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Animal cruelty campaigners have hailed MSPs for backing a bill which will bring in a new animal welfare law.
The Scottish SPCA, which is responsible for investigating animal cruelty, said the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill would be ‘game-changing’.
It increases the maximum sentence for the worst animal cruelty or wildlife crime offences from one year to five and/or an unlimited fine.
It follows public support for amendments tabled by Scottish Green MSP Alison Johnstone whose petition attracted more than 22,000 signatures.
But gamekeepers and land managers said the new law left no room for hares to be ‘managed’.
Kirsteen Campbell, Scottish SPCA chief executive, said: ‘Blood sport is no excuse for the widespread slaughter of any animal, and that includes those who slaughter mountain hares to boost estate income.
‘The proposals which will be enshrined in law will deliver wholesale, transformational change for animals nationwide.
‘We are hopeful increased sentencing and unlimited fines will act as a greater deterrent to people in mistreating animals and ensure the punishments befits the crime for the worst offences, such as animal fighting and puppy farming.
‘Looking ahead, we welcome the Scottish Government’s pledge to set-up an independent task force to explore the potential to extend our powers to allow us to investigate wildlife crime.
‘We have a nationwide network of inspectors with the expertise to do this who would gladly take up the opportunity to help even more animals.’
The government backed an amendment by MSP Alison Johnstone.
The Scottish Greens said mountain hare populations had declined considerably since the 1950s and that ‘26,000 are killed every year on grouse moors’.
Ms Johnstone said: ‘I’m delighted the Scottish Government has finally given in to pressure to protect this iconic native species.
‘This has come about because of the overwhelming public support for my amendment, for which I am very grateful.
‘The sheer volume of interventions from those defending our wildlife was impossible to ignore, and saw off pressure from the grouse-shooting lobby, who once again attempted to undermine the evidence by claiming that killing these animals also protects them.’
Alex Hogg, chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, said a ‘grave mistake had been made’ and called it ‘bad law’.
Previously, he had said the amendments made to the bill had been ‘rushed’ and not subject to proper scrutiny or consultation.
Mr Hogg said: ‘The views of the rural working people of the land have been ignored, here. The system has failed them. We have been in discussions for some months about a party for rural Scotland and the possibility of fielding candidates in list seats.
‘Our members feel this whole process and the lack of scrutiny has been lamentable and we now need to consider all options to ensure the working countryside is represented better in Scotland today.’
Scottish Land & Estates said gamekeepers and land managers were ‘dismayed’.
Sarah-Jane Laing, chief executive of Scottish Land and Estates, said: ‘Mountain hares are thriving on Scotland’s moors and their fate will not be improved by this vote.
‘There is clear evidence that the control of hares helps combat tick and Lyme disease and protect plants and young trees.’
‘Yet again, we have seen rushed, last-minute amendments to a bill which will lead to flawed legislation. We support better animal welfare standards and strong penalties for wildlife crime and backed this bill’s objectives but are dismayed that legislation is passed without the type of scrutiny that the public would expect.’