Last night the world watched in astonishment as a mob, whipped up by a sitting President, vandalised the seat of power in the heart of Washington. Talking about US politics is generally outside the purview of this site – though Trump’s trashing of environmental protections has featured several times – but there are interesting parallels here with an issue we do talk about a great deal: fox hunting, and in this case specifically ongoing claims that the Hunting Act is undemocratic (so in practice can simply be ignored) and the threatening behaviour of some hunt followers (which has never been properly reined in by hunting’s elite).
Let’s start with the legitimacy of the ban on hunting. Democracy – or at least the concept of it – is as important here in the UK as it is in the US, and the fact is that Parliament passed a law, the Hunting Act 2004, that made hunting wild mammals with dogs illegal.
The Act has a convoluted history, but essentially in 1997 the Labour Party (led by Tony Blair) came to power with a majority of 179 and promising to “ensure greater protection for wildlife“. One of the measures proposed was a free vote on outlawing the hunting of mammals with dogs. A private member’s bill, introduced by Michael Foster MP, received a second reading with 411 MPs voting in support, but eventually failed due to lack of parliamentary time for a full vote.
Following an inquiry by Lord Burns, which was tasked with looking at the practical aspects of fox hunting and the impacts of a ban, the Government introduced an ‘options bill’ which allowed each House of Parliament to choose between a ban, licensed hunting, and self-regulation. The House of Commons voted for a banning bill and the (unelected) House of Lords for self-regulation. The 2001 general election was then called and the bill – again – ran out of parliamentary time.
Labour were returned to power, and in July 2003 the Commons passed an amendment proposed by Tony Banks to ban hunting entirely with a majority of 208 in a free vote. This was rejected by the House of Lords in October 2003. A bill identical to the one passed by the House of Commons in 2003 was reintroduced on 9 September 2004. On 17 November the Lords insisted on amendments allowing licenced hunting, with the Tory leader in the Lords, Lord Strathclyde, postulating that hunt supporting members should back a partial ban as this would at least give the impression that peers were seeking a compromise. That month the Commons voted by 321 to 204 to reject licencing as it would have allowed regulated hunting of foxes to continue.
With the Lords and Commons unable to come to an agreement by the end of the Parliamentary year, the Speaker of the House of Commons used the Parliament Act 1949 to bring the debate to an end, and in February 2005 the Hunting Act – loaded with pro-hunting exemptions inserted as the bill passed through the House of Lords – came into force.
Clearly the pro-hunt side of the debate fundamentally disagreed with the Act, and as is their democratic right three members of the Countryside Alliance challenged it, questioning the legality of the Parliament Act in the High Court and Court of Appeal. Those challenges failed. An application for judicial review was made which argued that anti-hunting legislation contravened individual human or property rights protected in the European Convention on Human Rights and under European Community law and on grounds of the free movement of goods and services. That application was dismissed by the High Court in July 2005, the Court of Appeal in June 2006, and the House of Lords in November 2007.
Was that the end of the matter then? Of course not. It should be an absolute given that in a democracy like ours we are always allowed to challenge legislation, just as pro-hunters did and continue to do. If hunting were still taking place, we would oppose and challenge it. But we would do so legally, by working to expose the realities of fox hunting to change public opinion. And public opinion is vital in a democracy. It is, after all, the public that elects lawmakers, and it is the public that tells those lawmakers how they want the country run.
So what does the public think about fox hunting? Pro-hunt supporters still routinely point to 2002 when a large group organised by the so-called ‘Countryside Alliance’ marched through London. The Alliance has always claimed that the protest centred on approval for fox hunting but in fact a wide range of other (entirely understandable) grievances from rural communities were also linked with the demonstration. That was also nearly two decades ago, and held two years before the passing of the Act. Since then support for the Hunting Act has firmed up hugely and remains high to this day:
- In 2009, Ipsos MORI found that a total of 75% supported the ban on fox hunting.
- In 2010, Mori found that “in rural communities, seven in ten people (71%) want to see fox hunting remain illegal, whilst 81% think deer hunting should continue to be banned, and 84% support the ban on hare hunting and coursing“.
- A poll by MORI in December 2012 showed no change on fox hunting, with 76% being opposed to repeal, rising to 81% in respect to deer hunting – this despite major campaigning by hunts and the so-called ‘Countryside Alliance’.
- A December 2015 Mori poll found that “A majority of the British public are in favour of keeping a number of activities banned in the Hunting Act illegal: fox hunting (83%); deer hunting (85%); hare hunting and coursing (87%); dog fighting (98%); and badger baiting (94%).”
- In 2016 a poll was released prior to Boxing Day (when hunts traditionally parade through towns and villages) which showed that opposition to fox hunting had reached all-time highs, with 84% of voters, including 82% of those in rural areas, opposing fox hunting.
- An opinion poll in May 2017 taken following the release of the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2017 general election which promised a free vote on the repeal of the Act, revealed overwhelming public opposition to hunting with dogs. Only 16% of Conservative voters wanted the ban overturned, with 50% opposed. Theresa May, then leader of the Conservatives, announced she supported fox hunting and repeal of the ban. Bringing up fox hunting again was seen as a huge misstep by election analysts, and May u-turned before soon being replaced as prime minister.
- In November 2019, for the first time since the Act was passed, a Conservative Manifesto dropped promises for a free vote on repeal, saying “We will make no changes to the Hunting Act” (though as we pointed out at the time this meant that there would be no strengthening of the Act either).
