As horses, hounds and hunters gather on the busiest day of the year for fox hunting, activists have raised concerns that trail-hunting is being used as a cover for bloodsport more than a decade after it was banned in the UK.
At least 300 hunts are expected to take place across the country on Boxing Day. Riders on horseback gallop behind a pack of hounds directed by a huntsman while terriermen, whose traditional role was to dig foxes out of holes so they could be hunted, follow on quad bikes. Hunt supporters bring up the rear on foot. They all say they’re legally trail-hunting – following an animal-based scent, often fox urine – with hounds for sport.
Engaged in a half-century game of cat and mouse with the hunters are the Hunt Saboteurs, a nonviolent direct action group who attempt to document and prevent the killing of animals.
They say these hunts are not obeying the law and that recent videos apparently showing a huntswoman whipping an activist repeatedly and a female saboteur being assaulted requiring hospital treatment are just the tip of the iceberg.
The saboteurs believe hunting for bloodsport is continuing and that trail-hunting is an effective cover.
Before the ban, saboteurs would try to disrupt the hunt using horns and voice calls in an effort to gain control of the hounds. Citronella spray would be used to prevent the hounds getting on to the scent of the animals.
Their main tool now is a videocamera and they act as monitors, since they believe filming acts as a deterrent to illegal hunting.
According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, no genuine trail hunting was witnessed at 98% of the hunts observed in 2015, with trails seen being laid at just eight of the 478 hunts monitored.
The Countryside Alliance, who lobby for the repeal of the Hunting Act, said that since just 27 convictions in relation to registered hunts had been recorded since 2005, “there is no indication from this evidence that hunts continuously break the law as is claimed by IFAW.”
Freedom of information requests made to the Animal and Plant Health Agency revealed they have issued just one import authorisation licence for fox urine or any other related animal by-product that could be used as an artificial scent for trail hunting since 2014. The Countryside Alliance say the majority of hunts use an ethically sourced, animal-based scent. However, significant amounts of the liquid would be necessary for each hunt and the group refused the Guardian’s requests to visit the preparation site.
Hunting foxes with hounds was supposed to have ended in 2005, following the passage of the Hunting Act the year before. But loopholes in the law mean the burden of proof is exceptionally high; to be prosecuted, the huntsman has to be adjudged to have purposefully killed a fox. This may require video footage of the hounds being encouraged once a fox is in plain sight in order for a prosecution to stand a chance.
Although numerous successful prosecutions are brought under the Hunting Act each year, this hasn’t stopped the process of hunting from continuing. The claims by the hunting fraternity pre-ban that hunts would close and be forced to put down all their dogs have come to nothing. Today about 45,000 people regularly take part and 250,000 turned out last Boxing Day for the traditional yuletide meet, according to hunting enthusiasts who claim numbers are higher than ever.
At the last election, the Tories promised a free vote on the Hunting Act. Theresa May reportedly forced the issue into the manifesto against the advice of senior cabinet members, telling a campaign event she has “always been in favour of fox hunting”.
The Countryside Alliance, to whom the move was understood to have been an olive branch in return for them getting out the vote, has since congratulated her for not bowing to animal rights groups in the misguided pursuit of “electoral nirvana”. Last year a poll commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports put opposition to hunting at 84% – an all-time high.
Recently, there was a vote on whether to continue trail hunting on National Trust land. The charity used the proxy votes at its disposal to narrowly pass the motion, against the will of the majority of members who cast their votes in person. The Trust, which forbids the use of animal-based scents, publishes details of the meets but does not reveal specific routes, saying it does not want to encourage a climate of confrontation between followers and protesters. Opponents say this allows hunts to trail foxes.
“You’ll occasionally see them pretending to lay a trail,” claims Lee Moon, spokesperson for the Hunt Saboteurs. “But as far as we’re concerned, trail hunting doesn’t exist. Clearly, the hounds are not trained to hunt trails.”
“You’ll see hunts blatantly breaking the Hunting Act even when we are present. The law needs to be massively tightened to get rid of its multiple loopholes. It’s remarkable that it’s never been amended.”
However, Tory MP and longtime animal welfare advocate Sir Roger Gale disagrees, arguing that although the Hunting Act is imperfect other issues are more worthy of attention.
“My personal view is that, by and large, the majority of hunts embrace the spirit and the letter of the law,” said Gale, a trustee of the Conservatives Against Fox Hunting group. “There are instances where foxes are raised and hunted illegally, but the trouble is that much of the evidence is anecdotal.”
Labour MP Chris Williamson, a long-serving trustee of the League Against Cruel Sports who previously served on the board of the Hunt Saboteurs Association, questioned where Gale got his information.
“I’m told hunts are fragrantly disregarding the law,” he said. “The truth is that if they were genuinely trail hunting they would use an artificial scent rather than fox urine. The pretence of laying a trail is for show.”
Will the clashes between hunts and saboteurs ever be resolved?
“The legislation absolutely needs tightening to remove loopholes,” says Williamson. “Only an unambiguous law will stop these practices.”
This article was first published by The Guardian on 26 Dec 2017.
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