Guest Post | Dominic Dyer: Fox hunting – political poison for the Tory Party

Guest post by leading wildlife campaigner writer & author Dominic Dyer. Dominic is Policy Advisor & British Wildlife Advocate at the Born Free Foundation & Board Member at Wildlife & Countryside Link. He was CEO of Badger Trust from 2013 – 2020.

We have a number of other posts and podcasts with Dominic on this site – please click here.


Fox hunting – political poison for the Tory Party

As it happens, personally I’ve always been in favour of fox hunting and we maintain our commitment as a Conservative Party to allow a free vote that would allow Parliament to take a decision on this.”

These few words uttered by Prime Minister Theresa May (in a response to a question from a Mirror journalist prompted by the League Against Cruel Sports) on a trip to a factory in Leeds on 9 May 2017 during the start of the general election, was probably one of the most significant events in the campaign.

Theresa May called the snap election in May 2017 with a 21-point lead in the polls. She was confident that her decision to go to the country three years earlier than needed under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, would secure a larger majority to strengthen her hand in the difficult Brexit negotiations to come. However, it soon became clear that the public had no appetite for a snap election and that Theresa May was struggling to make a case to voters that she deserved a bigger majority, in order to sideline the hard-line no deal Brexiters in her party.

As a result of the Lobbying Act [memorably described as ‘sledgehammer, meet nut‘ on the website CharityComms], charities had become increasingly risk averse about conducting any political campaigning activities during the 2017 General Election. One of the exceptions was the League Against Cruel Sports who took their ‘Vinny the Fox’ Campaign to constituencies across the country. This campaign was extremely well timed to benefit from the huge public and political anger generated by the Prime Minister’s statement in support of fox hunting. Within days of the Prime Minister’s visit to Leeds, alarms bells were ringing in Tory central office as her support for fox hunting became an increasing issue of concern for Tory candidates on the doorstep.


Make Hunting History’ march

I was soon contacted by several campaigners against fox hunting to see if a major protest march to the gates of Downing Street could be arranged at short notice to show the strength of public feeling on this issue before polling day.

I agreed to play key role in pulling together the protest event with other campaigners under the ‘Make Hunting History’ slogan. We set up a Facebook registration site expecting a few hundred people to join the protest to be held on the 29th May. Within days, over two thousand people had registered to join the event, and numbers continued to rise rapidly as we approached the day of the protest.

By the 22nd May, a week before the protest march, we had over 10,000 people registered to attend. On that same day, an Islamist extremist suicide bomber detonated a shrapnel-laden homemade bomb at an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena, killing twenty three people including the attacker, and wounding over 800. This tragedy shocked the nation and the world and led to London being put on the highest security threat warning. Political campaigning was put on temporary hold and major public events and football matches were cancelled.

However, rather than be intimidated into silence under the threat of terrorism, the organisers of ‘Make Hunting History’ soon agreed the event should go on. The Metropolitan police welcomed our decision and did a wonderful job in providing extra levels of security including sniffer dogs, armed police, and road closures on the march route, to ensure the event could take place in a secure and safe environment for everyone involved. On the day of the march over 10,000 people gathered in Cavendish Square Gardens for what proved to be the largest protest event of the General Election campaign. As thousands of people with their banners, horns and megaphones marched down Regent Street, around Trafalgar Square, and into Whitehall, no one could doubt that Theresa May’s support for fox hunting had injected a huge level of public anger into the election campaign.

By the time we reached the gates of Downing Street at the head of the march, people were still pouring into Whitehall in their thousands. It’s only when I climbed up on to the plinth of the statue of Viscount Alan Brooke to address the crowd, that I realised how Theresa May had single-handedly brought about the biggest wildlife protection protest in history. Within minutes of speaking to the huge crowd, I was contacted by the London Evening Standard with a request to access video footage and images of the protest for their online evening edition.

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer and editor of the Evening Standard, George Osborne, had been very critical of the Prime Minister’s decision to call a snap election. He was only too happy to rub salt into the wounds of her faltering campaign by publicising the growing public anger on the fox hunting issue. Within hours of the protest every major newspaper and TV news channel was giving extensive coverage to ‘Make Hunting History’, with many speculating on the political fallout for the government just weeks from polling day. Even the New York Times gave extensive coverage to the protest, albeit with some bewilderment as to why fox hunting had become such a key political issue in the election campaign.


