By Bill Heaney
Reference in the Scottish Parliament to the days when there used to be greyhound racing in Dumbarton and Clydebank and in Glasgow brought back memories of some of the characters who used to walk their dogs which they kept in kennels at places such as Dalreoch Quarry on the Renton Road.
Who can forget folk like Tim Drummond, Paddy Conroy, Tim McManus and his father, Frank, the Cooley brothers and Jim Kenney, who were kenspeckle figures in the community, walking their dogs to keep themselves and their prize possessions fit?
If horse racing is the sport of kings, then greyhound racing was the sport of working class men in Dunbartonshire.
One memorable tale much talked about in local pubs was that one greyhound enthusiast in Renton had decided to import a dog from Ireland, where the sport there is much bigger.
However, that dog was the dog that nearly got away, and this is no shaggy dog story.
The proud Rentonian enthusiast went to Tipperary and brought the greyhound back with him on the boat, the old Scottish Coast which plied the ferry route between the Broomielaw in Glasgow and Dublin’s East Wall.
This was still the era of steam trains and our man and his dog headed off from Tipperary to Queen Street to catch the train to Renton.
The owner left his prize greyhound with the guard who carried mail, parcels, bicycles and whatever in his van at the back of the train.
The guard frequently left his door open as he got out to flag off his train from station after station and at Renton the procedure was no different.
He opened the van door and got out to check that the passengers had disembarked safely and left his door open for the dog’s owner to collect it.
The prize greyhound – they were worth a fortune at the time – took off and shot out of the station and down the road on to the village Main Street, past the Kind Man, the Central Bar and the Bowling Green Tavern, where curious heads popped out to see what was happening.
It was like that lottery ticket advert on the TV, the one where the wind blows the winning ticket out of the man’s hand and is pursued for some distance by a gathering crowd before it is finally rescued from under the wheels of a road sweeping vehicle. Great relief all round.
In the greyhound’s case, the guard, who wasn’t exactly in the first flush of youth and was well nigh breathless as he chased the greyhound was crying out that he needed help urgently.
“Stop that dug it’s a parcel!” he shouted. And they did – eventually.
I don’t know if the Renton dog ever won a race but it was more talked about than the winner of the Greyhound Derby.
Green MSP Mark Ruskell raised concern about the way the sport is being conducted.
And greyhound racing found itself in the spot light at the Scottish Parliament last week when Green MSP Mark Ruskell raised concern about the way the sport is being conducted in the 21st century.
MSP Mark was swiftly out of the traps to report that the last licensed greyhound racing track in Scotland, Shawfield Stadium has not been operational since March 2020.
He said the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission’s view that there should be an end to greyhound racing at unlicensed tracks, including, it understands, the last remaining track at Thornton in Fife.
Mark asked MSPs to acknowledge reported animal welfare concerns linked with greyhound racing, including neglect, malnutrition, doping with Class A substances, lack of adequate healthcare provision, and severe and fatal injuries; highlights the latest reported data released by the Greyhound Board of Great Britain (GBGB) regarding Shawfield Stadium, reporting 197 injuries and 15 deaths between 2017 and 2020.
He told parliament that there is no similar data at unlicensed tracks where there is no official regulatory body at present to ensure that animal welfare standards are met, and commends campaigners and rescue organisations for their ongoing re-homing and awareness-raising work, including the Scottish SPCA, One Kind, Dogs Trust, Blue Cross, RSPCA, League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, Scotland Against Greyhound Exploitation, and others.
“Some of those organisations are outside Parliament today with greyhounds. I invite all members and members of the public to join them after this debate,” he added.
“It is worth reflecting on what that level of support means. First, it means that greyhounds are a much-loved and iconic breed of dog that are loved as much for their good nature as for their speed and grace. It also shows that society’s attitudes to greyhound racing have seriously shifted.
“In recent years, greyhound racing tracks around the country have closed down. Once, there were more than 20 licensed tracks in Scotland; now, with Shawfield stadium in Rutherglen having hosted no races since 2020, there are none left.
“Thanks to dogged campaigners and organisations that have exposed the harms of that so-called sport, it is now impossible to ignore the brutal reality of greyhound racing. People have voted with their feet.
“Tracks have shut down and sites have been repurposed for housing. However, greyhound racing is still not banned in Scotland. With the de facto closure of Shawfield stadium, there may not be any operational licensed tracks left, but there still remains one unlicensed track at Thornton greyhound stadium in Fife, which operates under no obligations to meet industry welfare rules.
“It will be no surprise to members that I am calling for a phased end to greyhound racing in Scotland. I am not the only one.
“Concerns about the levels of injuries and deaths of dogs at greyhound racing tracks across the UK have been growing, and the positions of bodies including the SSPCA, the RSPCA and Dogs Trust have now shifted decisively to back a phased ban on greyhound racing.
“Those calls for a ban do not come lightly. They are evidence based, and they follow years of patient working with the industry to drive reform of welfare standards. However, the attempts at reform have, unfortunately, failed.”
Mr Ruskell said the Greyhound Board of Great Britain, which is the regulating body, has been required to publish injury and death statistics annually since 2017. In 2018, it introduced a “Greyhound Commitment”, which aimed to improve welfare and reduce injuries.
“Despite those measures, the latest data reported 197 injuries and 15 deaths between 2017 and 2020 at Shawfield stadium alone. The injuries data for Shawfield in 2020 nearly doubled.
