It's that time of year again, bellies full, another re-run of Only Fools and Horses on the telly and the annual media scramble around picturesque chocolate box villages up and down the country to report on the 'traditional' Boxing Day hunts, to marvel in the spectre of the noble red coats on their trusty steeds, at the well-groomed packs of hounds and crowds of good country folk celebrating an age old British tradition.
But, what are these hunts doing still? After all, the hunting of foxes with dogs was banned, almost 10 years ago, through the introduction of the very controversial Hunting Act in 2004, which came into effect in February 2005. When I say controversial, it really was: 400,000 people marched on Westminster in 2002 to oppose an act in a demo organised by the Countryside Alliance. The march was named the March for Liberty and Livelihood, as if the pursuit and killing of a fox by trained packs of hounds is somehow a God-given right if you live in the countryside. When the Act came in, many people signed up to a pledge that they would rather go to jail than stop hunting, and new interest groups emerged, such as Vote OK, which is still active as we speak, and buses in canvassers and leafleters for any pro-hunt political candidate standing for election. If you're on the fence, it's an easy excuse to swing to the pro side.
We could argue for days on the intricacies of the Hunting Act, whether it affects livelihoods, whether it really is against country folk's actually liberties (it's hardly the suffragette movement though, is it?), or (for now), we could just look at tradition, as the facts are sometimes not always what they seem.
What you see on your TVs and in your newspapers each and every Boxing Day is billed as the traditional hunt meet. But, there are two fundamental issues with that. One - traditions involving cruelty are outdated. Yes, pro-hunters, it is actually cruel to chase a fox with hounds. Fact. It has been scientifically proven and cast into law, and those who claim that killing foxes with hounds is humane are, quite honestly, somewhat off the mark.
Let's look at some other traditional 'sports' that the media no longer covers - bear baiting, cockfighting - great crowd pleasing spectacles in their day...but banned in 1835 by the Cruelty to Animals Act. Then there's bullfighting... oh, that's banned too because it is cruel. Or they could cover a lovely dolphin show couldn't they. Oh no, there are no dolphins or whales in captivity in the UK... because it's cruel. Maybe there could be a story about someone who didn't provide water to a guinea pig. No, because even that's illegal, under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. So, it does seem that as a rule of thumb, anything loosely cruel, regardless of traditional value, is illegal in the UK. Apart from, that is, hunting.
But, here's the thing, something else is a bit less traditional than you may think. Officially there's no 'hunting' any more, but there are still many 'hunts' (hunt groups). In fact, there are pretty much the same amount as there were pre-ban, with around 250 meeting on Boxing Day alone up and down the country. But, surely they aren't hunting foxes because it is illegal? Well, you'll be pleased to hear that apparently they aren't. What they are doing is that super traditional thing called 'trail hunting'. (Sounds traditional doesn't it?) Well, in fairness, it does date back about 10 years, kind of around the same time that the Hunting Act came into force.
Coincidence this is not. Trail hunting is the new fox hunting. It goes like this: Pre hunt, an animal-based scent is laid in a way that mimics the movement of a fox, and is conveniently made of fox urine. No-one knows where the trail has been laid and the fun of the hunt is getting the hounds to try to find the trail and to follow it. Then, heaven forbid, should a real fox stumble across the hounds, or indeed a real fox's scent throw the hounds off track, then good old Mr Fox may be in trouble. And, if the dogs just happened to chase Mr Fox when the Huntmaster wasn't able to keep them under control, surely that would be just an accident?
But what if the hounds started following the 'laid' scent across a railway track, over a busy road - places where surely the hunt wouldn't intend their hounds or horses to be - who in their right mind would lay the track there? Strange, because hounds do end up on busy roads, railway tracks, in private gardens. It happens often in fact. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) has hunt monitors who have seen it, recorded it and successfully helped to bring breaches of the Hunting Act to court on numerous occasions.
The simple truth is that many fox hunters love hunting foxes. Like I mentioned - it's their thing. It's 'their civil liberty'. They have no desire to take part in drag hunting - something similar to trail hunting, but with the huntsmen in the know as to where the trail is so if the hounds go off course, they are simply called back before any incident. They don't want their hounds to lose their training as they wait for a repeal of the Hunting Act, which the Countryside Alliance has cited in its materials as a 'temporary ban', even though it has been marked in law for 10 years, and they don't care that time after time Ipsos MORI polls show that around 80% of the UK public do not want to see a return to cruelty by ending the ban on hunting with dogs. Fox hunting is old fashioned, it's cruel and unpopular. Surely it's time for a small minority, albeit a very powerful and well connected one, to just accept that cruelty and the UK shouldn't go together.
I'm embarrassed for them. Seriously, how desperate is it that you can buy a badge on the Countryside Alliance's website right now saying '10 Years On - Still Here, Still Hunting'.
It's time for the government, the 'blue' media, and country and city folk alike to wake up and make a change for good. Trail hunting provides a false alibi, the Hunting Act works and it is successful, but enforcement is the key. If you love the countryside, if you love horsemanship and you love tradition, do everyone a favour and push for drag hunting in your community. It's all the fun of the fair but without the cruelty.
To read more about IFAW's work on hunting with hounds, visit www.ifaw.org.