If foxhunting is banned why does it still take place?

If foxhunting is banned why does it still take place?

Fox hunting in England and Wales was banned by Parliament when MPs passed the Hunting Act 2004. More precisely, all hunting of wild mammals with dogs was banned – including foxes. The Act came into force on the 18th of February 2005, so hunts were given until the end of the then-current 2004/05 ‘season’ to hunt foxes legally before being expected to pack up during the spring and summer.

Of course, that’s not what has happened. There are still several hundred packs going out hunting, often three times a week. Foxes are still being killed. It’s all a bit confusing, as regular questions on social media attest: if fox hunting is banned, why does it still take place – and how can we stop it?

Only hunters themselves can honestly answer why – eighteen years after it was made illegal – they still enjoy days out chasing an animal not much bigger than a well-fed house cat with a pack of hounds. At the root though is a deep sense of entitlement and enablement. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be stopped for good.


First off, it helps if we understand the history of fox hunting.

The fox has unfairly been labelled a ‘pest’ by some farmers and other landowners and ‘hunted’ for centuries, but traditional foxhunting as most of us would recognise it began in the seventeenth century, becoming properly organised in 1753 when a young landowner began to hunt to a system with his own specially-bred pack of hounds. Rules, associations, and uniforms followed, and chasing wild animals on thoroughbreds at a time when many rural people couldn’t afford to eat properly became deeply embedded into the culture of some hugely wealthy landowners and aristocrats. The hunt morphed into a social occasion to flaunt connections, wealth, and influence. Whether all hunters enjoyed ‘the hunt’ or not was no longer the point: being there and being seen was.

Foxhunters were people whose everyday experiences were of privilege, of never being told ‘no’, of untouchability. Britain is vastly different now of course, but to some extent the insulated lives of the fox hunting elite didn’t change all that much over the years. They still went to Eton or Gordonstoun, still had a powerful presence in the House of Lords, the judiciary, and industry, and still had enormous influence in rural areas (owning many of the major local businesses) seeing themselves as the only people who really understood how the countryside worked and how it should be controlled.

Moves to ban fox hunting began semi-earnestly after the Second World War, but the animal rights movement was still in its infancy and the idea that animals were sentient was still decades away. A more serious challenge to hunting began in 1998 when Labour’s Michael Foster put forward a bill to ban hunting with dogs. The Conservative opposition blocked its progress. Hunting had always been able to brush away concerns or moves to legislate against it easily enough. They would surely do it again.

Imagine then hunting’s sense of disbelief and outrage waking up one November day six years later and being told that fox hunting was banned! You could still gather with your colleagues, wear your uniforms, ride your horses, or make a bloody nuisance of yourself charging around the countryside like you owned it (and in many cases you did) – but the point of fox hunting is right there in the name…

That bomb on hunting was only dropped eighteen years ago – a fraction of the time that hunts had been doing essentially what they wanted, where they wanted. Foxhunting has been around a lot longer than the ban on it, and many of those hunting in 2004 are still young enough to hunt now. They believe hunting is their right, they certainly don’t like being told what to do by ‘lefty extremists’ who ‘don’t actually like animals’, and pro-hunting lobbyists still encourage the idea that the Hunting Act is about class not wildlife (no, it’s definitely about the animals) and about imposing ‘townie’ views on ‘rural communities’ (never mind the fact that polling shows that opposition to fox hunting is consistent no matter where you live).

  • If it’s banned why does foxhunting still take place? Foxhunters believe it is their ‘heritage’ to hunt and that no-one has the right to tell them what they can and cannot do.



Why aren’t there more prosecutions?

The Hunting Act is an important piece of legislation (there were over 497 successful prosecutions under the Hunting Act from 2005 to 2018), but considering how many hunts are active and how often they are recorded by sabs and monitors breaching the Hunting Act, there should be more prosecutions surely?

There aren’t, not because – as lobbyists for hunting try to suggest – the Hunting Act is not worth the paper it’s written on, but because of two issues in particular: alleged police bias, and the number of loopholes written into the Hunting Act.