Fox hunting becomes major vote loser for the Conservative Party

In the weeks that followed the protest, Conservative candidates across the country were regularly questioned on door steps on why the Prime Minister wanted to see a return to fox hunting. Alarm bells started to ring in Tory Central Office on the potential political impact of this issue on polling. Alongside fox hunting the government was also wrong-footed on the decision to drop a long-standing commitment to ban the sale of ivory products in the UK. This came as a result of internal party lobbying led by the Conservative MP for Kensington and Chelsea, Victora Borwick, who also happened to be President of the British Antiques Dealers Association.

The combination of growing anger over fox hunting and the ivory trade, together with a Labour Party commitment to abolish student tuition fees, led to a significant increase in first time voters going to the polls on election day. The result of the election on 8th June was a political earthquake for Theresa May, rather than increasing her majority in Parliament, it completely disappeared as a result of losing 13 seats. The Labour Party were a long way from winning the election, but they performed far better than expected, picking up 30 seats mostly from the Tories. The Tories lost rock solid seats including Kensington and Chelsea, Canterbury, and Stroud.

Research by ComRes after the election showed that Labour’s pledge to keep the fox hunting ban was the most popular policy in its manifesto, and YouGov found about 1 in 7 voters recalled reading stories about the ivory trade and fox hunting during the campaign, with even higher numbers for the 18-24 age group particularly via social media. The BBC even put fox hunting in its top ten reasons why the Tories lost their majority claiming it “re-toxified the Conservative brand in many key target seats for Theresa May.”

Within weeks of the election the government was in full damage limitation mode, with the pledge to repeal the Hunting Act removed from the Queens Speech and Tory MP and former Chairman of the Party, Grant Shapps, taking to social media saying, “Fox hunting, the insane policy signaling the election campaign was about to go off the rails is officially dumped.”

By the following January, the Sunday Times was running a front-page story placed by the new head of communications for the Tory Party Carrie Symonds, stating that Theresa May’s government was dropping any further plans to hold a vote on the Hunting Act during the rest of the Parliamentary term. Theresa May went on the Andrew Marr show on the day of the Sunday Times front page story to say she had listened to the messages she got during the election, “and that’s why I say there won’t be a vote on fox hunting during this parliament.”. As Theresa May struggled on as an increasingly lame duck Prime Minister consumed by the growing turmoil in her party on the Brexit negotiations, the battle against fox hunting continued in the fields and the courts.


Attention turns to “trail” hunting

The League Against Cruel Sports turned its attention to “trail” hunting, which allows hounds and riders to follow a scent path which often results in foxes being run to ground and killed by hounds in contravention of the Hunting Act. The League launched a very successful campaign against the National Trust to try and force the charity to stop the issuing of trail hunt licences on its land, and which culminated in a vote taking place at the National Trust AGM in October 2017.

A National Trust Members motion calling for a ban on trail hunting gained the support of 28,269 members. The motion was only narrowly defeated on the floor of the AGM meeting in Swindon after the counting of 3,460 proxy votes, which were authorised and used at the discretion of other members and the board of Trustees. Speaking to large demonstration held by the League Against Cruel Sports outside of the AGM meeting, I said the National Trust “no longer held the trust of the public when it came to preventing illegal fox hunting and wildlife crime on its land”, a message picked up by the ITV evening news bulletins, much to the discomfort of the National Trust board.


Fox hunting emerges again in Tory leadership race

By the spring of 2019, Theresa May was fighting for her political survival and must have seriously regretted her throw-away comments about fox hunting in the 2017 election.

A combination of a disastrous election campaign, triggering Article 50 to leave the EU without a proper plan, and failing to compromise to sell her Brexit deal to MPs, left her political reputation and authority as Prime Minister in tatters. Theresa May was finally forced to resign in tears on the steps of Downing Street in July 2019. The leadership race that followed to replace her as Tory Party leader and Prime Minister soon became a two-horse race between Boris Johnson MP and Jeremy Hunt MP. From the very beginning of the campaign Boris Johnson was the clear favorite to win both within the Parliamentary Party and the grass roots membership. In a desperate attempt to gain some advantage over Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt made the same fatal mistake as Theresa May, by giving his support to the return of fox hunting.

