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Ten reasons why 2023 was a good year for wildlife

For those of us who love wildlife, it is easy to fall into despair when we read reports of foxes being killed and birds of prey being poisoned. Many of us will need a reminder that positive events happened in 2023! As the year comes to a close, we give ten reasons why this was actually a great year for the UK’s wild animals.

 

1. Scotland banned hunting with dogs

The most positive news came at the beginning of the year, when the Scottish government passed legislation properly banning hunting with dogs. The Hunting With Dogs (Scotland) Bill was passed in January, and it became an Act on 7 March. The law could actually be enforced from 3 October.

The Act makes it illegal to flush out a wild animal with more than two dogs, effectively ending hunting with hounds as we know it. Campaigners described the passing of the law as a “landmark moment”. The Act also ensures that loopholes, such as trail hunting, can’t be used by hunts to evade the law.

Because of this change of legislation, we can all envision an end to hunting in the country once and for all. And now it’s over to the police: all eyes will be on Scotland’s police forces in 2024. We will all be holding them to account to actually enforce the ban.

 

 

 

2. Wales banned snares, and Scotland is set to follow

On 27 June, the Welsh Senedd unanimously agreed to pass the Agriculture (Wales) Bill. The ban finally came into force on 17 October. The new law bans all snares and glue traps. Anyone caught using a snare could face an unlimited fine, prison, or both.

There were attempts to water down the anti-snare legislation, but Welsh politicians refused to bow to lobbyists from the shooting industry. Snares are used by gamekeepers on shooting estates in a cruel and misguided attempt to protect birds – who are going to be murdered for sport – from predators.

Scotland, too, is pushing ahead with a change in the law that will fully ban snares. As we previously reported, the shooting industry had been lobbying hard so that it could continue using the torture devices. But the Scottish government has proved once again that it won’t be bullied by those who get their kicks out of terrorising wildlife.

 

 

3. The Northern Ireland badger cull was quashed

On 25 October, Wild Justice and the Northern Ireland Badger Group (NIBG) announced that they had won a judicial review, stopping the proposed badger cull in Northern Ireland.

The press release from their solicitors, Leigh Day, stated at the time:

“In a judgement handed down in Belfast this morning, Wednesday 25 October 2023, it was ruled that the 2021 consultation into the decision to allow the cull of up to 4,000 badgers a year was so fundamentally flawed as to be unlawful. Therefore, the resulting decision to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis (bTB) by allowing farmer-led groups to shoot free-roaming badgers with rifles was also unlawful and the policy has been quashed.”

 

 

alex warden avon vale

4. The nation witnessed the downfall of the Avon Vale Hunt

In February 2023, the UK’s most notorious hunt, the Avon Vale, was permanently expelled from the British Hound Sports Association. The so-called ‘governing body’ of hunting with hounds had previously suspended the hunt after gruesome footage made nationwide news. The video showed hunt members digging out two foxes. Hunt sabs said at the time that this was “the end of the Avon Vale as they exist.”

We spoke to Wiltshire Hunt Sabs when news of the Avon Vale’s expulsion became public. The sabs told us:

“Good riddance to the Avon Vale Hunt, one of the most violent and prolific fox hunts, which has enjoyed the protection of our local police and politicians alike for too long now. Sabs from Wiltshire, Bath, Reading and Bristol have sabbed this hunt for years, and Wiltshire and Bath sabs in particular have campaigned off the field as well as sabbed them on it. Undoubtedly had it not been for the constant pressure and publicity generated by our collective sab groups, this hunt could well have survived this controversy. We take delight in the downfall of these scummy bastards and our role in it.”

Hunt saboteurs aren’t too worried about the Avon Vale continuing as an unregistered pack. In order to hunt in the future, the Avon Vale will be reliant on the generosity and cooperation of a number of people, including those who finance them and those who give them land to hunt on. The sabs feel that none of these people are likely to risk their reputations in order to help the hunt.

