ANIMAL welfare campaigners have hit out after a group won its battle with the Forestry Commission to use shotguns to kill foxes rooted out by hounds in public woodland near Inverness.
The League of Cruel Sports Scotland said a large gang of land owners and gamekeepers hunting with a pack of 20 Fox Fell Hounds seemed like a "hugely inefficient way to control foxes" and raised suspicions that the dogs were being encouraged to kill the foxes, which is illegal in Scotland.
The concerns come after the Tomatin-based Three Straths Fox Control Association secured renewed permission from the Forestry Commission last week to run a handful of scheduled hunting days at woods in Tomatin, Farr and Moray between now and April.
Head huntsman Paul Crofts insisted his group, made up of gamekeepers and estate owners, was focussed on keeping the fox population down in order to protect neighbouring livestock.
He said the hunting days were not set up as a blood sport.
"It’s a pest control operation. We try and shoot the fox as quickly as we can. The dogs are hunting the fox but its only to flush it out. We’re not out for sport."
The Three Straths Fox Control Association has been hunting with guns and dogs in public woodlands since the 1970s.
Forestry Commission told the group last year it could no longer use the firearms in woods at Inshes and Tomatin incase a bullet ricocheted and killed or injured a member of the public.
But the decision was overturned last week after association members lodged gun safety training certificates.
Between now and next April members will be hunting in woods at Wester Lairgs, Farr, on November 15, December 22, February 2 and March 9.
And at Glenkirk, Tomatin on December 20 and March 26.
Robbie Marsland, director of League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, said: "This scenario seems like a hugely inefficient way to control foxes and raises questions over why the Three Straths are operating on Forestry Commission land leading us to wonder if a pack of hounds is being encouraged to kill foxes.
"It also raises concerns about public safety."
However, Mr Crofts said his group "jumps through hoops" to make sure things are as safe as possible and there had never been a public safety issue in the three decades that he has led the pack.
He added the hunts were a necessity for the local areas.
"Foxes do not really eat anything in Forestry Commission woods because there’s nothing worthwhile living in there so they predate out into the land that surrounds the woods, they eat ground-nesting birds and sheep," he said.
Forest Enterprise Scotland, the operations-arm of Forestry Commission Scotland, said "public safety remains paramount" and extra safety measures were now in place.