Within hours of his statement, the League Against Cruel Sports hand delivered a letter to Jeremy Hunt condemning his actions. At the same time, I was shuttling between TV and radio news interviews calling fox hunting “politically toxic for any future leader of the Tory Party”. By the end of the day the London Evening Standard was running a front-page story saying that Jeremy Hunt was doing a “reverse ferret on fox hunting” as he ditched his earlier pledge to support a free vote on repeal of the Hunting Act.

In the Boris Johnson camp, his new partner Carrie Symonds quickly took advantage of the situation and helped line up the Prime Minister in waiting to make a statement on one of his campaign stops to say “a return to fox hunting would be inconceivable” if he was in Downing Street. With that brief statement a 15-year campaign by the Countryside Alliance and its supporters in the Tory Party to bring back fox hunting was left in ruins.

In the final leadership ballot on 23 July 2019, Boris Johnson emerged victorious as the new Tory leader and Prime Minister with 92,153 votes, 66.4% of the vote. The next 6 months was one of the most tumultuous in modern British political history, with cliff hanger votes on Brexit, a dissolution of Parliament that was eventually rules unlawful by the High Court, and from near breakdown, to a final breakthrough with Brussels on an EU withdrawal agreement, followed by a snap election on the 12 December.


Fox hunting and 2019 election

For Boris Johnson, calling a snap election in December 2019 was a high stakes gamble, but it soon became clear that he was not going to make the same mistake as Theresa May when it came to losing votes on animal welfare and wildlife protection issues.

For the first time it was decided that the Tory Party manifesto would have an animal welfare section. As the manifesto was being finalised, I received a call from Zac Goldsmith MP asking me how far I thought the Tory Party should go in relation to commitments on the Hunting Act. Zac was working with the Prime Minister and Party officials on the animal welfare section of the manifesto, and he was only too aware of how damaging this issue had become for Theresa May in the previous election.

Working with the League Against Cruel Sports, I put forward several recommendations for tightening the Hunting Act, including the removal of exemptions allowing trail hunting and stag hunting and tighter restrictions on the activities of terrier men. On the 20TH November I chaired an environment hustings election debate with Zac Goldsmith and the other challengers for his parliamentary seat in Richmond Park. The CEO of the League Against Cruel Sports Andy Knott joined the audience for the event and pressed Zac Goldsmith on how far a Tory Government under Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would go in relation to tightening the Hunting Act. Although Zac was keen to ensure the audience understood the Tory Party had no plans to repeal the Hunting Act, he would not be drawn on what further commitments would be made in removing the loopholes in the legislation.

It was clear that despite the best efforts of Zac Goldsmith, Carrie Symonds and the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, there remained a strong pro-hunting and shooting lobby within the Tory Party who were deeply opposed to any further strengthening of the Hunting Act. When the Tory manifesto was finally published a few weeks before the election, it did contain several important wildlife protection and animal welfare commitments, including an end to sale of ivory products in Britain, an end to live animal exports, a ban on the import of hunting trophies, and tougher sentencing for animal cruelty.

Although not included in the animal welfare section of the manifesto, buried deeper in the document was a clear commitment to maintain the Hunting Act. For the first time in sixteen years the Tory Party were no longer pledging to repeal the Hunting Act and bring back fox hunting, or event to offer a free vote on the issue. Although this marked a significant victory for the League Against Cruel Sports and other wildlife protection charities and campaigners, it did not go far enough.


Failure to tighten the Hunting Act becomes a ticking time bomb for the Government

By pushing back against moves to strengthen the Hunting Act, the hunting and shooting lobby in the Tory Party had kept the door open to trail hunting, stag hunting, and use of terrier men on hunts. However, this proved to be a ticking time bomb for the Government; it was not long before it would explode. With the Covid 19 pandemic forcing us all to enter a new virtual world for most meetings and gatherings, the Hunting Office, which describes itself as the ‘executive arm of the governing bodies for hunting with hounds in the UK’, decided to hold a series of zoom webinars to provide advice to its many hunt members on legal restrictions on fox hunting, and the loopholes within the law that might be taken advantage of.

