The row over fox hunting shows no signs of abating as saboteurs continue to film hunt activities while the hunts insist they are following their sport within the law.
Hunting mammals with dogs was banned by the Hunting Act 2004 after a clear majority in favour of a ban in parliament.
Anti-hunting people maintained hunting is cruel and unnecessary while the pro-hunting lobby said the sport was necessary for vermin control and that a large countryside industry would be affected if hunting were ended.
In the wake of the ban, hunts were filmed using eagle owls (to kill foxes flushed out by dogs) which was one of the provisions of the act. Most now continue their activity on trail hunts – in which the hounds follow a laid trail of scent.
Saboteurs claim most hunting continues as it was before the ban while hunts claim hounds only ever chase foxes when led away from their set trail by a fox’s scent, or indeed, by a scent deliberately laid by saboteurs.
In the light of four recent stories during December, based on reports and video footage by the West Midlands Hunt Saboteurs, we take a close look at the subject of hunting.
THE VIEW OF THE WEST MIDLANDS HUNT SABOTEURS
West Midlands Hunt Saboteurs are against all bloodsports and all forms of animal cruelty and suffering.
“The Hunting Act is so full of loopholes it means fox hunts can carry on hunting wildlife without having to worry about being prosecuted. This means that unfortunately hunt saboteurs are still very much needed,” said their spokesman.
“If we see a fox being hunted and it is safe for both the fox and the hounds to intervene, we will stop the hounds and send them back to the huntsman.
“We would never endanger the hounds by calling them onto roads. In fact on occasions we have even had to intervene to stop the hounds from spilling out all over busy roads.
“Over the past few years we have witnessed the Warwickshire Hunt relentlessly hunt and chase foxes. We see foxes running from this hunt nearly every time we go out.
“We have even seen the huntsman taking the hounds back to places that foxes have run from in the past – hardly the actions of someone wanting to avoid coming across any foxes. In fact you could argue it shows a clear intent to search for and find them.
“Foxes don’t run in straight lines, they are clever animals and can be unpredictable in their effort to lose the hounds. It is this reason that nearly every week we see the Warwickshire Hunt hounds running about all over busy main roads, running rampant through people’s gardens, causing landowners livestock to escape, rampaging through church graveyards and over main train lines.
“It is a clear pattern of behaviour that keeps happening. We have filmed and documented all of this just as we have filmed and documented the endless foxes that have been hunted by the Warwickshire Hunt.
“In the past the Warwickshire Hunt spokesperson has claimed that their hounds have accidentally chased a fox. However now that we are showing this happening week in week out this is no longer an excuse.
“Instead they have taken to blaming us for causing their hounds to run riot all over the place. As we have said we film everything and frequently post (on social media) evidence of what we are seeing.
“What people don’t realise is members of Warwickshire Hunt have more cameras than we do; they film us at all times and film everything we film.
“Unlike us the Warwickshire Hunt have never posted up any actual evidence to back up their wild and hysterical claims about the ‘terrible saboteurs’ or to disprove what we are saying.
“We are happy for people to make up their own minds. Are a group of people with compassion towards all animals as a core belief endangering animals by calling them on to busy roads? Or is it that a group of people who have historically hunted and killed foxes for fun actually never stopped hunting and killing foxes – that so great is their enthusiasm for hunting foxes, they don’t care about endangering their own horses, hounds or even commuters and road users?
“We would ask why the Warwickshire Hunt is meeting and hunting next to main roads, motorways and train lines in the first place?
“Despite previously being assaulted by a hunt supporter (for which he received a police caution) as a group we remain completely non-violent and focused on saving foxes.
“If Warwickshire Hunt is doing nothing wrong why do they feel a need to constantly play antisocial loud music next to us and try to block us from filming?
“We have a lot of support from people in villages and communities whose lives are affected by the hunt trespassing over their land and through their gardens.
“These are people upset at seeing the fox that comes into their garden every night running for its life from the pack of hounds.
“The Hunting Act needs to be strengthened to remove all the current loopholes. Until that happens the need for hunt saboteurs is essential to save our wildlife and to publicly challenge fox hunts and hold them to account.”
THE VIEW OF THE WARWICKSHIRE HUNT
Warwickshire Hunt says the Hunting Act, which it does not expect to be repealed soon, is being used by animal rights protesters to harass the hunting community, wasting costly police time.
The hunt says it complies with the law by laying pre-designed trails (by quad bike, horseback or on foot) before and during a meet by dragging a rag, impregnated with scent. Its details, with video, are logged.
“The trail is laid to replicate the movement of live quarry and is occasionally lifted for a distance of, say 400 yards, and dropped again, allowing the hounds to cast as they would have hunting a live quarry,” said a spokesman. “The less the huntsman or followers know of the route, the more the hunting will mimic its realistic and challenging form.”
The hunt says the general infrastructure of the organisation has been retained with its legal activities conducted to keep some of the tradition alive.
“The huntsman will continue to encourage and control his hounds using his horn and voice in exactly the same manner as he did before the Hunting Act was enforced,” he said.
“The huntsman will be assisted throughout the day by his whipper-in. A small number of people may be instructed to stand in key positions and to keep hounds safe from dangerous roads or away from an area where they are specifically not allowed.
“Many of our local villages welcome the sight of hounds trotting through with hunt staff and the mounted field.”
He said the hunt rides through villages from one area to another, managing road crossings as they go, so videos and photos are to be expected.
“As a legal road user, our horses are allowed to use the roads and we always endeavour to do so in a safe and controlled manner.”
The hunt accuses the saboteurs of editing footage to achieve a reaction.