“Fundamentally, greyhounds cannot be raced against one another at 40mph around a circular track in a way that does not expose the dogs to unacceptable risks of injury and death. That is the crux of the matter, because even having a vet present at a licensed track does not remove or mitigate those risks.
“It is fundamentally unethical to race dogs as a spectacle for entertainment and gambling knowing that they face those unacceptable risks of injury and death.
It was now clear that the current laws are inadequate and do not protect greyhounds from harm, and matters would have to change.
The risks to dogs at unregulated tracks such as Thornton are potentially even greater, said Mr Ruskel.
He added: “Thornton is now reporting up to 30 dogs running on race nights and, as the last track standing in Scotland, it might attract trainers who previously raced greyhounds at Shawfield.
“Unregulated tracks have no requirement to apply governing body rules, provide veterinary support on site or test dogs for doping. There is also the likelihood of ex-licensed track racers being sold on to race at Thornton, where they would be more prone to injury because of their age or health issues that come from a long career in racing.
“Is greyhound racing one of the biggest issues facing Scotland today, of all days? No—it is not. However, if we can spare an hour in the chamber, even in the hardest of times, to give a voice to animals who are voiceless, that speaks volumes of our compassionate values as a Parliament.”
Tory Annie Wells, left, said: “Dogs, in all shapes and sizes, are loving members of our families, not only in Scotland, but across the globe, so protecting their safety and overall welfare is vital.
“It is clear that greyhound racing in Scotland has been in decline for years. As the dog-racing industry boomed across the west of Scotland throughout the early to mid-20th century, thousands of Scots flocked to packed stadiums each week to spectate at the races under the floodlights.
“It became a core leisure activity for many communities across the country, because it offered escapism, a night out with friends and the chance to win some money.
“However, that was then, and this is now. Today, since the popularity of greyhound racing has faded, as we have heard, only two tracks remain. One of them is Shawfield stadium and the other, which is what is known as a flapper track, is at Thornton, where regulations are pretty loose.
“In collaboration with animal welfare charities across the country, I acknowledge the positive work that is undertaken by people in the industry, such as the Greyhound Board of Great Britain, to improve conditions for racing dogs. However, despite those efforts, glaring issues remain—in particular, the scope and robustness of the regulation that is in place to protect the welfare of dogs on and off the track.
“Data shows that, from 2017 to the present, more than 22,000 injuries to racing dogs have been recorded in the UK. That is a staggering number. Like many people, I have seen at first hand the awful injuries that these graceful dogs have suffered, including limbs that are so badly injured that vets are left with no option but to amputate.
“Breathtakingly, over the same period, at least 1,000 dogs lost their lives through racing.”
Ms Wells added: “With the industry in decline, leading animal welfare groups, such as Blue Cross and Dogs Trust, have called for a phased end to greyhound racing in Scotland and the UK. As we discuss whether the industry has a future in 21st century Scotland, we cannot lose sight of the important matters that need to be considered—not least how to support the livelihoods of people who are engaged in the sector.
“However, one thing is clear: the safety and welfare of greyhounds are paramount. On that note, I pay tribute to the fantastic work that Scotland’s rescue centres do in caring for and re-homing retired racing dogs. Dedicated volunteers across the country play a vital role in safeguarding the welfare of thousands of retired greyhounds, many of which have spent years on the race track.
“I know this at first hand because a member of my parliamentary staff adopted a particularly cheeky and playful greyhound named Todd, who, when he stands on his back legs, is way taller than I am. Most dogs are would probably be taller than me. Todd quickly became a much-loved and cherished part of the family.
“I appeal to people who are considering getting a pet. By adopting a greyhound, not only would they be bringing a special and gentle dog into their family, but they would be giving a retired greyhound a home—a place where the dog will be loved and cared for, not because of how fast it can run, but for who it is.”
Her remarks were endorsed by Labour’s Colin Smyth, who said: “A ban on greyhound racing in Scotland is long overdue.
“I do not believe that all those who have gone to a greyhound track over the years, had a bet on a race or even trained or raced greyhounds do not care about the dogs who are racing.
“Of course, many of them do care, but the reality is that racing a dog around an oval track at speeds in excess of 40 mph, with the inevitable collisions and accidents with other dogs, rails and advertising boards, is undeniably cruel.”
Mr Smyth said: “It is time for a ban. Greyhound racing is in decline and will soon come to a natural end. That might be true, but how many more injuries, how many more deaths and how much more cruelty will there be before that happens?
“We know that at least 22,767 injuries and 1,206 deaths have been reported at registered greyhound tracks across the UK up to 2020. There were dozens at Shawfield before it closed, even though it operated just one night per week.
“There is also no requirement for any drug testing at Thornton, but we know that, even with drug testing taking place at 2 per cent of races at Shawfield before racing was halted, there were 13 positive cases from 2018 to 2019 alone.
“Those involved steroids, beta blockers, pro hormones and, shockingly, in five cases, cocaine. Despite that, no criminal proceedings appear to have been pursued for drugging, abuse cases, injuries or deaths at Shawfield. It is clear that regulation simply does not work.”
The SNP Minister for Environment and Land Reform Màiri McAllan, right, said: “Greyhounds are intelligent, affectionate and gentle animals,. The mistreatment of animals in Scotland is completely unacceptable and we expect people who are found guilty of mistreatment to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”