Police bias is difficult to prove definitively. Sabs and monitors, though, are increasingly providing credible reports that the police are watching them at hunts and not the hunters. Given that monitors are only on-site to protect animals and see that the Hunting Act isn’t being broken, why should that be? Apart from some officers having inherent support for fox hunting, the way the Act is written – combined with the exemptions that were inserted into it as it made its way through the House of Lords – pre-supposes that fox hunters are acting within the law, and therefore any attempt by monitors to stop what many police understand to be a ‘lawful activity’ needs to be controlled.

Am I being too soft on the police here? Clearly there is targeting of monitors to protect hunts, and that in effect the police are acting as private security for hunters, The police should be expected to use some common sense and recognise what is going on at hunts, but just to be fair I also believe that in some cases the way the Act is currently framed makes it almost inevitable – or certainly gives biased police all the excuses they need to favour the hunts.

The terms of the Act also puts the evidential bar to prove illegal hunting extremely high. While it shouldn’t somehow be ‘easier’ to convict fox hunters just because we don’t like foxhunting, it is notoriously difficult to prove that hunters are breaking the law.

To make an arrest and get a conviction police need to be sure and prosecutors need to prove that: an animal was actually hunted (‘searching’ for an animal, according to a 2009 High Court Judgement, is not ‘hunting’); hunters knowingly engaged in illegal hunting and the hunting was provably ‘intentional’; that the hunting wasn’t exempted – for example, that they weren’t ‘trail hunting’ (following a pre-laid artificial scent).

Without adequate documentation (video showing a specified animal being hunted for example), hunts often claim that there is no evidence that their dogs were chasing a wild mammal. That doesn’t mean they weren’t of course – and innumerable accounts show that they were – but it’s difficult to prove otherwise.

Police and prosecutors also need to prove ‘intent’. It may seem obvious to us that a fox hunt going out with hounds, terriermen, and a pack of supporters is hunting, but did they intentionally leave the kennels or meeting place to hunt a fox? According to the same High Court Judgement referred to earlier, the accidental or inadvertent hunting of a wild mammal with one or more dogs is not an offence under the Act.

This is where the major loophole of so-called ‘trail hunting’ comes in especially useful. Under the law, it is a defence for a person under the Hunting Act to claim that they ‘reasonably believed’ that the hunting was exempt. The Act is (deliberately?) complex and while (because it is so contentious) in theory everyone who hunts should know the law inside-out, it’s easy enough to claim they thought that they were hunting legally by ‘trail hunting’.

So-called ‘trail hunting’ did not exist before the Hunting Act 2004. It was introduced by hunts so that they could maintain the structures of hunting while they worked for repeal of the Act, but hunts now routinely claim to be ‘trail hunting’. In reality, trails are very, very rarely seen to be laid, and if they are – and if hunts are to be believed and their hounds are actually sticking to pre-laid scent trails – they appear to have been laid across main roads, along railway lines, or (more pertinently) through wooded areas where foxes are known to live.

‘Trail hunting’ is a ‘smokescreen’ for illegal hunting (as was proved by the court appearance of former huntsman and Director of the Hunting Office Mark Hankinson in October 2021 for intentionally encouraging huntsmen in a series of leaked webinars to use trail hunting as a cover for fox hunting), but it has been very difficult to prove that a trail wasn’t laid, that hunters didn’t assume that one had been laid, that hounds didn’t stray off the trail when they caught the scent of a fox leading to the riders ‘accidentally’ hunting, or even that a fox was definitely caught and killed while out ‘trail hunting’ anyway (kills take place away from public view as much as possible and hunts will quickly take away any corpses to make confirmation of a kill even harder).

This is changing, not only because of the acknowledgement of the court in the Hankinson case that ‘trail hunting’ is “a sham and a fiction” but also because of the way evidence can now be collected and circulated. This has put enormous pressure on hunting because there is no hiding now from scores of monitors and investigators armed with cameras, drones, and social media accounts relaying information about hunts in real-time.

In the meantime though, while anyone who believes that an offence has taken place during a hunt (including during a ‘trail hunt’) should still report the matter to the police, it remains the fact that proving that the law has been broken – either in the field or in court – is very difficult indeed and as a result the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) have been reluctant to take cases to court.

  • If it’s banned why does foxhunting still take place? Because hunters enjoy it, they believe it’s their right to hunt, and they know that even if they break the law it is so difficult to prove it is unlikely they will be arrested or convicted.