The webinars involved leading figures in the hunt movement including Tory Peer and Chair of the Masters of Foxhounds Association Lord Mancroft, Phil Davies – ex-Police Inspector and consultant to the Countryside Alliance, and Mark Hankinson, Director of the Hunting Office.

The Hunt Saboteurs Association obtained recordings of the webinars and released these on social media in November 2020. A few weeks later the League Against Cruel Sports worked with ITV News on an exclusive for News at Ten on the webinars, which led to the Devon and Cornwall police launching a criminal investigation into the Hunting Office on the grounds of conspiracy to break the law.

The News at Ten piece generated significant national media attention and a level of public and political anger on the issue of hunting with hounds not seen since the implementation of the Hunting Act in 2004. Within days, the National Trust, Forestry England and National Resources Wales suspended the issuing of all trail hunt licences, pending the outcome of the police investigation.

When it emerged in the media that Mendip Hunt members had been employed as stewards at the Glastonbury Festival, raising thousands of pounds to support fox hunting, the festival organisers quickly made a public commitment to say they would no longer be employed at future events, in view of the growing controversy over the leaked webinars.


Defra Secretary feels the heat on fox hunting

The Defra Secretary George Eustice was forced to make a statement on the leaked webinars in the House of Commons. He placed the responsibility for investigating any potential breaches of the law by the Hunting Office on to the police, but it was clear he was feeling the political heat on fox hunting like never before. The League Against Cruel Sports quickly took advantage of the situation to form a wildlife NGO coalition consisting of the RSPCA, Born Free, Humane Society, International Federation of Animal Welfare and the Badger Trust, to lobby the Defra Secretary to meet and discuss the need for Hunting Act reform.

The pressure on the Government to take action on the Hunting Act increased further as a record 18,435 people supported a League Against Cruel Sports campaign to respond to a consultation on a Private Members Bill in Stormont to introduce a ban on hunting with dogs in Northern Ireland. 78% of those who responded said all hunting of wild animals with dogs in Northern Ireland should be banned, with 55% backing imprisonment as a punishment for those found guilty of offences under a hunting ban.

On the 4th of March 2021, the League Against Cruel Sports-led coalition finally met with Defra Secretary George Eustice to discuss the Hunting Act and the fallout from the leaked Hunting Office webinars. Shortly before the meeting Mark Hankinson, Director of the Foxhounds Association, was charged with intentionally encouraging or assisting others to commit an offence under the Hunting Act 2004, contrary to section 44 of the Serious Crimes Act 2007.

The meeting with the Defra Secretary called for a suspension of trail hunt licences on Defra and Ministry of Defence-owned land and for an urgent review of the need to tighten the Hunting Act to prevent the exploitation of weaknesses and loopholes by hunts across England. I raised the failure of the government to shut the loopholes in the Hunting Act and how this created a dangerous vacuum enabling the perpetuation of what should be illegal activity by Hunts and terrier men across the country. All the attendees called on the Defra Secretary to uphold the rule of law by effective and enforceable legislation.

This was the first-ever meeting held with a Conservative Defra Secretary on the Hunting Act since the legislation was enacted in 2004. The fact the meeting took place at all shows how contentious the issue of hunting with hounds is now becoming for the government. Although George Eustice made no commitments during the meeting to suspend trail hunt licences on publicly owned land, or to move beyond the government’s commitment to simply retain the Hunting Act, Eustice kept the door open for a further meeting with the wildlife coalition, and to consider a briefing paper from the League Against Cruel Sports setting out the case for the strengthening of the Hunting Act in the future.


The future of fox hunting

Mark Hankinson the Director of the Foxhounds Association will go on trial on the 20th September in what could be a crucial case in relation to the future of trail hunting and the enforcement of the Hunting Act.

Whatever the outcome of the trial, fox hunting is now political poison for the government. Covid 19 and the restrictions on public gatherings has caused huge financial damage to hunts in England, and many might not survive the pandemic. Those that do will find themselves increasingly shunned by public and politicians alike as they face increasing restrictions on their hunting activities.

Like drink driving, hunting with hounds is no longer socially acceptable to the vast majority of people in Britain. The last 17 years has seen many twists and turns in the debate on fox hunting, but we might soon be able to say we have “Made Hunting History” once and for all.

Dominic Dyer, May 2021