Christmas fox hunts reduced to pantomime.

It is now 17-years since fox hunts were banned, but thanks to what seem purposely included loopholes in the law and the impossibility of enforcing it, illegal hunting continues.

It is now 17-years since fox hunts were banned, but thanks to loopholes in the law and the impracticability of enforcing it, illegal hunting continues under the guise of exercising the hounds and drag hunts.

As entertainment, city and rural folk alike still love the theatre, tradition and fun of watching the hunt congregate and set off and will turn out in their thousands for the Boxing Day and New Year hunts little caring what happens afterwards. In areas that host a hunt it is all Tally Ho, port and mulled wine and of course children just love to mingle with the hounds.

Fox hunts Hound pack

Fox hunts have become pantomime.

There will be cheers and clapping from supporters and jeers and boos from a handful of valiant protestors to give the event some element of spice and a few police officers to keep things orderly.  Sadly the Yuletide hunts have become pantomimes for families looking to get some fresh air after the big day. Everyone will have a good time and the reason for any commotion caused by demonstrators will no doubt pass them by.

Violence is still common between the opposing sides and this state of affairs has perpetuated for nearly two decades and will continue probably for several more until the hunts fulfil their aim of overturning the ban. The more we attend these pantomimes without thought to what they represent the more credence we give to this aim. It gives them the opportunity to point out how much the public love them.

It does appear that the general public are not sufficiently aware of what constitutes a legal or illegal meet or even care. They may also be getting weary of the subject and have come to accept that hunting with dogs whether legal or not is here to stay. They obviously put their trust in the pillars of society who they see before them on horseback dressed in their liveried smart red, blue, yellow or black jackets to do the right thing. But as a recent event has shown this trust is unworthy.

Illegality encouraged by a hunt governing body.

There is no doubt that illegal fox hunting is common and that this trust we appear to have is undeserving, a fact well illustrated by the recent prosecution and guilty verdict of Mark Hankinson, the Director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association on the 15 October 2021. He was found guilty of encouraging illicit meets by holding secret webinars explaining to hunt bosses the best ways to disguise their drag hunts and was fined £1000 with costs of £2500. The judges summing up was quite condemning:

I am sure that the Defendant through his words was giving advice on how to illegally hunt. This was through the pretence of laying trails which it could be said the hounds were following. As he himself said, he was speaking to ‘like-minded people’ and could therefore speak freely. He did not expect his words to be recorded and released into the public domain.  It was clearly advice and encouragement to commit the offence of hunting a wild mammal with a dog. I am sure he intended to encourage the commission of that offence. I find the Defendant guilty of the offence before me.

Regina v Mark Hankinson

This even prompted the National Trust, a bastion of history and rural tradition to vote two to one to ban drag hunting on their land as many other landowners are doing.

Fox hunts Policing a fox trail hunt.

Class war obsession with fox hunts.

There has always been the accusation from hunt supporters that the ban was an attack on rural traditions and was part of a “class war obsession“, but fox hunting with hounds cannot be considered as an inclusive sport by any means.

There is a rather pompous etiquette associated with the sport which both human and equine participants must adhere to and a hierarchy amongst the inner sanctum. You need a sturdy bank balance just to kit yourself out without taking into consideration the cost of owning and caring for a horse. This discounts most normal hardworking people (as Governments like to call us) from being able to partake.

Worst gaffe is to refer to the hounds as dogs.

Among many other things the etiquette stresses that smartness is essential with a tweed, black or navy jacket worn over a shirt with a knotted tie, pale breeches, clean boots and gaiters, and dark gloves and hats. If a body protector is worn it must be under the jacket so as not to spoil the ensemble. For the “girls”, hairnets are allowed but only subtle make-up.

For some strange reason a horse’s mane must be plaited “as a courtesy to those whose land you are crossing,” otherwise you might be sent home like a naughty schoolchild. And most importantly you must smile and politely pass the time of day with the farmer or landowner whose land you are trashing should you come across him or her leaning on a gate.

Among the worst gaffes you can make is to refer to the hounds as dogs, is to overtake the master during the hunt and most importantly after the hunt has ended not to say thank you and goodnight (“which is the traditional way to say goodbye even if it is 9 a.m.”) to the master and secretary.

With all this in mind it is difficult not to label the blood sport as a class and well-heeled person’s pastime, but easy to believe that the present status of fox hunting can only be described as a charade.

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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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