Hunting with dogs and the “unenforceable” ban.

fox hunting

The UK Hunting Act 2004 was never going to work.

Hare, hare coursing, illegal hare coursing, cruelty to animals, animal welfare
Watch out, there’s a hare courser about.

Whenever there is talk about the Hunting Act it tends to revolve around fox-hunting but other forms of hunting with dogs were also banned particularly hare-coursing. Fox hunts were not disbanded, but given an olive branch and allowed to flourish through drag or trail hunting and remain popular events with the public particularly the festive Boxing Day hunts.  Traditional fox-hunting with dogs is still legal in Northern Ireland and hare coursing events continue in southern Ireland. This has allowed hunts to continue to breed and keep their hound packs for the day traditional hunting is made legal again.

In the case of hare coursing, although there is an outright ban, there has been little protection for the hares as illicit coursing continues unabated  in some parts of the country, particularly eastern England and just like fox hunting the police and enforcement authorities have no way of stopping it even though they have more powers than for fox hunting. They have been forced to use hundred year old laws like the Night Poaching Act 1828 and Game Act 1831 to help combat it as the Hunting Act is so useless. Some Police authorities have stated that it is more prevalent now than before the Act with hundreds of dogs abandoned, injured and killed as a result. [More on hare coursing in a future post]

The Act was badly conceived mainly because the Government tried to appease all sides of the debate and did not consider the practical aspects which has made the law a bit of a farce and has resulted in some forms of hunting of foxes and hare coursing to continue.

Hare, hare coursing, illegal hare coursing
There is not let up for the poor hare with gangs of hare coursers roaming the countryside.

The UK Hunting Act 2004  is so complicated and full of loopholes that law enforcers try not to involve themselves in investigating alleged offences  because obtaining sufficient evidence to put before a court is costly, time-consuming and a nightmare. This becomes obvious when you read the various websites and reams of advice issued to try to clarify the subject .

So what is hunting with dogs?

The legal definition under the Hunting Act 2004 of hunting is:

  • to pursue or kill for sport or food;
  • to try and find by diligent searching and to pursue and capture;
  • to pursue or approach stealthily or to move silently through;
  • to drive (a bird or animal, especially game bird) from cover.

The Hunting Act 2004 describes 5 punishable offences:

  • Hunting a wild mammal with a dog;
  • permitting land to be used for hunting a wild mammal with a dog;
  • permitting a dog to be used for hunting a wild mammal;
  • participating in, attending, facilitating or permitting land to be used for the purposes of hare coursing;
  • entering, permitting or handling a dog in a hare coursing event.
A wild mammal is defined or considered to be a mammal which is living wild, bred or tamed; in captivity or confinement; escaped or released from captivity.

Basically on the face of it any live mammal is protected from being hunted or pursued by dog(s), but of course this would be too easy and so to appease the hunting lobby,  hobbyists and pest controllers there are exemptions which can be exploited to continue fox-hunting.

The “Unenforceable ban”

So it is legal to use dogs to hunt rats, rabbits and wounded shot hares, but there are several farcical loopholes that hunts can use to continue hunting almost normally under what is known as the “unenforceable ban” which include:

using 2 dogs to “flush a fox out of cover” to be shot by a qualified marksman if it is being done to prevent damage to property, food crops, timber, fisheries or biological diversity, but of course the marksman could miss and the fox escape with the trained hounds in pursuit.

flushing a fox to a bird of prey which allows a hunt to take a bird of prey along and as many hounds as they wish to flush out a fox for the purpose of enabling a bird of prey to hunt the wild mammal” as long as the bird is capable of catching  the animal such as a large eagle owl.

But the major loophole was allowing drag or trail hunting to continue, a situation that was always a recipe for future trouble, a fact well anticipated by the hunters. Allowing packs of hounds to continue careering around the countryside was always going to lead to confrontations with foxes and you can almost imagine the Master lining the hounds up for their pre-hunt pep talk :

“Right lads normal tactics today, you know the drill. Try and keep on track, but if you get a whiff of a real fox scent and happen to veer off in its direction do not make it too obvious lads as we will all be in trouble-know what I mean, [Wink Wink]”.

Hounds of course are not going to go against their natural instincts and sense of smell obtained over countless generations and many huntsmen are not going to pass up a golden chance to hunt a real fox when the opportunity presents itself.  Although it would be heartening to believe that not all Hunts participate in any wrong doing realistically many probably do. Everyone knows that the excuses that the chase was purely accidental or unintentional and the hounds were out of control are always going to be difficult to legally dispute. The act of hunting must be proven as predetermined or intentional which is difficult to show in most cases.

Anti-hunt saboteurs continue to monitor hunts

Many potential court cases are dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) due to what they view as a lack of tangible evidence and those that do reach court are rarely successful in regard to fox-hunting, but there have been many successful prosecutions for hare coursing. The Police and RSPCA do not have the time, and in the case of the Police, the inclination to keep an eye on the hunts which results in anti-hunting charities and hunt saboteurs having to continue monitoring hunts. This in turn causes friction leading to often violent disturbances. In practical terms it is impossible to keep track of the freely roaming hunts which are often held on private land.

There was a golden opportunity missed to completely halt hunting with dogs if the law makers had only banned drag hunting and the keeping, breeding and use of packs of hounds, but this was too easy. If the day ever arrives when hunting with hounds is made legal again, they will be ready and waiting to step in with all horns blaring complete with all the equipment and facilities to begin again.

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Author: John Brookland

John Brookland has been passionate about animals from an early age and has always been more concerned about their individual health and well-being than any scientific or zoological interest. During his long and varied career in animal welfare in the U.K. and worldwide, he has unfortunately witnessed most of the horrors of animal cruelty there is to see and has gained extensive insight into animal welfare issues. On leaving school he trained as an RSPCA clinic assistant in London and later was manager of one of their veterinary hospitals and an animal centre. He was Chief Inspector and manager of the Bahamas Humane Society in Nassau and spent time in Trinidad advising on a humane stray dog control service, before becoming a deputy manager and animal health inspector at Heathrow's Animal Quarantine Centre. He then travelled the world for a conservation group investigating the capture and transport of wildlife for the pet trade and was an honorary consultant to the IUCN and CITES. He is now retired and still travelling the world with his partner to view wildlife and wild places and writing a blog and books on animals.