When the Hunting Act 2004 was considered it would have been so easy to have outlawed hunting altogether but of course this would have been too easy and undemocratic so to appease all sides of the debate including the hunting lobby, hobbyists and pest controllers, exemptions were put in place that can be and have been exploited to continue hunting with dogs.
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 they still believe traditional hunting will be made legal again.
No real consideration was given to the practical aspects of enforcing the Hunting Act 2004 and it 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 difficult, costly, time-consuming and almost impossible to enforce. This becomes obvious when you read the various websites and reams of advice issued to try to clarify the subject .
The legal definition of hunting under the Hunting Act 2004 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.
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.
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.
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.
A golden opportunity was missed to completely halt hunting with dogs if the law makers had only banned drag and trail 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.