 

 

Kent Hounds fox hunting cruelty

5. Fox hunting in Kent was dealt a fatal blow

2023 was a really terrible year for fox hunters in Kent! On 18 January 2023, the police, in conjunction with the RSPCA, raided a number of terriermen’s properties in Kent in an operation called Operation Aurora. Four men were arrested that day in relation to animal welfare and wildlife offences. In addition to the arrests, ten terriers and lurchers were seized.

Also this year, we saw a significant amalgamation of hunts in Kent, so there is now only one fox hunting pack – known as Kent Hounds – in the county.

Since the amalgamation, two Kent Hounds terriermen appeared in court in relation to the raids. Robert Mills and Jack Mills pleaded guilty to two counts of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal. During the raid, the police and the RSPCA discovered dogs with horrific injuries. After the guilty verdict, West Kent Sabs wrote:

“We are learning of a deepening crisis at the Kent Hounds! Our source inside the hunt has let us know that the hunt is haemorrhaging support as a result of the news last week that two terrier men from the hunt were convicted of horrific animal abuse.
With more members of the hunt due in court in the new year, several landowners have already suggested the hunt won’t ever be allowed back.”

Time is ticking on Kent’s hunting industry!

 

 

6. Our community saved badgers!

In the summer, Protect the Wild heard about the plight of badgers in Saltdean, East Sussex. Debbie Julians and her neighbours were desperately trying to save a piece of land – home to a thriving badger sett, as well as foxes and slow worms – from property developers. For four and a half years, the Saltdean community had been working together to try to purchase the plot which sits between their houses. Time was running out for them, and the land was due to be put up for auction.

Protect the Wild raised awareness of the campaign, and asked our readers to help. You responded quickly, and in no time Debbie and the Saltdean community had raised enough money to purchase the land themselves. Because of your generosity, a badger sett was saved.

Debbie told us:

“A big thank you to everyone who donated. It exceeded everything we dreamt of. We are humbly pleased. It puts faith back in human nature. We had people donating all the way from Ontario, Canada, and people donating hundreds. There were people saying, “sorry I can’t pay any more”, but every little bit was much appreciated. We reached more than our target amount. The extra money will go towards cleaning up the field to make sure that the badgers, foxes and other wildlife will be happy.”

 

 

The Secret Monitor

7. 2023 saw a raising awareness of stag hunting

For years, wildlife monitors have been monitoring and filming stag hunters in the southwest of England as they terrorise stags and hinds. Despite years of gruesome footage, there has been very little awareness in the public consciousness. But this year, there was a shift, and stag hunting finally became a mainstream issue.

2023 has seen Channel 4 starting to cover news on hunting issues. In September, the channel reported on the actions of the Quantock Stag Hounds. The exposé would have shaken the stag hunting industry: after all, the channel has a very large reach.

And from September to December, Protect the Wild published a series of articles by a secret monitor, who shone a more detailed light on the southwest’s own version of trophy hunting. The monitor detailed more about the extreme cruelty of stag hunting, as well as the violence of its depraved supporters. The anonymous person also went into detail about the farms and companies complicit in murdering stags.

Hunt saboteurs on the ground have also been responsible for raising awareness of stag hunting. Dorset Hunt Sabs, in particular, have reported and filmed Quantock Stag Hounds meets, and have deliberately put their bodies in the way to protect the animals.

 

 

Chris Woodward when he was huntsman with the Wynnstay Hunt
Chris Woodward when he was huntsman with the Wynnstay Hunt

8. There was an increase in hunting convictions

Gone are the days when hunters get away with their crimes with impunity. 2023 saw a number of high-profile prosecutions and convictions. Some were convicted of Hunting Act crimes, some for interfering with badger setts, and others for violent acts towards hunt saboteurs and monitors.

