Landowners scramble to suspend fox trail hunts

Good news for some foxes this winter.

Following the news that the police have launched an investigation into the activity of the Hunting Office after it was alleged that hunt masters had held webinars on creating hunting “smokescreens” to cover illegal fox hunting, there has been a mad scramble by landowners to distance themselves from the “sport” and either ban or suspend permission to use their land.

The Hunting Office, was established in 2005 after the Hunting Act 2004 was introduced, and is the administrative, advisory and supervisory arm of the six governing Hunting Associations. Their purpose is to “set and maintain high standards of conduct in the activity of hunting with hounds”.

Police are apparently studying two webinars allegedly showing leading hunting figures and retired police officers discussing ways to create a “smokescreen” around unlawful hunts and ways of avoiding prosecution.

Landowners & Local Authorities rush to suspend permission.

This has resulted in a scramble by large landowners and local authorities to either suspend or ban trail hunting. These have included owners of the Lake District National Park, Forestry England which manages 1500 publicly owned woods and is England’s largest land manager, National Trust and United Utilities and Natural Resources Wales. There are calls for others such as the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Duchy of Cornwall and Church of England to follow suit.

Local authorities are also getting in on the act with Peterborough City Council, Nottinghamshire County Council, Cheshire West and Chester Council and Cherwell District Council banning or considering bans.

Taking an eagle owl along can be a smokescreen for illegal hunting.

Trail Hunting.

The Hunting Act 2004 banned hunting of live foxes but did not disband hunting hound packs so the Hunts were able to continue their pastime by developing trail and drag hunting. Trail hunting is where fox scent is laid for the hounds to follow. Landowners license or give permission for trail hunts to take place on their land, but since 2005 there has been constant allegations that the Hunts use trail and drag hunts to cover illegal fox hunting. Allowing drag or trail hunting to take place under the law 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.

To make matters worse other loopholes in the law make it relatively easy to circumvent what has always been a farcical ban. Among these are:

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;

and “flushing a fox to a bird of prey” which allows a hunt to take a large bird of prey like an eagle owl 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”.

Temporary good news for foxes.

Although all these bans are good news for many foxes this winter there is no guarantee that the suspensions will lead to permanent bans as it will all depend on police findings and the Criminal Prosecution Service as to whether there has been any criminal activity. If not normal service will probably begin as landowners will insist there is no evidence of wrong doing to justify bans.

Meanwhile sixteen years on from the Hunting Act ban we will still be in the situation of the anti hunt lobby accusing the Hunts of illegal activity and the Hunting lobby protesting injustice.

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Hare Coursing – barricading the English countryside

Farmers given free soil to barricade the countryside against hare coursers.

Despite the ban on hunting of hares under the Hunting Act 2004, the “sport” of coursing is on the increase and in practical terms virtually impossible to stop. It takes huge resources to police and even when offenders are caught there is little in the way of punishment or deterrent. Although banned throughout the United Kingdom it is a regulated competitive national sport in the Republic of Ireland and also popular in western USA.

Hare coursing is as far removed from sport as you can possibly get. It is nothing more or less than the cruel use of live hares to train dogs to hunt them down and kill them just to make money”.

Gordon Henderson, Conservative MP, House of Commons, December 2020

The number of reports of illegal coursing is on the increase. In the English county of Lincolnshire, one of the hotspots for coursing, there were 1,048 reports between September 2019 and March 2020 up from 873 the year before.

September to March are the peak periods for hare coursing when the crops in the fields are harvested, the hares are easily visible and groups of mainly young men with lurcher type dogs are commonly spotted driving into the open fields. Police rural crime units then brace themselves to be inundated with reports of illegal hare coursing.

Farmers under attack.

Farmers are being threatened with physical assault if they try and intervene and suffering damaged to their land. It has reached the point where they are being asked to barricade their fields as a detterent and the police are using drones to catch offenders. Farmers are worried that someone will soon be seriously hurt and that the Hunting Act 2004 needs to be tightened and punishments increased.

“Hare coursing can cause significant disturbance in the countryside”, as well as causing a lot of concern to people living in the wider rural community where the activity takes place.”

The Crown Prosecution Service

Farmers view hare coursers as hardened criminals and are asking for tailored sentencing guidelines with such things as mandatory seizure of vehicles and dogs and payment for kennelling by offenders, compensation paid to landowners for any damage caused, more powers to the police and courts including much higher fines that can be imposed for poaching offences. Antiquated laws dating back to 1828 and 1831 are still being used to prosecute and the Government have been asked to review and update these laws by removing the cap on the low fines allowed.

Police do not have the resources, powers or the legislation to stop this barbaric destructive and illegal “sport”.

The police report that offenders will do “all they can to get away” firing catapults at officers and farmers alike. They use threats, violence and intimidation to prevent members of the public from reporting them. Police advise any walkers or passersby who spot hare coursing to take great care and keep themselves discreetly hidden while making the call for their own safety.

Incentive to build barricades

In the English county of Suffolk, where hares are plentiful, free soil is available for farmers under a Country Land and Business Association incentive scheme to build large earth barriers or bunds along their field lines and entrances into their fields. Farmers are also asked to block entrances with tree trunks and other obstacles and make ditches deep.

It is basically an impossible situation for the police who find it difficult to control urban areas let alone great swathes of dark open countryside. But updating and strengthening laws which are not fit for purpose at the moment would be a help to them. It is a sad state of affairs when we cannot protect and prevent suffering to one of the iconic animals of the English countryside which is already under pressure from their unnecessary status as pests.

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