The secretly-recorded and leaked Hunting Office webinars, uploaded to the internet by the Hunt Saboteurs Association two weeks ago, continue to cause huge problems for proponents of so-called ‘trail hunting’ as the number of major landowners banning hunts continue to grow. What follows is pure speculation, but we’re idly wondering why they’ve suspended licences so quickly?
The webinars, in which a tranche of hunting’s leading figures explained workarounds to the Hunting Act, are now being investigated by the police – presumably to determine whether they constitute a conspiracy to break the law and whether, for example, there is any evidence of Misconduct in a Public Office. Those investigations – which are of course a long way from reaching any conclusions – have triggered reactions from major landowners who have (until now) stuck loyally to hunts, granting them access to their lands via a licencing system that costs the hunts virtually nothing and is barely enforced by the issuing ‘authorities’.
Following on from the decision to suspend ‘trail hunting’ by Forestry England (the government department responsible for managing and promoting the nation’s forests and one of our largest landowners), the National Trust announced that they too had paused ‘trail hunting’ on their land and would not be issuing any licences for the remainder of the ‘season’ (which ends in March). Just hours later they were joined by United Utilities (which manages over 56,000 hectares of land making them the largest corporate landowner in England), the Lake District National Park who announced they would suspend the licences given to the notorious Blencathra Foxhounds (leading to a flurry of questions on social media asking why hunting was permitted by a national park authority in the first place), and Natural Resources Wales, which advises the Welsh government on nature and controls 7% of Welsh land including 120,000ha of woodland and 42 National Nature Reserves.
These five decisions combined mean that at least 1.8 million acres of UK has (temporarily) been put out of bounds to fox hunts. Which is of course a cause for celebration, but the big question (at least for us) is why have these suspensions been enacted so rapidly?
For years the ‘group of five’ have essentially backed the hunts by saying, ‘Trail hunting is legal, prove to us otherwise’. The National Trust especially are renowned for their belligerent ‘to be clear‘ tweets which suggest that if anyone sees criminal activity on their land it’s nothing to do with them and it should be reported to the police instead:
So what’s changed?
All five organisations have been quoted saying that they have suspended licences while the police investigations of the webinars are ongoing. That’s an odd reason to give really. Hunts sabs and monitors will (rightly) say that police investigations can take years and the interview rooms down at the local nicks will have been barely warmed up yet. Besides, what has happened to their repeatedly telling us ‘Innocent until proven guilty‘, which in the case of ‘trail hunting’ in pre-webinar days could be framed as, ‘We believe they’re innocent, despite all the evidence on social media, so unless there are rule changes at our AGM we’ll carry on as we are, thankyou very much‘?
It’s likely that these particular investigations will be concluded as quickly as possible anyway – the available ‘evidence’ is clear-cut and on the record and the ‘accused’ are highly influential people (as an aside, the lesser minions on those recordings should expect to be hung out to dry if someone needs to take the rap, because it won’t be the likes of Lord Mancroft looking at a prosecution). So, why not wait?
As we said at the outset, this is pure speculation, but what considerations might have taken place at head offices up and down the UK?
Firstly, the hunts themselves haven’t changed in any way: it’s the same lobbyists, the same participants, the same determination to keep foxhunting alive – all largely co-ordinated through the Cirencester-based Hunting Office and the Master of Foxhounds Association. Mountains of evidence of blatant fox hunting has been posted on social media for years now, and has largely been ignored by the ‘group of five’ landowners anyway, so we can perhaps rule out a sudden ‘we see the light‘ moment.
Secondly, suspending licences won’t have been a financial issue. The revenue from issuing licences is tiny (in the case of the National Trust far less than the salary costs of ‘enforcing’ the licence conditions), so no-one is losing out by suspending hunts. Forestry England had issued over forty licences for this ‘season’, but as hunting was banned under lockdown anyway most of these would have been cancelled and charges presumably returned. The National Trust had issued just one pack with a licence to hunt on seven days (their page has now been updated and the ‘list’ removed). The Lake District National Park have updated their FAQs on ‘How many licences do you currently issue’ to only say that “This year (2020/21) we have suspended all licences“. United Utilities have done the same. An FOI request to Natural Resources Wales in 2018 drew the response that ‘a total of sixteen licences were issued’. Whatever the total it wasn’t huge.
If they’ve never reacted to claims like these before, the hunts haven’t changed, and the money is irrelevant, what does that leave? However you look at it, FE, NT, UU, et al didn’t need to suspend the licences now. Which (hopefully) means very bad news for the hunts indeed…
The obvious conclusion is that quite simply these charities and organisations have come under intense pressure from members and campaigners to dump the useless, trouble-making, law-breaking hunts and – frankly – they’ve been relieved to be presented with a way of getting rid of them.
That’s because in effect two things have needed to be squared here, and neither will offer any consolation for the now ‘up the creek without a paddle’ fox hunts.
On the one hand, the webinars and the talk of ‘smokescreens’ and ways to exploit Hunting Act exemptions have been covered by major mainstream news media as well as on activist websites like this. The story is unavoidable. The public already overwhelmingly backed the Hunting Act, nature found millions of new supporters during the first lockdown, and ‘trail hunting’ is now widely understood to be a sham. Hunts are also increasingly accused of animal welfare abuse, mistreating their hounds, riding roughshod over the wishes of small landowners, and of regularly causing traffic accidents. People on the whole just don’t like fox hunting, and the webinars have only reinforced that.
On the other all five organisations have annually granted licences to ‘trail hunt’, but increasingly want to appear modern and environmentally-friendly. United Utilities is already backing away from grouse shooting on their land. National Parks are coming under pressure as people increasingly ask what they’re for if they don’t even protect wildlife. The National Trust needs members to keep going. Supporting fox hunting is not a good look for any of them. Wildlife and the environment is a genuinely hot issue right now, and appearing to be on the right side of the argument by suspending ‘trail hunting’ licences – especially if it doesn’t impact the bottom line – is a win-win for all concerned. Except of course the bloody hunts, who are already scrambling to put out the fires started the release of the webinars anyway.
Of course, all five organisations have been careful to say that these suspensions are temporary. Licencing could just as easily be reinstated, and – after a blip – ‘trail hunting’ could resume as normal. Perhaps one way we can make that less likely is to thank the organisations involved. Yes, of course they deserve criticism for not doing something like this earlier, but if they have been influenced by public pressure in banning ‘trail hunting’ then perhaps we can all continue to press that influence with a bit of support for their current actions?
It’s not up to us to suggest how other activists campaign of course – and we’ve gone in hard on the Trust this year ourselves – but for pragmatic reasons alone now might not be the time to criticise on social media but to offer a ‘well done’ and a ‘thanks’ instead.
It might stick in the craw, but if it means that hunters never again chase wild animals on those nearly two million acres of land it will be worth it.