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Hunting Office backlash continues…

Fox hunting had always assumed it was built on solid foundations. Little wonder really. For hundreds of years the ‘nobility’ ran packs of hounds out of stately homes, killing foxes across land their families owned (or rented out to tenant farmers), supported by the national media, ‘beagling’ at some public schools (where beagle packs ‘taught’ young hunters how to work with hounds), pony clubs (clubs at one time had to be affiliated with a hunt), horse-racing (check out Racing shows its support for hunting from Horse and Hound published in 2005 just after the passing of the Hunting Act), ‘society’ magazines (nothing more glamorous than a Hunt Ball apparently), and ministers and members of both Houses of Parliament.

Fox hunting is under no such illusions nowadays. The passing of the Hunting Act 2004 – in a weakened form but still an expression of public revulsion to fox hunting – was a major step forward of course, but as important as legislation is, it’s ineffective without proper enforcement (and there is no doubt whatsoever that police forces are focussed more on hunt monitors than the wildlife crimes committed by hunts – listen to this podcast with Wiltshire Hunt Sabs for the reality).

The pro-wildlife game has changed

What has really ‘changed the game’ is the way evidence can be collected and circulated. That has put enormous pressure on hunting because there is no hiding from scores of monitors and investigators armed with cameras, drones, and social media accounts relaying information about hunts in real-time. It’s interesting to reflect that when the Act came into law in 2005 less than half of UK homes had broadband (just 9% of the UK had it by 2001), YouTube had only just launched (and Facebook the year before), and the best new camera phones were based around 2MP chips without optical zoom – the fact they used the new 3G platform was the prime selling-point (networks were hopelessly unreliable away from urban centres and sending video over a mobile phone was still years away).

Information gathering and distribution has changed enormously. Now hours of footage are collected every week and circulated across the country, and – as hunting discovered to its shock – if you know what you’re doing and are determined to root out illegality, there is no hiding on the internet either. The impacts of getting caught out plotting and lying on the internet can ricochet for years and hit absolutely anyone…

The now textbook example of that is the ongoing fallout from the ‘smokescreen webinars’ – a series of webinars given by senior hunt staff on how to use so-called ‘trail hunting’ as a smokescreen for illegal fox hunting which were leaked online by the Hunt Saboteurs Association in November 2020.

The webinars were given by the so-called Hunting Office – the bungling organisation then in charge of fox hunting. Confronted with the truth about ‘trail hunting’, the leaked webinars led to major landowning charities and public bodies like Forestry England, Natural Resources Wales and the National Trust deciding not to issue hunting licences anymore, and just last week they were joined by the Lake District National Park Authority on whose land fell packs had abused the permission to ‘trail hunt’ for years. The high profile conviction of former huntsman and Director of the Hunting Office Mark Hankinson (who featured prominently in the webinars) in October 2021 for intentionally encouraging huntsmen to use legal trail hunting as “a sham and a fiction” for the unlawful chasing and killing of animals was a sign of where things were heading.

Now the fallout has flattened the Hunting Office itself.

In December 2021, a clearly ticked-off Andrew Osborne, the current Chairman of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) and a man described by the pro-hunt lobby group Countryside Alliance as ‘a hunting man to his bones’, announced a review of hunting. In a desperate rearranging of the deckchairs, earlier this week Osborne unceremoniously stripped the Hunting Office of most of its responsibilities and, to quote from a press release he sent out, proposed a “new representative body responsible for the governance of hunts and hunting to be called the British Hound Sports Association (BHSA). The British Hound Sports Association (BHSA) will be responsible for the governance of all hound sports undertaken by recognised hunts and will focus on standards, viability and sustainability.”

Desperately fiddling about on the edges of foxhunting to prop up an illegal ‘sport’ loathed by more than 80% of the public might not seem particularly noteworthy, but to go right back to those ‘solid foundations’ again, it is worth noting that the first (and therefore new) Chair of this organisation proposed by Osborne to spruce up foxhunting’s image will be William, Viscount Astor – a Conservative hereditary member of the House of Lords, a former Master and Chairman of the Oxfordshire-based Old Berks Hunt, and Samantha Cameron’s stepfather.

Those of us with long memories may remember David Cameron sending a text after the 2015 election to hunters thanking them for their work persuading voters to back him, efforts secured by promising a repeal of the Hunting Act in return. The ‘flooding of constituencies’ by hunters was organised by Vote-OK, an organisation set up to get more pro-hunt MPs into Parliament. In 2015 the Chair of Vote-OK…was Astor.

To tie all of this undemocratic mess together even further, a 2020 press release from the MFHA and placed online by Hunting Leaks says about Vote-OK that “The Chairman [Andrew Osborne] was concerned about allowing Vote OK to die as it had been very hard to resuscitate it in the past. He proposed that if the MFHA, the CA, and William Aster (sic) would each contribute £6K it would allow the database and essentials to tick over.”

It is quite amusing that the Hunting Office has been torched by its own ineptness, but not remotely amusing that a serving hereditary peer with a long history of foxhunting and a determination to overturn the Hunting Act is taking charge of the resultant ashes. How can this appointment be sold in any way other than as undemocratic and fundamentally going against the wishes of the vast majority of the public who want the Hunting Act enforced properly and illegal hunting stopped in its tracks?

 

Foxhunting is imploding

There is little doubt, though, that foxhunting will continue to implode regardless of how hunting scrabbles about and uses well-placed members to try and sell a new vision of itself to the public. It is underpinned by illegality and a new organisation can’t control the enormous amount of reporting that reaches the internet every week. No one has been able to stop hunting’s bottom dwellers (terrier-men like Paul O’Shea secretly filmed pitchforking a fox last year and Christopher Barker convicted of driving a speedboat at a pod of dolphins) from wreaking havoc on behalf of hunts, and their role in killing animals and blocking badger setts as well as intimidating pro-wildlife supporters is increasingly splashed across national media. There will be growing pressure on police forces during the next hunting ‘season’ to enforce the law rather than turn a blind eye to the crimes that hunts commit (everything from illegal hunting and assault of monitors and sabs to traffic violations and out-of-control hounds killing pets). And land will continue to be taken away from hunts causing them to collapse, as a member of the Powys-based Tanatside Hunt acknowledged when they folded recently.

Fox hunting is being squeezed from all sides. Organisations like the aforementioned Hunt Sabs Association are backed up by newer, social media-savvy groups with tremendous reach like Protect the Wild and a multitude of activists on eg Twitter and Facebook. The weight of evidence being collected and circulated will bury illegal hunting, despite rebranding exercises and the best efforts of pro-hunt MPs.

And all of us can help keep that pressure on. Not everyone is convinced yet – in fact not everyone is even aware that illegal hunting still takes place. So, please, share everything, move information around your circles, keep talking about how hunting is supported right inside Parliament by unelected peers, and help add hunting itself to the wreckage of the ‘smokescreen webinars’.