The Hunting Act banned fox hunting 12 years ago, yet every weekend hundreds of men and women place themselves between huntsmen, hounds and wildlife, fearing that the animals are still being killed.
The hunting lobby claim the Act “lies in tatters” and say it should be revoked, while anti-hunt campaigners believe the legislation is “one of the most successful laws of its kind in the country” and say it should be strengthened.
The Hunting Act 2004, which came into effect the following year, has been lauded by the League Against Cruel Sports as a “milestone law because it said for the first time that chasing and killing animals for sport was cruel and wrong”.
But the group is dismayed that trail hunting, in which the artificial scent of an animal is laid, is legal. Anti-hunt campaigners believe it is just a pretext for hunts to kill foxes.
The Burns Inquiry, which examined fox hunting before the ban, estimated that hunts were killing between 21,000 and 25,000 foxes every year. The League has launched a study into how many foxes are dying now.
Despite the much-celebrated “success” of the legislation, conflict in Britain’s countryside rages on.
A week doesn’t seem to pass without footage being circulated online of clashes between huntsmen and saboteurs. Last month, The Huffington Post UK joined the wildlife campaigners to report on the growing hostility between the two sides during a hunt in Sussex.
There have been more than 430 convictions under the Act, yet the Countryside Alliance says the majority of those prosecutions have “nothing to do with registered hunts” and are due to “illegal poaching and casual hunting”.
The Countryside Alliance says it seeks to “promote and protect” rural interests in Parliament and in the media and the organisation claims the Act’s effects are “entirely negative”.
The group says: “It diminishes respect for Parliament, it puts law-abiding people at risk of prosecution, it diverts police attention from real crime, it brings no benefit to the environment, it is a blatant example of political prejudice and it does nothing for the welfare or conservation of the species it claims to ‘protect’.”
Police presence is often high at hunts, but the anti-hunting movement does not have faith that officers will enforce the Act, accusing them of being more concerned with altercations between the two sides.
“The issue around the Hunting Act is to do with compliance and enforcement,” Eduardo Gonçalves, chief executive of the League, tells HuffPost UK.
“On the one hand, you’ve got some people who believe they are above the law and who are willfully flouting it and on the other hand enforcement around the law isn’t consistent around the country.
“You have got some parts where, actually, the forces are doing a very good job and other parts perhaps where performance isn’t quite as good.
“What we’re doing to help tackle that is to provide training to police forces as well as obviously supporting police in gathering evidence and bringing prosecutions.”
Sussex Police told the HuffPost UK last week that they work closely “and without bias” with those supporting the hunt and those against it.
HuffPost UK contacted the National Police Chiefs Council for comment about the League’s policing concerns but had received no response as this article went live.
Is the Hunting Act really working?
“Of course it’s working,” Gonçalves said when asked whether the Act was effective. “There have been hundreds of convictions, over 400. If you compare it with any of the other wildlife crime pieces of legislation, you can see it’s actually one of the most successful laws of its kind in the country.
“And of course it was a major watershed. It was a milestone law because it said for the first time that chasing [and] killing animals for sport was cruel and wrong.
“The only people who say it isn’t working are hunters who want to carry on chasing and killing animals for sport because they’re the ones who are being brought to book.
“It’s a bit like burglars complaining that there’s a law against burglary.”
But the Countryside Alliance questions these statistics.
Its spokesman Tom Hunt says that 95% of the successful Hunting Act prosecutions “have been related to illegal poaching and casual hunting and have had nothing to do with registered hunts”.
He adds: “Over the past two years there have been no successful prosecutions involving registered hunts.”
The Countryside Alliance describes the Hunting Act as “failing at every level” and wants to “consign [it] to the dustbin of British history”.
“It is badly drafted, illiberal, cruel and divisive. Scrapping the Act need not be complicated or time consuming. In fact it could be remarkably simple.
“Public and political support for the act has fallen dramatically and it is possible that a future Parliament is likely to have a majority of MPs who support its repeal,” the Countryside Alliance says in its case for repeal.
But Lorraine Platt, co- founder of Conservatives Against Fox Hunting, a group also known as Blue Fox, tells HuffPost UK: “Claims that the Hunting Act 2004 is unworkable and unenforceable are incorrect.
“The number of convictions under the Act compares favourably to the number of convictions under other wildlife legislation.
“Dog fighting still continues, yet we don’t repeal the legislation because a minority of people flout the law.”
Although anti-hunt campaigners say the Hunting Act is working, they believe there are ways the law should be strengthened to close up any “loopholes” currently in existence.
How the League Against Cruel Sports wants to strengthen the Hunting Act:
The League argues that current sentences under the Hunting Act are not “strong enough”. “If you look at the Badger Act, the Wildlife and Countryside Protection Act there are jail terms associated with those pieces of legislation”.
Improved welfare of dogs
The League claims that thousands of dogs are legally killed each year by hunts “for no other reason than the hunts no longer need them”. Lynn Sawyer, former huntsman turned anti-hunt campaigner, told the Mirror it was seen as “normal” to shoot and incinerate dogs once they were no longer “productive”.
A recklessness clause
One of the problems the police and the Crown Prosecution Service can face is proving someone’s intention when an animal is killed. The League points to the Badger Act and the Wildlife and Countryside Act as examples where the “recklessness” law applies. “Why isn’t it in the Hunting Act?”, the League asks.
No more trail hunting
The League describes trail hunting as a “cover up” for illegal hunting. Trail hunting, in which the artificial scent of an animal is laid for hounds to follow, is legal in the UK, but the League argues it did not exist in Britain until the Hunting Act was passed. “It was brought in as a way to try to hunt by other means,” Gonçalves adds.