Laws can be changed or repealed.

There is another very important factor to take into consideration when asking ‘Why does fox hunting still take place?’, and that is that laws can be changed or even repealed.

While historically the monarchy and even the church could create laws, these days laws are made by Parliament. They can be interpreted by judges (and in some cases the rulings they make will incidentally change law) but primary legislation like the Hunting Act is “a Bill that has been approved by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords and been given Royal Assent by the Monarch”.

Conversely, Parliamentary committees can examine UK laws and recommend the removal of legislation – in other words, repeal.

While we would all hope that MPs act without ‘fear or favour’, the truth of course is that like all of us MPs believe in some things and don’t believe in others. Depending on the make-up of Parliament there may be a majority that believes in animal welfare – or there may be a pro-hunting majority, supported by lobby groups like the Countryside Alliance, who are working to remove protection from foxes by repealing the Hunting Act.

Since the Act was passed, hunting has always been confident that MPs would repeal it again, especially when the Conservatives are in power. After all, Tory election manifesto after manifesto has expressly said that’s what would happen if they were elected (more accurately they promised a free vote in parliament on the understanding that to appease rural voters Conservative MPs would vote for repeal). It’s worth noting that Liz Truss, then Secretary of State for the Environment, said in a parliamentary debate on the Hunting Act in 2015 that she thought “the Hunting Act was a mistake”, and strongly supported its repeal. [LINK]

That hasn’t happened. What hunting forgot to take into account is that while some MPs might want nothing more than to chase a terrified animal across their family estates again, they want even more to be elected again. And a huge majority of the public has repeatedly made it known that they do not want the Act repealed.

This tension between repeal and re-election really came to the fore in the lead-up to the 2017 General Election, when then-Prime Minister Theresa May was asked at an election hustings about foxhunting. She replied that she was personally in favour of fox hunting and would allow a free vote. This came just weeks after a leaked email appeared in which Lord Mancroft (a Tory Peer active in the House of Lords and chair of the Council of Hunting Associations), had claimed that a Conservative landslide in the general election would result in repeal.

The backlash was extraordinary. Support for foxhunting was listed as one of the main reasons voters turned against the ‘nasty party’, and by January the following year, May had pledged to drop the commitment to a free vote saying that while she had “not changed” her personal view on hunting “If I look back at the messages that we got from the election, one of the clear messages we got is that there are a number of areas in which people were concerned about what we were proposing”. Had those ‘messages’ come from urban, Labour voting constituencies they may well have been ignored, but they had also poured in from rural constituencies.

Hunting might have been discouraged, but worse was to come for them when in 2019 Boris Johnson’s election manifesto – for the first time since the Act was passed – didn’t promise repeal, saying instead “we will make no changes to the Hunting Act. That was the statement in full, and the bold highlight was from the manifesto. This meant the Act also wouldn’t be strengthened and the exemptions removed, of course, meaning fox hunting could effectively continue as before, but hunting was apoplectic.

As a campaigner, I completely understand why someone would work to change a law they don’t like, but campaigning FOR animal cruelty is not an easy sell. Foxhunting is now acknowledged as a ‘toxic issue’ with voters, and MPs are increasingly reluctant to bring it up at all.

However, this doesn’t mean that repeal won’t or can’t ever happen, and fox hunting still has some very well-placed politicians. Conservative MPs recently sunk two petitions to curb fox hunting, and in the middle of this month the Chair of a new organisation to spruce up foxhunting’s image was proposed: William, Viscount Astor – a former Master and Chairman of the Oxfordshire-based Old Berks Hunt, Samantha Cameron’s stepfather…and a Conservative hereditary member of the House of Lords.

  • If it’s banned why does foxhunting still take place? Hunters enjoy it, they believe it’s their right, it’s very difficult to be convicted of illegal hunting, and they have always believed that they can overturn and repeal the Hunting Act anyway.



Foxhunting foundations still in place

So hunters themselves have an enormous sense of entitlement, feel aggrieved that anyone should dare to tell them what to do, and were handed enough exemptions to enable them to keep hunting while they worked for repeal of the Hunting Act 2004.