The more high profile convictions include that of two ex-members of the Avon Vale Hunt – Aaron Fookes and Stuart Radbourne – who pleaded guilty in July to illegal hunting after footage of the dig out shocked the nation.

In August, ex-Cheshire huntsman Ollie Finnegan was due to stand trial, charged with two counts of illegal hunting. He didn’t show up to court, and was found guilty in his absence. He was convicted of illegal hunting three times in less than a year.

And in December, a court found the Wynnstay Hunt’s notorious ex-huntsman Chris Woodward guilty under the Hunting Act. Woodward, too, was convicted of three hunting-related offences this year. In August, Woodward pleaded guilty to interfering with a badger sett. And in July he pleaded guilty to causing intentional harassment, alarm or distress, an offence under the Public Order Act. The hunter rode his horse at a Cheshire (Borderland) Monitors volunteer.

The most significant conviction was that of Chris Mardles, former whipper-in of the Pytchley with Woodland Hunt. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison in November after pleading guilty to grievous bodily harm for trampling a hunt saboteur with his horse. The saboteur suffered life-threatening injuries and was airlifted to hospital from the scene. He had a collapsed lung, six broken ribs, a broken collar bone and a shattered shoulder blade. Northants Hunt Saboteurs said of the sentencing: “This is a historic moment in the war to end fox hunting.”

 

 

9. Land owners banned grouse shooting

In 2023, we saw large UK land owners making their stance clear on grouse shooting. In August, Scottish Water stated that it would issue no new leases on its estate. The company owns 55,000 acres of land in the country, so this is, potentially, a significant loss to the shooting industry.

The move came after other land owners, such as the National Trust, also banned grouse shooting in some areas over the border in England. In March, the Trust banned the blood sport from 1,600 acres of its land in the Peak District. And in July, United Utilities, which is the largest corporate landowner in England, announced that it won’t renew any grouse shooting licences when they expire.

10. A LOT of hunts collapsed or merged in 2023

In January, we saw the preemptive effects of the new Scottish anti-hunting legislation. In January, news came in that the Fife Foxhounds was to fold after 267 years. And in March, Lanarkshire & Renfrewshire Foxhounds folded too.

There was good news in England, too. In January, the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) shared news that the Airedale Beagles was disbanding. Beagling is hare hunting with hounds carried out on foot. And then in February, the British Hound Sports Association permanently expelled the Avon Vale Hunt, meaning that the pack was no longer free to terrorise foxes. In March, news came in that the Meynell and South Staffordshire Hunt was folding. And in August, North London Hunt Saboteurs said it had visited the kennels of the East Essex Hunt and found the property abandoned.

And then there were also hunt amalgamations in England. Each merger is a sure sign that the hunting industry is struggling. In April, the HSA said that the Ilminster Beagles and West Somerset Beagles would merge for the coming season. The new pack was to take the name Ilminster & West Somerset Beagles. In July, hunt saboteurs in Kent celebrated the news that there would only be one hunt left – the newly named Kent Foxhounds – in the county for the 2023/24 fox hunting season. The Puckeridge also merged with the Essex with Farmers and Union for the 2023/2024 season, becoming the new Puckeridge and Essex Union Hunt.

In July, hunt saboteurs in Northern Ireland celebrated as news came in that County Down Staghounds was disbanding. In Wales, the Llandeilo Farmers Hunt announced its closure in August. And in December, South Wales Hunt Saboteurs announced that the Caerphilly and District Hunt is folding.

So, yes, while it sometimes feels that we’re making little progress, in fact we really are. With a general election coming up and the potential to remove a government that has shown time and time again that it cares almost nothing about wildlife, the environment, or the climate, our next ‘end of year’ round-up could be something special indeed.

In the meantime, what we have here shows that hunting is on its knees, the grouse shooting industry is reeling, and that in our wonderful supporters we are – together – building a community that genuinely cares.

Thank you for coming with us on this journey and let’s make 2024 a year to remember!