SPECIAL FEATURE: Fox hunting and the ban ten years on

A fox
A fox

Recently the Gazette reported that three members of the College Valley and North Northumberland Hunt had been convicted of illegally hunting a fox following a two-day trial in Berwick.

The trio were secretly filmed by investigators working for animal-rights charity, the League Against Cruel Sports, as they led a scheduled meet on Thursday, February 27, in and around West Kyloe Farm near Lowick. All denied the charges.

The verdict, which comes as we approach the 10-year anniversary of the Hunting Act 2004 becoming law, sparked a great deal of interest and comment from our readers.

Here, representatives of the League Against Cruel Sports and the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance set out their views on the sport, the ban and how it is having an impact today.

Read the full report of the trial here.

For the ban: Michael Stephenson, director of campaigns at the League Against Cruel Sports

When the Hunting Act was given Royal Assent in 2004, it was a landmark moment for animal welfare.

After 80 years of tireless campaigning, the legislation finally made it illegal to hunt a wild animal with a pack of dogs, one of the worst acts of cruelty allowed to take place in our countryside.

The Act drew a clear line in the sand about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in a civilised society. This view has not changed; almost ten years on, the majority of MPs and the general public, rural and urban, still think hunting a fox, deer, or hare for sport is unacceptable.

The latest opinion polling commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports alongside the RSPCA and IFAW, shows that 80 per cent of people do not want fox hunting made legal again (Ipsos Mori, 2013). Class, or political persuasion, is not the reason why people support the ban – it’s simply about animal welfare.

Despite this, there still remains a small minority who want to return to a time when chasing and ripping apart wild animals for sport was legal.

Some of these individuals carry on hunting regardless of the law and others live in the forlorn hope that the Act will be repealed.

The continuation by many hunts of training new hounds on fox urine, a scent that could easily be replaced by something artificial such as aniseed, shows the reluctance to change.

Illegal hunting is unfortunately a problem up and down the country, with both registered hunts and individuals flouting the law and causing suffering to wildlife.

Our team of investigators work with the police to monitor and catch these perpetrators and bring them to justice, as illustrated by the recent conviction of three members of the College Valley and North Northumberland Hunt for illegally hunting a fox.

Last week’s successful trial follows several high-profile cases last year, including that against four members of the North Yorkshire-based Middleton Hunt, who in August 2013 pleaded guilty to illegally hunting a fox.

The incident was caught on camera by the League’s professional investigations team, who witnessed the hunt members encourage hounds to surround and seek out a fox trapped in hay bales, rag it and kill it.

That same month, four men working for the Duddon Valley Fox Control Society admitted to unlawfully hunting foxes with dogs, following intelligence passed onto Cumbria Police by the League.

As a result of the charity’s surveillance operations during the last 2013/2014 season, there are currently six live cases going through the courts, including one private prosecution being taken by the League itself.

Since the Hunting Act came into force, it has quickly established itself as the most successful piece of wild animal legislation ever passed.

There have been a total of 527 people prosecuted under the Act between the legislation coming into effect in February 2005, and the end of 2013.

Figures released by the Ministry of Justice in July this year also revealed hunting prosecutions are at an all-time high with one person, on average, every week prosecuted under the Act and almost two-thirds found guilty – showing just how successful and effective the legislation is and debunking any argument that the law doesn’t work.

The League Against Cruel Sports works tirelessly to expose and end the cruelty afflicted on animals in the name of sport. Find out more about our work at www.League.org.uk.

If you have any information relating to possible wildlife crime or illegal hunting, please contact the League’s dedicated Wildlife Crimewatch Line in complete confidence on (01483) 361 108 or the police if you suspect a crime is being committed.

Against the ban: Tim Bonner, Countryside Alliance director of campaigns

On November 19, it will be 10 years since the Hunting Act was passed. It came into force six months later.

For hunting, and many others in the countryside, this was a real low point, but despite all the fears and the dire predictions hunting still thrives. So how is it that an activity that was outlawed after an epic and bitter political campaign has survived?

There are many reasons, but high among them is the sheer grit and determination of a community that rejects every charge made against it and has never been shown to be doing anything wrong.

Despite 700 hours of parliamentary debate, a Government inquiry and tens of millions of pounds spent by the animal rights movement, the case against hunting has never been proved. The chairman of the Government inquiry into hunting with dogs, Lord Burns, stated clearly that he had seen no evidence that hunting was cruel, yet a majority of MPs were determined to ban it anyway.

Hunting people were determined not to bow to this prejudice and we have had the support of a broad swathe of the countryside and many others who support basic liberties ever since

Urban politicians and the animal-rights movement have never understood hunting, or its place in the wider countryside. Many honestly thought that the hunts would disband and hunting people would take up some ‘more acceptable’ activity like golf.

But those people who knew hunting and the love, often obsession, hunting people have for their hounds and their country, were aware that was never going to happen. And while hunting is undoubtedly a minority activity, even within the rural minority, farmers and the wider countryside community were never going to do anything but lend their support.

This was partially through loyalty and support for an important part of the rural jigsaw, but there was also an element of self-interest. Nobody in the countryside believes that the campaign against hunting is anything other than the first item on the progressive agenda of the animal-rights movement.

Far more people shoot than hunt and just a few weeks after the ban came in, the League Against Cruel Sports reported to its AGM: “The League may need to acquire new areas of land such as moorland, foreshore and wetland for the anti-shooting campaign and...may need to dispose of properties that were purchased to further the anti-hunting campaign, but are no longer needed”.

The strategy could not have been clearer: the battle against hunting had been won and that against shooting was beginning, while racing and farming were also increasingly being targeted.

Ten years later, however, practically every hunt that was operating when the ban was passed is still going strong

In fact, urban sprawl, especially in the south-east of England, has had more impact on hunts than the change in the law.

That is not to say there have not been challenges and that many of those difficulties do not remain. Hunts can, and do, continue to provide an opportunity for people to see hounds work, and in the case of mounted packs, ride across country. They are, however, now limited in how they can contribute towards fox control.

Ironically, the Hunting Act provides absolutely no protection for foxes. It still remains perfectly legal to shoot or trap a fox, and in some cases to use dogs in the process. In fact, anecdote suggests that more foxes are being killed since the ban came into force.

Hunts continue to offer a legal fox control service to farmers upon whose land they are invited, using terriers or two hounds to flush out and shoot foxes, but they cannot use a full pack.

Even more bizarrely, the law is different in Scotland where it allows the use of as many hounds as needed for farmers to find and flush foxes so that they can be shot. Just a tiny number of prosecutions each year under the Hunting Act involve hunts in England and Wales – just eight cases last year, leading to four convictions.

Given the confusion that surrounds the law and the tens of thousands of days’ hunting carried out every year, these are probably unfortunately inevitable, but more than 95 per cent of prosecutions have no connection to hunts and involve casual hunting or poaching, mostly of hares with lurchers.

So what does the future hold for hunting?

On one hand, it is undoubtedly bright. The hunting field is full of keen youngsters and the infrastructure of hunts has survived nearly a decade under the current law.

On the other, there has not yet been a political resolution and those running hunts are under unnecessary and pointless pressure. The current coalition in Westminster has not been willing or able to sort this mess out, but a future Government will have to.