Pro-hunt critics have repeatedly claimed that the results of these polls are illegitimate, that questions asked are biased against hunting, that all the Act does is create a split between rural voters and ill-informed ‘townies’ and encourage what hunters habitually term ‘animal rights extremists’. ‘Fake news’ in other words. There is no evidence for any of this, and increasingly polls have used Office of National Statistics data to back up findings that there is, as the polls state, no difference at all between the attitudes of rural and urban voters when it comes to setting dogs on wild animals: both are strongly opposed. And it is not pro-wildlife people that hold the ‘extreme’ view – increasingly the public think that it is killing wildlife for ‘sport’ that sits far outside the norm.
While, as we say, it is permissible for a relatively small but politically influential group of fox hunters to seek a repeal of the Hunting Act, what is not legitimate is for fox hunters to behave as if the legislation was just an inconvenience that they don’t need to take seriously. Of course, hunts deny any wrongdoing (contrary to literally hundreds of on the ground observations) and every hunt now uses the caveat that ‘ Yes, we go hunting, but it’s within the restrictions of the Hunting Act’. What they now do – allegedly – is to go so-called ‘trail hunting’.
‘Trail hunting’ didn’t exist before the Hunting Act. In theory it is a legal ‘hunt’ following a scent trail (a scent, incidentally based on fox urine – why not train hounds to follow a non-animal scent if you’re taking precautions not to hunt illegally? – and that monitors are never permitted to watch being laid). So-called ‘trail hunting’ is clearly (based on multiple reports from monitors and now in leaked webinars by the hunters themselves) used as both a ‘smokescreen’ for illegal hunting and as a way of keeping the structures of fox hunting in place while they work for repeal. We have covered the subject many times, pointing out in National Trust and Trail Hunting 101 for example that, “…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 illegally block or dig out badger setts which foxes might use to escape underground”.
While they are maintaining their innocence, many hunts – like the Tyndale – are also stating openly on their websites that they are opposed to the Hunting Act, believe strongly in fox hunting, and want to keep the ‘tradition’ alive (there would be no reason whatsoever for hunts to still train hounds to kill foxes if they didn’t (see – Cubbing | An autumn sickness)). Hunts claim this is because it is what ‘the countryside’ wants, but pretending that what you are doing is somehow legitimate because it represents an electorate which has said many times that they disagree with you is flat out dishonest. If you want to oppose something you passionately believe is wrong by breaking the law, then have the balls to say so, and accept the consequences when you’re caught.
It should go without saying, but it is also not legitimate for hunt followers to intimidate, harass, and on occasion cause actual bodily harm to pro-wildlife campaigners – who are after all only trying to monitor and potentially record illegal activities taking place. Hunt ‘supporters’, like the ones from the Belvoir Hunt that beat up League Against Cruel Sports investigator and former policeman Daryl Cunnington putting him in hospital, do not randomly turn up to hunts: they are hired, they are told where to meet, they carry radios, and they are organised by the hunts themselves. What happens when those followers turn violent (as reported, for example, in this article in The Canary) should be entirely on the heads of the hunt organisers. While they would say they don’t directly incite violence by their followers, standing by while knowing it is going to happen doesn’t give the impression they are particularly bothered in stopping it.
Hunts would prefer a ‘what happens in the countryside stays in the countryside‘ dynamic, but that’s not how the world works anymore. Routine use of mobile phones, of CCTV, and increasingly of drones, is capturing more and more incidents of fox hunting and acts of aggression. Lawbreaking by hunts and the violence that follows them around has now been covered widely by everyone from bloggers and social media influencers to mainstream media journalists. It is vehemently opposed by the public, and there is no evidence whatsoever that the neutral observer seeing the cruelty, illegality and violence of fox hunting is ever converted into a passionate pro-hunt supporter. The flow is one way. We are (in general) a society that respects the law and is on the side of wildlife. We do not like arrogance and exceptionalism. Behaving like hooligans might attract more hooligans – but the vast majority of British people are not like that. Probably all of us grumble sometimes about whether our votes count or not, and arguments can of course become heated, but we typically eventually accept democratic results even if they are personally disadvantageous or painful to us. If we decide to oppose them, we do so lawfully.
Patience with Trump appeared to finally run out last night. Even his staunchest supporters can see that inciting thuggery and encouraging illegality while making baseless claims about fraud and ‘the will of the people’ is anti-democratic and self-defeating. Ignoring the will of the electorate makes you look like a small-minded dictator no matter who you are or how privileged your position.
We can only hope that a similar revelation occurs within fox hunting’s upper echelons during the enforced national lockdown, which has seen a legal ban on hunts meeting that breaking would be impossible for even them to excuse or explain away. Now would be the perfect time to step up, admit they’ve been found out, convert to the sport of drag hunting (where no animals are harmed but riders still get to charge around the countryside), and fully distance themselves from the thugs that follow them.
While we’re currently not holding our breaths for self-implemented change, we have a suggestion that may help make the position they are in more clear to them.
There will be an enormous sense of relief in many areas that hunts will no longer be running riot through villages and the countryside. That we don’t have to suffer hearing hunting horns and knowing wildlife is being chased and killed. Whether we live in the countryside or in towns, our feelings of dread and our anger at ongoing lawbreaking and harm to wildlife are real and justified. Can we turn these feelings into something positive by, for example, making demands on councils to ban hunting on their land? Can we explain to major landowners like the National Trust and the Forestry Commission how we feel, to help them make the current temporary bans on licencing so-called ‘trail hunts’ (brought in as a response to the leaked Hunting office webinars) permanent, depriving hunts of large areas of land?
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Every ‘season’ sees hunts fold, hastening the end of illegal fox hunting. That is what the majority of the public wants. This is probably our best chance in years to finally get this barbaric, cruel, and illegal activity shut down for good.