Today (18 February) marks 11 years since the Hunting Act 2005 came into force. You'd have thought it would be old news by now. However ask your local MP what issue appears more often than any other in their inbox and there is a fair bet that he or she will say, not the NHS nor Syria nor the EU, but hunting. Strangely the further an MP's constituency is from the countryside it seems the more emails they are likely to receive on the subject. This phenomenon is even more bizarre because if you ask people what issues will affect their vote at a general election almost nobody will say hunting. In fact when we, the Countryside Alliance, ran a poll before the last election asking more than 1,500 people to list issues that would affect their voting intention just four mentioned it.
Given that a minority even within the minority who live in the countryside are actually involved in hunting, and that an equally small number of people are obsessed with stopping it, you have to ask how this issue became such a huge political debate. When the ban on hunting was finally passed under the last Labour government, parliament had spent no less than 700 hours debating the pursuit of wild animals with dogs, compared to just seven on going to war in Iraq.
The reason for the extraordinary priority given to this largely irrelevant issue is that the debate was never really about foxes, hounds or managing wildlife. It has always been, as the late Tony Banks put it, a totemic issue for the Labour party and particularly that part of it which still wants to fight class war. Hunting, for reasons that are a mystery to most who take part in it, became a symbol of aristocracy and of wealth. Of course there are wealthy people who hunt, but there are also plenty who are not. If the class warriors had really wanted to strike a blow against the super wealthy they would have been better pursuing a ban on Ferraris, vintage champagne or caviar, but perhaps nothing else had the lasting symbolism of the horse, the hound and the red coat.
The prejudice and bigotry behind the ban on hunting is the main reason that it has been opposed so determinedly by hunts and why tens of thousands of people across the country will be supporting their local hunts this week, as they have ever since the ban came in. These people know the propaganda about cruelty and arrogance is nonsense. They know that people from all parts of the rural community hunt, that they are welcomed by farmers and are a small but valued part of the fabric of rural life.
And what about the hunts themselves 11 years on from the ban? Well England and Wales still has 289 registered packs of hunting dogs and there has certainly been no drop in support for those hunts. Despite endless expensive and time consuming allegations made by animal rights groups not a single hunt is currently being prosecuted under the Hunting Act and the law is being used almost exclusively to prosecute poachers, mostly those involved in illegal hunting of hares with lurchers. Indeed, since the collapse of a private prosecution by the League Against Cruel Sports in Devon last December there is not a single hunt being prosecuted in the entire country.
In this situation it might be tempting to ask why anyone would think the law needs to be changed, but it cannot be right to leave in place a law based on such illiberal principles even if it has failed. And even if hunts are not being dragged through the courts at the moment the police are having to deal with allegations and the hunting community is still living with the real prospect of facing investigation and prosecution.
Earlier this year the government brought forward proposals to amend the law in England and Wales to allow hunts to use hounds to find and flush foxes so they can be shot just as they are currently allowed to do in Scotland. That proposal had to be withdrawn, not because there was any logical argument against it but because the SNP MPs decided that political opportunism was preferable to maintaining a principled position on refraining from voting on issues that only affect Scotland. Once again hunting was used as a political football. A free vote on hunting was one of the Government's manifesto promises and it continues to be committed to this end.
However much some politicians are desperate to ignore the strength of the arguments for scrapping the Hunting Act they will not go away. Hunts will keep meeting, and until this issue is resolved on the basis of principle and evidence, rather than prejudice and bigotry, this law will remain a stain on our democracy.