an animal isn’t killed.”

However he added: “For the last 10 years we’ve filmed hunts in Scotland who clearly want to chase and kill foxes and to use the loopholes in the old law to do that.

“So my assumption is that those same people will look at the new law and try and find loopholes to enable them to do this activity which they clearly live and breathe to do."

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The main worry for the LACS is hunt groups using the same dog packs they previously used for trail hunting – trained on a fox’s scent – to instead drag hunt, with Marsland saying that it is “an accident waiting to happen”.

“The idea that you would take that same pack and follow an artificial scent and expect them to ignore the scent of a fox they came across is kind of ludicrous.

“It’s not illegal, but it’s highly questionable. We’re certainly going to keep an eye on it.”

Asked how a hunt might be caught illegally hunting in this manner, he said: “One of the issues is, if it’s a drag hunt, would the dogs go into areas of impenetrable cover? Because if its impenetrable then neither a horse-rider with a scent nor a human runner can get through it, so why would we be seeing hounds go into dens of impenetrable cover?

“I really hope this piece of legislation does [ban fox hunting]. But certainly I believe there will be concerted efforts to stop that. And the reason I believe that is we’ve seen it before.”

Responding to the concerns, the Scottish Government said it will “continue to monitor the impact of the new law”.

A spokesperson said: “The Hunting with Dogs Act contains provisions to widen the definition of trail hunting.

“This has been included in order to prevent activities, such as drag hunting, being used as a smokescreen for illegal foxhunting.

“We will continue to monitor the impact of the new law closely to determine whether enacting this provision is necessary.

“We would urge anyone who suspects that a wildlife crime to report it to Police Scotland.”

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So far, only one Scottish hunt, Fife Bloodhounds, has registered to join the Masters of Draghounds and Bloodhounds Association – a membership body which oversees legal drag hunting across the UK.

Others have announced they are beginning to drag hunt, however many of them have not joined the association.

Fife Bloodhounds is set to have its opening meet at Gilston House this weekend.

Bill Kear, chair of the Masters of Draghounds and Bloodhounds Association (MDBA), said he has complete confidence in the Fife Bloodhounds.

He said: “They were the Fife Foxhounds previously and [the organiser] contacted us about changing to Bloodhounds. I went up and saw them, saw what they’re building for the kennels. She’s got professional huntsman in there and she’s building herself a complete pack of new bloodhounds. She’s 100% bloodhounds.”

Bloodhounds cannot typically be used for traditional fox hunting.

He continued: “Let’s face it. The bill’s new, anyone with any sense is going to abide by the law.

“If you look at our rulebook, there must be no animal scent whatsoever used.

“We don’t take anybody on unless we vet the people and the kennels. I personally go and see every pack that starts up.”

He said any group which registers to join the organisation with a pack of foxhounds previously used for trail hunting would be a red flag for the MDBA.