Andy Knott MBE is Chief Executive Officer of the League Against Cruel Sports. This is a sponsored post by the League Against Cruel Sports.
Few things divide the nation like hunting.
It’s odd, because there are far fewer foxes than people and not many of those go hunting. Nor are most people, principally concerned with just getting by, around to see this increasingly secretive blood ‘sport’ take place.
There’s also a lot else to worry about right now. Foxes don’t fill our petrol tanks, spread Covid-19, or stop us getting to hospital by blocking the motorway.
Nor do they determine the price of gas or whether we have a border across the Irish Sea. The deliberate hunting of wild mammals was made illegal with the passing of the Hunting Act 2004. So why the fuss?
A senior huntsman has just been found guilty of encouraging more than half the registered hunting packs in England and Wales to break the law. Could it be that we are sick and tired of hunters chasing foxes around our countryside for fun, whilst sticking two fingers up to the rest of us?
That’s why it matters: The public want laws that work and politicians who understand what is important to them. They want their views to count as much as their neighbours’. Tearing Mr Fox to pieces with a pack of hounds, for most right-minded people, is not a noble activity or one they can easily identify with.
Supporting those that do hunt, or turning a blind eye to it, is not a good look. It’s about behaviours, good old-fashioned example setting, fairness and trust.
This may explain why hunting a fox attracts such strongly held views where cruelty to others, often more cuddly creatures, do not.
Just ask Theresa May. Her 2017 general election pledge to allow a free vote to repeal the Hunting Act landed on the wrong side of the public mood, and with it went her majority. Good or bad, that affected us all. Boris Johnson didn’t make the same mistake, pledging not to repeal the Hunting Act in his 2019 manifesto. But neither did he commit to strengthening the law, sieve-like as it is with its nine exemptions. By doing nothing could both sides of the hunting divide claim a win?
No. The recent conviction of Mark Hankinson, Director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) at Westminster Magistrates court, for encouraging or assisting others to commit an offence under the Hunting Act 2004, contrary to Section 44 of the Serious Crimes Act 2007, exposed the truth.
The now infamous Hunting Office webinars that brought this deceit to our collective attention promise to change the dynamic on hunting forever. With more than half of the 200 registered hunts in the country attending, we learned from Hankinson that ‘trail’ hunting, the supposed laying of a scent on a pre-planned trail, is really just a “smokescreen”.
According to him it’s only done in order to “portray to the people watching that you’re going about legitimate business.” Perceptions matter. For nearly two decades hunting has been alive and kicking, unlike many a fox. It is telling that not one of those attending the webinars seemed to blink an eyelid at being incited to break the law.
Hankinson and others on the webinars talk about exemptions to the act allowing them to hunt wild mammals with impunity, in one instance calling them a “terribly good wheeze”. Elsewhere they note that terrier men – men on quad bikes who, in the bad old days, would dig foxes out of their earths, or stop up their escape routes to enable a ‘better’ hunt – are their “soft underbelly”, because why would they be needed if all the hounds were doing was chasing a smelly rag?
When talking about how hunters can avoid arrest, retired Chief Inspector Phil Davies, the Countryside Alliance’s police liaison officer, chimes in with advice on how to “create that smokescreen, or that element of doubt, that we haven’t deliberately hunted a fox”. It’s not hard to see hunting as a metaphor for the various other divides, injustices and inequities voters often perceive in the ‘system’.
Hankinson and his pals have pulled off what their opponents have often struggled to do: they have exposed the Hunting Act 2004 as one of the finest examples of political ‘have your cake and eat it’ dishes ever served up for public consumption. No difficult binary ‘in or out’ ‘jab or no jab’ decisions for us to make here. Rather, we were asked to believe that hunting wild mammals had stopped – banned – whilst the hunters were allowed to go about their business as normal.
Politicians past and present could reasonably claim to have pulled off that rare trick of satisfying both sides for so long. As with most things that seemed too good to be true, it wasn’t.
The Hunting Office revelations now present this country with the opportunity to properly end hunting; just as the public were promised in 2004. Major landowners, awaiting the verdict of this trial to determine whether to replace their current suspensions of hunting on their land with permanent bans, are set to lead the way on an area covering nearly 2.5 million acres in total.
One such is the National Trust, which votes on such a motion at its annual meeting on October 30. The largest membership organisation in the country, you might say this is a de facto mini referendum on trail hunting in this country. Other smaller landowners, including local councils, are considering following suit if they have not done so already. Those managing vast tracts of land such as Ministry of Defence can – and should – easily follow.
The Government now has the opportunity to strengthen the Hunting Act and in doing so bank some trust before the next general election. It’s a chance to unite.