Language Matters | Smokescreen/Trail Hunting

As we and others reported recently, the so-called Hunting Office (the organisation set up to run hunting after the Hunting Act 2004 came in to force) was burnt badly when webinars discussing how to avoid being caught illegally fox hunting were leaked by the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) (see our post Hunts on the Run).

For those that aren’t up to speed on this story, on November 13th the HSA published a series of secretly-recorded webinars run by the Hunting Office on so-called ‘trail hunting’, an invention of fox hunts to keep the system and infrastructure of foxhunting intact while they work for repeal of the Hunting Act. In the webinars leading figures in foxhunting including Lord Mancroft (Chair of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA)), key Countryside Alliance figures, and former senior police officers offer advice on using exemptions in the Hunting Act to avoid being caught breaking the law. The HSA called the recordings evidence of ‘mass criminality’. Why so many hunts should need ‘advice’ on ‘trail hunting’ and the law FIFTEEN years after the Hunting Act came into force still hasn’t been explained…

The webinars are now being investigated by the police, presumably to determine whether they constitute a conspiracy to break the law (the Hunting Act) and whether, for example, there is any evidence of Misconduct in a Public Office. That has led to numerous large landowners (including the National Trust and Forestry England) to suspend ‘trail hunting’ licences until the end of the ‘season’ (see – Why have ‘trail hunting’ licences been suspended?).


It’s been a disaster for hunting’s carefully constructed image of law abiding hunters gamely following scent trails across the countryside (a search on social media will quickly reveal how hollow that claim is) but let’s get back to ‘Language Matters’.

An interesting element of the reaction to the webinars has been the way many of us (yes, we include ourselves in this) have seized upon how the word ‘smokescreen’ was used by several of the speakers. The word has a literal origin of course, as in ‘laying down a cloud of smoke to conceal military operations’, but it is more usually used now to meansomething designed to obscure, confuse, or mislead“. In the released webinars speakers used the term while suggesting ways to create an element of doubt about whether, for example, a scent trail has been laid or whether a hunt had ‘accidentally’ killed a fox or not.

‘Smokescreen’ will now forever be linked with these webinars and will hopefully start appearing as slogans on activists’ t-shirts and on banners opposing foxhunting any day soon. It will be a reminder to the hunters that they got caught that will irritate them for years to come.

Now, while we’ll happily take whatever stick foxhunting hands us to poke them with, it’s worth taking a pause here because hunts have actually already been using a smokescreen for fifteen years – and that’s the very phrase ‘trail hunting’ itself.


Under the Hunting Act it is illegal to chase a wild mammal with a dog. There are exemptions (a court judgement decided that farmers et al were ‘entitled’ to kill animals they considered ‘pests’ for example), but hunting came up with its own way of getting around the Act: so-called ‘trail hunting’. The concept is simple. A ‘trail layer’ goes out in the morning to lay a scent trail (supposedly based on fox urine, which should be a red flag in the first place) and the hunt and their hounds go out and ‘find’ the trail and follow it. No animals should be hunted as that would be illegal.

Blackmore & Sparkford Vale Hunt hounds hot on the trail of a nursing vixen in St Peter & St Paul’s Churchyard, Charlton Horethorne, Somerset on 23.02.19 Photo: Kevin Hill/Hounds Off/Somerset Wildlife Crime

Monitors rarely if ever see trails being laid. Hunts rarely if ever invite independent observers to watch the trail being laid. And hounds regularly end up on roads, in small holdings, on nature reserves, and even in churchyards, where it is a racing certainty that no trail has ever been laid.