“On occasion, hounds will stray off of a laid trail,” he said. “The most common reason for this is interference by the anti-hunt saboteurs. The loud shouting and screaming of anti-hunting groups causes the hounds to stop listening for the huntsman and generally confuses them.”
The spokesman said the hunt had video evidence of saboteurs playing recorded horn sounds and even using scents to distract hounds.
“It takes considerable time to settle the hounds and get them focussed on listening to their huntsman. On occasion the hounds may pick up on the scent of a live quarry. If this occurs, the huntsman will use his horn to call hounds back to him as soon as possible and continue searching for the trail that has been laid.”
The hunt says accusations it uses ‘multiple terriermen’ are ‘false, inaccurate and misleading’.
“The Warwickshire Hunt employs a single countryman whose job it is to assist the huntsman on a day’s hunting. He will join the hunt on a quad bike that allows him to cross country and roads legally and quickly. His jobs include clearing access through overgrown areas, repairing fences, hedges and borders and turning off and on electric fencing in advance of the hounds and always with the permission of our farmers.
“He will assist hunt staff in keeping his eyes on hounds as they hunt trails and assist in keeping hounds safe while working with our car stewards who are on the roads.
“There may be other quad bikes out with the hunt. These will be individual landowners or farmers who are following the activities of the hunt on their own land. They are not countrymen, terriermen or employees of the hunt.”
The spokesman said there was no evidence to support ‘spurious allegations’ made about the conduct of the hunt or its supporters with relation to blocking badger setts to prevent foxes escaping hounds.
They said because saboteurs know of hunt meets in advance it was possible they may interfere with setts and blame the hunt.
Warwickshire Hunt has accused the saboteurs of an ‘orchestrated campaign of bullying, trolling and abuse by misguided, masked militants (which) would not be acceptable in any other walk of life’.
Its spokesman claimed the protestors verbally attacked its stewards and staff and used social media to deliver personal abuse about people connected with the hunt.
He said children were not excluded from the actions and claimed a Hallowe’en children’s meet had been highlighted on the saboteurs’ site.
“It is incredibly upsetting for the families involved and the children who are enjoying a legal pastime. The WMHS is pursuing a campaign undermining a legal activity.”
THE VIEW OF THE COUNTRYSIDE ALLIANCE
Polly Portwin for the Countryside Alliance says: “Support for hunting remains robust.
“There are more than 200 registered packs of hounds in England and Wales that operate legally within the confines of the Hunting Act. The majority trail-hunt, as well as other forms of exempt hunting.”
Ms Portwin said hunts play an important socio-economic role employing a number of staff, fundraising and joining activities such as litter-picking.
“Fewer than 30 people associated with registered hunts have been convicted of illegal hunting since the Hunting Act was enforced, yet hunts are regularly subjected to spurious allegations made by anti-hunting activists about their conduct. The activists carry recording equipment yet are unable to provide sufficient evidence to substantiate their claims of illegal activity.
“If there was any evidence to support allegations of illegal activity, we would expect it to be taken to the police to be investigated instead of straight to the media.
“Activists post fabricated versions of events on social media to damage the reputation of hunts.
“Given some of the other priorities facing the country such as Brexit, climate change, healthcare and education, we are not expecting any immediate changes to the Hunting Act, however the Hunting Act has done nothing for wildlife and remains an unjustified piece of legislation, without any basis in principle or evidence.
“Absolutely no-one concerned with it is happy with it. The Prime Minister at the time has admitted it was one of his biggest mistakes; the courts have called it ‘confusing’, and ‘far from simple to interpret or apply’; the police dread having to investigate politically motivated allegations; hunts have to operate under ridiculous restrictions which mean they are at risk of prosecution every time they open the kennel gates and even the anti-hunting organisations who wrote the legislation are calling for wholesale changes. Anti-hunting groups spent around £30 million to put the Hunting Act on the statute book – since then they have not spent a penny to show the impact it has had on animal welfare. This is because there has been no improvement in welfare and just as many foxes are being killed.”
THE VIEW FROM THE LEAGUE OF CRUEL SPORTS
The League of Cruel Sports (LACS) received reports of 184 incidents of suspected illegal fox hunting between October and December.
A spokesman said they included six cases of suspected illegal fox hunting by the Warwickshire Hunt. There were two reports of badger sett blocking – undertaken to prevent foxes escaping underground.
“In October, the National Trust issued the hunt four licences to ‘trail’ hunt at Farnborough Hall. But this was removed from the trust’s website list on December 16.” The spokesman said it raised suspicion that it was connected with reported fox hunting incidents in the county.
“It follows a year in which six hunts were convicted under the Hunting Act and Animal Welfare Act. In November, two men associated with the Kimblewick Hunt were convicted of animal cruelty offences after dragging a fox, trapped in an artificial earth and releasing it in front of the hunt’s hounds to provide ‘sport’ for the hunt. They received 12-week suspended prison sentences.
“Two men from the Meynell and South Staffordshire Hunt were convicted in the same month after being caught on camera by League investigators cub hunting in which a hunt’s hounds are trained to kill fox cubs. They received pitiful fines of £350.”
Martin Sims, director of investigations at the League Against Cruel Sports and former head of the police’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, said: “Our figures are the tip of the iceberg, indicating that fox hunting is still taking place.
“The Hunting Act needs to be strengthened by removing the loopholes letting hunts to use trail hunting as a cover for illegal hunting.
Prison sentences for those convicted of fox hunting would help ensure a strong deterrent to prevent the deliberate and widespread chasing and killing of foxes.”
A LACS poll showed 85 per cent of the public support the ban and 79 per cent think the Hunting Act should be amended to ensure foxes are not killed by hunts when they claim to be following trails.