Despite being outlawed in 2004 (2002 in Scotland), fox hunting continues to be endemic across much of the UK, with more than 200 Boxing Day hunts taking place last year alone.
In January Scotland made history by strengthening their hunting ban, and launching a new Hunting with Dogs Bill. It has been established in an attempt to close any potential loopholes, and prevent people from killing foxes in the name of sport.
Under this new legislation, trail hunting has been criminalised. A practice steeped in controversy and secrecy, it is the act of using an artificial fox scent for packs of dogs to follow, as opposed to chasing and killing a real animal. On paper, it sounds humane, but all of the prosecutions show the reality is far from fair and civilised.
The scent is often put in areas known to have fox populations, so it comes as no surprise that foxes are frequently chased and then later killed. It is difficult to prove in court whether huntsmen have deliberately killed a fox. Many cases for potential prosecutions have likely fallen apart due to a lack of robust evidence.
In 2020 the Hunt Saboteurs Association exposed what many animal rights campaigners had previously figured; trail hunting is used as a “smokescreen” for the intentional and illegal killing of foxes. An online webinar set up by the Hunting Office was secretly recorded and provided concrete confirmation of senior huntsmen admitting to this “smokescreen”.
Phil Davies, a former police officer that was present during the webinar, said: “… create that smokescreen or that element of doubt that we haven’t deliberately hunted a fox, so if nothing else you need to record that and it will help us provide a defence to huntsmen.” Despite such inflammatory comments, he was not prosecuted.
The new Bill in Scotland does not completely ban fox hunting with dogs. It is still legal to hunt but with a maximum of two dogs, as opposed to a pack. A strict licensing system is set to be introduced where hunters, if successful, can be granted permission to hunt with more than two dogs for pest control purposes, and conservation-related matters. The idea is to remove the blood sport element.
The Director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland told the BBC that this system “should be extremely robust, extremely limited, and extremely rare”. Hunt saboteur groups have also announced that irrelevant of the new Bill and system, all hunts will continue to be monitored.
Voted through by 90 MSPs, there were 30 oppositions. Those on the opposition feel concerned that the new law will protect foxes but fail other, more endangered, animals. MSP Rachael Hamilton said: “This is not a simple Bill that protects animal welfare. It is a Bill that protects some animals' welfare at the expense of others”.
The Countryside Alliance mirror this view and said that they are “committed to protecting the future of hunting with hounds”. They explain that hunting with more than two dogs is necessary to ensure the preservation of livestock and farmers’ livelihoods.
Foxes are predators, and they have been known to kill livestock. Those who raise chickens often find that foxes are notorious for killing entire flocks, leaving not a trace of evidence behind. Rearing chickens is a business to make a profit. You can understand the frustration of a farmer when he loses his brood. This new Bill still fully intends to authorise humane pest control measures if a fox encroaches on your land.
Many pro-hunt groups blame the deaths of lambs and sheep on foxes, however, an investigation in 2000 that explored foxes killing livestock, found that foxes are directly responsible for less than one percent of lamb deaths. Lambs are much more likely to die from infection, dog attacks, and neglectful farmers.
Numerous members of the Conservative government express a positive view of fox hunting. In 2004 there were 318 Labour MPs that were in favour of the hunting ban, compared with just six Conservative MPs.
In 2015 the Tory government in power sought to soften the law despite 80 percent of the UK being completely opposed to fox hunting. Before withdrawing their plans, they set out to give MPs a free vote on whether to keep the ban. In 2018 the then-prime minister promised another vote on the matter, but this too was unsuccessful.
Former Prime Ministers David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson have all openly supported the relaxation of the Hunting Act; and in 2019 the now-Chancellor Jeremy Hunt put forward his wishes to revoke the ban too. This is in stark contrast to the opinions of the general public and raises the question of whether politicians are acting on behalf of personal agendas, and not on behalf of their constituents.
Jeremy Hunt claimed fox hunting is part of UK heritage. Bear baiting was also part of UK heritage before being left to history in 1835 for being inhumane. Setting a pack of dogs onto a tied-up and defenceless bear would revolt most of us today; perhaps this is how fox hunting will be viewed in the years to come.
The current government in power is not aligning its views with the will of the British public. They also failed to edit the Hunting Act and implement Mini’s Law after a petition “to ensure safety to the public and animals from hunting activity” (Petitions) received over 100,000 supporters.
Mini was a cat who was barbarically killed after an out-of-control pack of hunting dogs stormed through a residential village. The huntsman responsible was found guilty of allowing his dangerous dogs to kill Mini and was ordered to pay a fine.
Love them or loathe them, not many animals cause as much controversy as foxes. While strengthening the fox hunting ban continues to be a pressing concern for some politicians, it seems unlikely that we will see a change in the legislation under the Conservative government. The Hunting Act 2004 was established under a Labour government, and calls for it to be reinforced are most likely to come under the next Labour government, whenever that may be.
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