Hounds running where they shouldn’t, followed by rural hooligans on horseback going where they shouldn’t, should be clear cut evidence of illegal hunting. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Even though there are mountains of evidence on social media of foxes and other animals being killed (see – Pack of hounds filmed decapitating fox), hunts do everything they can to ‘obscure, confuse, or mislead‘. They repeatedly swear blind that trails were laid, claim they momentarily lost control of the hounds (which they should never do according to the law), or say that it was sabs or monitors that flushed the fox straight into the paths of the hounds. They don’t feel the need to explain why they train their dogs to kill foxes (the purpose of ‘cubbing’ – see Cubbing | An Autumn Sickness), how they ended up on a busy main road, or why they are repeatedly found riding through SSSis without the landowner’s permission (see – Forestry England & Fox Hunting #5).

All they feel they need to do is utter the words ‘trail hunting’. So thick is the cloud of uncertainty (the ‘smokescreen’) around what that actually looks like under real-life circumstances that they feel that with enough bluster (and a pro-hunting lawyer) they will inevitably get away with it. In effect, in the webinars the speakers were talking about using a smokescreen of excuses to bulk up the smokescreen they have already laid by the invention of ‘trail hunting‘!

The thing is though, they are no longer able to simply get away with it. Few outside of hunting believe that so-called ‘trail hunting’ is anything other than illegal foxhunting hidden inside a slippery use of language (much like ‘vermin’, ‘control’, ‘manage’ etc which we’ll be looking at in due course). This may stretch the ‘smokescreen’ metaphor beyond breaking point, but the reason that the Hunting Office organised their grubby series of webinars is that the smokescreen of so-called ‘trail hunting’ is looking increasingly wispy. Smoke always clears eventually, and when it does it inevitably reveals what was hiding inside of it.

As we wrote at the time, “From what the hunts are saying on these webinars they appear to know that the days of just killing wildlife and blagging their way out of trouble is over. They must be seen to be doing ‘the right thing’ now, and they know that the police or courts expect them to provide quality evidence they are not law-breaking.”


If hunts were concerned enough how tatty their excuse of so-called ‘trail hunting’ was looking pre the release of these webinars, imagine (with relish) how they’re feeling now. Their deliberate use of obfuscating language has been torn apart.

And in our opinion we should take this chance to pile in and really make them miserable, because language matters and we have an opportunity here to really punish them. Going by our own Visitor Traffic, right now there are plenty of people searching Google to try to learn more about the Hunting Office webinars and ‘trail hunting’. Many of them may have never come across the term before.

We don’t ordinarily believe in trying to tell other activists how to campaign, but just as foxhunting has laid down a smokescreen to obscure and confuse we think that we should too.

Hunting wants trail hunting to sound legitimate and clear-cut. We can help undermine that:

  • by wrapping ‘trail hunting’ in quotation marks to suggest there is a question about the validity of the term;
  • by using the prefix ‘so-called’ as often as possible – as in so-called ‘trail hunting’ – again questioning the validity of the term


It may perhaps seem a small thing to aim for (and if readers have better ideas let us know), but if journalists could be persuaded to write “so-called ‘trail hunting‘” in the way that they’ve been partly persuaded to describe the start of the grouse shooting season as inglorious rather than glorious, it would help to sow the seeds of doubt more widely. Once the public starts to question the validity of the term they will (we believe) stop just taking it at face value and want to know more. Which is where activists and campaigners for wildlife come in and provide the information that counters hunting’s propaganda and disingenuous use of language…

There may never be a better time to reach a whole new audience and explain to them how hunting has used the ‘smokescreen’ of so-called ‘trail hunting’ to obscure, confuse, or mislead. How in some cases – and so-called ‘trail hunting’ like ‘gamebirds‘ is a prime example – the language we use has been handed down to us to persuade us that the illegitimate is in fact legitimate. To demonstrate how important questioning our choice of language really is when it comes to determining our relationships with wildlife.


Header image: Blackmore & Sparkford Vale Hunt hounds hot on the trail of a nursing vixen in St Peter & St Paul’s Churchyard, Charlton Horethorne, Somerset on 23.02.19 Photo: Kevin Hill/Hounds Off/Somerset Wildlife Crime



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