A ‘shift in the sand’ in Conservative Party attitudes to the ban
In her bid to become prime minister last year, Environment Minister Andrea Leadsom said she wanted to bring back fox hunting “in the interest of animal welfare”.
Platt has called for fox hunting to be opposed from “across the political spectrum”, particularly from within her own party, warning that any attempt to repeal the Act would be a “national disgrace”.
“The threat of repeal comes from the Conservative Party leadership so it’s vital that it is opposed within the Conservative capacity,” Platt says.
Support for the ban on fox hunting among Tory voters was placed at an all-time high of 73% in September last year.
The Conservatives’ 2010 and 2015 manifestos included an election promise to offer Parliament a vote to repeal the Hunting Act.
But the shift in attitudes within the party, as well as nationally, would mean it would be “farcical” to include it in their 2020 manifesto, Gonçalves says.
Platt adds: “Andrea Leadsom follows in the footsteps of previous environment ministers in supporting repeal.
“It would be a national disgrace to focus precious parliamentary time on returning a minority blood sport when we have the huge Brexit issue to focus on and how this will impact upon farm animal welfare.”
“Being pro-hunting is no longer part of the Conservative DNA in the same way it has been in previous generations.”
When asked whether he was concerned that his party will try to repeal the Act, Sir David Amess, Conservative MP and patron of Blue Fox, tells HuffPost UK: “I am not at all because for years and years there were only between four and six Conservatives against fox hunting.
“That’s transformed. I think there are now at least 60 of my colleagues, perhaps even more. So the legislation would not have a chance at getting through the Commons.”
Amess says he has seen a “shift in the sand” in attitudes to fox hunting, adding: “And there were many newly elected colleagues in 2010 and 2015 who absolutely opposed fox hunting and that very much includes ministers.”
Gonçalves adds: “Being pro-hunting is no longer part of the Conservative DNA in the same way it has been in previous generations.”
Will Brexit make the Hunting Act being revoked more likely?
As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, campaigners say that there are more important issues to tackle than revoking the Hunting Act.
Platt says: “Time would be better spent on advancing farm animal welfare by ending the suffering in live animal transports, ending cages for hens, pig farrowing crates, introducing method of production labelling and mandatory CCTV in all slaughterhouses.”
Goncalves echoes Platt’s view, saying: “Of course with Brexit, the onus on Defra is on much bigger things such as reforming farming subsidies et cetera.
“So repealing the Hunting Act will be an enormous distraction from that and it will be something that will provoke an unwelcome mass rebellion from Conservative back benchers.”
He adds: “There is a very clear direction of travel in Britain on this issue. People do not want the Act to be repealed.
“They would consider it to be a travesty of democracy and it would cause an uproar and exactly the kind of thing I think the government really does not want or need, particularly at this particular time with everything that’s going on around Brexit.”
In 2015, then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s plan to bring back fox hunting was quickly abandoned after SNP MPs vowed to vote against it.
“If they [the government] try to turn the clock back to the bad old days… we’re ready and as we saw... in 2015… there will be a huge public outcry and the League and all the animal welfare organisations and the millions of people we represent, we will respond,” Gonçalves says.
The League boss describes any attempt to repeal the legislation as “an act of contempt for public opinion” and “possibly political suicide”.
“There’s a generational shift that’s happening at every level,” he adds.
The latest Ipso MORI poll suggests 84% of the public believes fox hunting should remain illegal - the highest level of support recorded for maintaining the ban.
Yet the Countryside Alliance has cast doubt on these statistics, instead pointing to the alleged “hundreds of thousands of people” who take to the streets on Boxing Day “supporting their local hunts”.
A YouGov poll conducted two years ago found a much slimmer majority of British people opposing fox hunting, with just 51% backing the ban, compared to Ipso MORI’s 84%.
‘Pest control is an absolute myth’
Fox hunting’s supporters often argue it acts as a form of pest control.
“Many of those opposed to hunting with dogs accept the need for pest control, while condemning what they perceive to be the ‘sport’ of hunting.
“Such a view fails to understand that hunting involves pest control, wildlife management and recreation. The recreation element pays for the management and pest control function and is irrelevant in animal welfare terms,” the Countryside Alliance has said.
Last year, a harrowing video emerged of live fox cubs appearing to be put into the kennels of hounds allegedly to train the dogs to kill.
Anti-hunting groups seized the story to say it was an example of how the pest control argument was futile.
“Pest control is an absolute myth,” Gonçalves says.
“On the one hand, even the Countryside Alliance admits in its own literature that foxes do not, as a rule, go after chickens, for example, and science has shown that only a tiny, tiny proportion of any of the lamb deaths that happen in the UK are attributable to foxes – less than 1%.
“The vast majority is due to husbandry issues, hyperthermia, disease, et cetera.”
Gonçalves says that if hunting was truly about pest control then hunts would not be “deliberately breeding foxes on farmers’ land”.
“They are deliberately breeding foxes for hunting. They also bag foxes, they capture them and they go and release them when they want to go and chase them.
“They are taking fox cubs from the wild and throwing them to hounds as part of their training to get them to taste the blood and encourage to kill. None of that is so-called pest control.”
The League also looked to the significant reduction in population numbers of the British red fox, which have plummeted in recent years, as evidence that the pest control argument is redundant.
In research conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology, the populations of rabbits and red foxes fell 59% and 34% respectively between 1996 and 2014. The drivers behind these declines are unknown.
When HuffPost UK put the League’s allegations to the Countryside Alliance, they declined to address the animal welfare concerns raised.
“I am not sure there is any point responding to ridiculous claims from animal rights groups, especially when we both know that you are going to repeat them anyway,” Tim Bonner, the Countryside Alliance’s chief executive, said.