National Trust and Trail Hunting 101

What is ‘trail hunting’ and why is the National Trust (NT), one of the country’s most-respected conservation organisations, mired in contention for supporting it? Quick answer, there is no such thing as ‘trail hunting’ and because the NT owns huge areas of land they allow fox hunters to use…


The National Trust

On the 19th of September 2019 the National Trust (NT) held its Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Swindon, in the west of England. Delegates arriving at the venue were met by (polite) protestors asking the NT to look again at a highly controversial decision made at their AGM in 2017. A motion to ban ‘trail hunting’ proposed that year had been endorsed by 28,629 member votes with 27,525 against, but had been defeated after the addition of 3,460 proxy votes cast by the NT’s chair in favour of hunts.

Under the NT’s rules, a similar motion can not be brought to the AGM again for three years (so in 2020), but what is ‘trail hunting’ and why does it matter if the National Trust supports it anyway?

The National Trust is one of the UK’s most important conservation charities. It owns over 500 historic houses, castles, and gardens (including Stourhead, shown in the image above), and looks after around 248,000 hectares of countryside.

The Trust takes great pride in its conservation work. It has helped reintroduce the once-extirpated Large Blue Butterfly to England, worked to return Water Voles to its rivers, and created heathland habitat for Smooth Snakes. All eighteen species of UK bat are protected on NT properties. It uses Conservation Performance Indicators to understand, prioritise and track the impact of “interventions in the careful management of change” and has even published an ambitious plan “to nurse the natural environment back to health and reverse the alarming decline in wildlife”.

Which makes the decision to licence so-called ‘trail hunting’ on some of its considerable land holdings all the more disappointing.

So-called ‘Trail Hunting’

‘Trail hunting’, according to the National Trust, “effectively replicates a traditional hunt but without a fox being chased, injured or killed“.

To even a casual observer ‘trail hunting’ does indeed look and sound very much like a ‘traditional’ fox hunt.

The same uniforms are worn by the same riders, the same packs of hounds are taken out, the same horns are used and the same calls are made, and the same notoriously violent terriermen protect the hunt from monitors and eg illegally block or dig out badger setts which foxes might use to escape underground.

In reality, ‘trail hunting’ is so much like a ‘traditional’ fox hunt that up and down the country foxes are still being chased, and foxes are still being killed.

Invented by hunts in response to the passing of the Hunting Act 2004 which outlawed the hunting of wild animals (including foxes, deer, and hares) with dogs, it’s widely understood now that ‘trail hunting’ is little more than a stop-gap which allows hunts to continue hunting and maintain their packs and infrastructure while they dream of repeal.

What ‘trail’ are hunts allegedly laying?

The scent ‘trails’ the hounds allegedly follow are supposedly derived from fox urine, a substance that is no longer on sale here in the UK and requires an import licence issued by the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) to bring into the country.

Repeated Freedom of Information requests has shown that between January 2014 and April 2018 no licences were issued by APHA for importing fox urine.

Well over a hundred hunts operate in England alone, many going out more than once a week. If, as they regularly claim, they are laying trails based on fox urine they would need thousands of gallons of ‘scent’: where are they getting it from?

Are hunts laying trails anyway?

A detailed report by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) published in 2015 demolishes the suggestion that hunts are laying trails.

In ‘Trail Of Lies’ they state that “in 99% of IFAW hunt monitors’ reports produced during the last 10 years (443 reports on supposedtrail hunting’ events covering 45 different registered hunts in England & Wales), the investigators reported not having witnessed anybody laying what they believed was a genuine trail”. There is no reason to suppose those statistics would look any different today.

Photo copyright Kevin Hill/Hounds Off/Somerset Wildlife Crime

Besides which, if they really do lay a trail then why do hunts and their hounds spend so much time causing ‘hunt havoc’ by straying onto busy main roads and railway lines, into people’s gardens and private property, and ending up in areas totally unsuitable for riding?

Hounds were even filmed earlier this year chasing a lactating fox through the churchyard of St Peter & St Paul’s in Charlton Horethorne by Somerset Wildlife Crime and Hounds Off Monitors, equipped with video cameras.

Why? Because – despite what they claim – hunts and their hounds are still chasing foxes. Illegally.

National Trust under pressure

The National Trust has come under huge pressure from both its own members and the general public since that decision in 2017, and has had to update its website several times in an attempt to clarify its position on ‘trail hunting’.

It now says that it only licences ‘trail hunts’ in some areas and at certain times of the year “where it is compatible with our aims of public access and conservation (how riding horses and packs of hounds across its reserves is compatible with conservation isn’t explained) and, in an effort to justify that public access policy, goes on to equate hunting with mountain biking and food festivals!

Remarkably the Trust also says that it believes that “the overwhelming majority of hunts act responsibly”.

That seems a foolhardy statement to make when so many hunts are clearly breaking the law. Especially so when journalists record their experiences and when independent monitors and Hunt Saboteur groups routinely tag the NT on social media when they observe and record illegal activities on NT land (see, for example, the screenshot from the Twitter feed of Cumbria Huntwatch).

The future and reputational damage

The Trust is an important charity. It looks after some of the UK’s most iconic landscapes, and it celebrated a record membership in early 2018.

But its support for ‘trail hunting’ risks severe reputational damage, particularly as campaigners at venues up and down the country will be repeatedly asking the same question from now until the next AGM, “Are you aware that the National Trust is allowing hunting on its land?”

Few people outside of fox hunting circles support this cruel and outdated ‘tradition’. The law says that it is illegal and 85% of the public don’t want the Hunting Act repealed. ‘Trail hunting’ has been revealed to be nothing more than a smokescreen for fox hunting, and the National Trust risks becoming an increasingly isolated voice in its defence of it.