GOOD NEWS: Avon Vale Hunt bites the bullet

Following publication of video showing members of the Avon Vale Hunt digging out a fox, hunting’s governing body has ‘permanently expelled’ its key members.

On 8 February, the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) and ITV News published mobile phone footage showing several members of the Avon Vale Hunt involved in the dig out of two foxes. This is an illegal activity under the Hunting Act. While Wiltshire Police confirmed it is investigating the incident, the hunt has faced immediate repercussions from a different side.

The British Hound Sports Association (BHSA) was set up in June 2022 to succeed the Hunting Office as a governing body for the hunting industry. That means, amongst other responsibilities, it makes decisions over what hunts are affiliated with the industry’s infrastructure, including mutually agreed hunt countries and insurance coverage. The BHSA’s maiden statement also committed itself to overseeing the “regulation and disciplinary matters” of hunts through the allegedly “separate” Hound Sports Regulatory Authority (HSRA). It was bound, then, by its own desire for legitimacy to recall the Avon Vale Hunt following the dig out video’s publication.

Following a closed-doors panel that met with the Avon Vale Hunt on 9 February, the BHSA said the HSRA:

“found that on the balance of probabilities the evidence revealed serious breaches of the Core Principles and Rules of the BHSA.”

As a result, the BHSA decided to:

“permanently expel the Hunt and its Masters, Huntsman and Kennel Huntsman from membership of the BHSA.”

It also notes that, because of its expulsion from the governing body, the Avon Vale Hunt “in all probability… would no longer be able to function”.

No choice but to make an example

A series of very despicable events have plagued the BHSA since its formation. In August 2022, for example, it was front and centre following publication of footage showing the Seavington Foxhounds hunting a bagged fox. And in October, it was under the spotlight following hounds from the Dunston Harriers killed by a train. Then, in December, it had to deal with the conviction of prominent huntsman Ollie Finnegan after police found a trove of messages on his phone admitting to illegal hunting. Finally, in January 2023, the BHSA faced even further publicity problems as armed police and the RSPCA raided properties belonging to hunt terrierman, including a hunt kennels.

Ollie Finnegan
Ollie Finnegan on his way to court, via ITV News.

Following this string of bad publicity, the Avon Vale Hunt’s footage couldn’t have come at a worse time for the governing body. It had managed to wash its hands of every previous event, even permitting habitual criminal Finnegan to simply move to another hunt. But the egregious display of hunting portrayed in the Avon Vale Hunt video was too much for the BHSA to ignore. It really had no choice but to make an example of the hunt, though one might question its phrasing of “the balance of probabilities” given the video’s clear portrayal of a dig out. Though even in these outrageous circumstances, the body appears reluctant to condemn a hunt.

Pirate packs

As Protect the Wild previously reported, the Avon Vale Hunt has a history of unscrupulous behaviour. The question of what happens next for the hunt and its hounds remains up in the air. While the BHSA said the hunt would “in all probability” no longer function, that’s not a guarantee. It’s possible for hunts to exist outside the boundaries of the governing body.

The most notable example of this is the Fitzwilliam Hunt, but there are several others across the country. One such so-called ‘pirate pack’, the Cheldon Buckhounds, gained some notoriety after its followers assaulted hunt sabs in May 2016. East Kent Sabs highlighted another one in February 2017, the North Downs Harriers. And even hunting industry magazine Horse & Hound wrote dismissively about such hunts operating in Wales, quoting one former hunt master as saying pirate packs give ‘legitimate’ hunts a “bad name”.

Hunt saboteur's face covered in blood after an attack by followers of the Cheldon Buckhounds
Hunt saboteur following attack by followers of the Cheldon Buckhounds, via Bristol Hunt Saboteurs.

The Avon Vale Hunt could, therefore, theoretically continue despite its expulsion from the BHSA. Especially given that it appears to have a strong base of support locally, both financially and through its connections to policing. However, the immediate withdrawal of the Beds & Bucks Draghounds from the Avon Vale Hunt’s kennels, an arrangement that would have provided the hunt a substantial portion of its income, suggests this would make it hard. Furthermore, as ITV News reporter Rupert Evelyn pointed out, it’s unlikely that many if any landowners will now permit the hunt to use their land. Section 3 of the Hunting Act makes landowners liable for illegal hunting taking place on their property.

“Ultimate downfall”

The Avon Vale Hunt ultimately finished itself off through its own hubris. However, it’s important to note that the hunt was regularly sabbed. The work of Wiltshire Hunt Saboteurs in particular, which has tackled the Avon Vale Hunt season after season, battered the hunt into a corner so that this video came as a knockout blow.

Following the public announcement that the BHSA had expelled the Avon Vale Hunt, Wiltshire Hunt Saboteurs said:

“May their arrogance in sharing and boasting about their disgusting double kill be the ultimate downfall of all “trail” hunting.

“RIP to those two beautiful innocent foxes, and to all the Wiltshire wildlife that has suffered as a result of these disgusting people for decades.”

While the noose has tightened around one hunt’s neck, the struggle contines to finish the hunting industry off altogether. Though the BHSA has attempted to portray this incident as a one-off, decades of experience in the fields by sabs and monitors has revealed this behaviour as the norm for hunts across the country. But hopefully, if the story of the Avon Vale Hunt is anything to go by, the endpoint for them all is getting closer by the week.

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