It’s also worth noting that while hunts are increasingly isolated and under intense scrutiny, hunting was ‘normalised’ a very long time ago and the foundations of foxhunting are still to be properly dismantled.

  • While major landowning charities and public bodies like Forestry England, Natural Resources Wales and the National Trust have stopped issuing licences for ‘trail hunting’, some farmers still allow hunts access to their land in the belief that foxes ‘need’ controlling and because hunts take ‘fallen livestock’ to feed their hounds (saving farmers the cost of official safe disposal – and helping spread disease including BovineTb).
  • Pro-hunt commentators are still given space to muddy the waters in national media, and those media themselves still talk about the Hunting Act as being ‘controversial’.
  • Businesses (especially hotels and pubs) still allow hunts to meet on their premises.
  • Most pony clubs are still closely affiliated with their local hunt (a strategy designed to ensure that riders get to ‘experience’ a version of hunting at a young age).
  • Hunts are still given the opportunity to sell themselves at country fairs and horse racing festivals.
  • And of course some councils still allow the traditional ‘Boxing Day’ parades (despite these now becoming increasingly violent as hunt followers lash out at protestors).



What can we do?

So what can we do to ensure that hunts finally shut down and our wildlife (the Hunting Act doesn’t just cover hunting foxes with dogs but all wild mammals) is no longer hunted by them? (By the way, I’m going to use ‘we’ here to answer that question – I know ‘we’ don’t all feel the same way or want to do things in the same way, but please excuse a little generalised grouping: this post is long enough already without having to find ways to include absolutely every pro-wildlife viewpoint).

Firstly, relying solely on the Hunting Act is risky – laws can be repealed. Then again politicians won’t repeal the Act if they continue to understand that they will lose votes if they even go near it. We need to continue to work with animal-friendly MPs of course, and while recognising that hunting isn’t a priority for most voters we need to remind them that cruelty to animals is. Hunting has to remain a ‘toxic issue’.

We need to keep working to improve the image of the fox. They are intelligent animals doing their best to survive in increasingly depleted or urbanised landscapes. Hunters still try to portray us as having a ‘Disneyfied’ view of foxes, but that’s simply not true. We’re fully aware that foxes aren’t ‘cuddly’, but neither are they ‘vermin’ and it’s only extractive industries like shooting and hunting that are still trying to persuade the public that foxes are ‘pests’.

We need to keep countering the desperate and discredited narrative that the Hunting Act is only supported by ‘extremists’. An overwhelming majority of the public support it. Besides, who is the more extreme: the person who wants to protect animals, or the person who wants to set a pack of dogs on them? And we’re not ‘antis’ as hunting also likes to describe us – we’re ‘pro’: pro-wildlife, pro the rule of law, and proud of it.

We need to keep the pressure on businesses and institutions that fund and support hunting. Not by violence or intimidation – that can never be acceptable, we must leave violence to the hunts and their supporters – but by highlighting the facts and letting consumers make decisions based on information. If a business stands to lose more by supporting a hunt than they gain from it, perhaps they’ll change. If they do, we need to thank them, to make sure they know that we appreciate the change of heart.

There are a myriad of sabs groups. monitors, and individuals working to end hunting. We may not be able to personally fund all of them, but we can at least support them on social media, thank them publicly for the work that they do, and talk about them to colleagues and friends. We can even offer practical help: joining a group doesn’t commit you to wading through mud being yelled at by hunt supporters: could you help organise leaflet drops or write to MPs or your local papers?

And finally, it’s easy to get discouraged and frustrated. It’s what leads to questions like “If foxhunting is banned why does it still take place?” But the truth is that hunting is on the way out. In less than twenty years foxhunting has gone from a well-supported ‘sport’ to a pariah opposed by a huge majority, in financial difficulty, riven by internal argument, denied access to land by some of the country’s largest landowners (forcing hunts to shut down), and the myth of ‘trail hunting’ has been exposed in court. The bottom-dwellers that support hunts are increasingly being convicted of animal cruelty offences. Hunting sounds increasingly deluded and out of touch (even this particular government recently passed an animal sentience bill which recognised that animals are capable of suffering).

We do need to remain alert and we do need to keep the pressure on, but when the so-called Countryside Alliance recognised in the summer that they need to justify the use or exploitation of animals (their more extreme supporters soon slapped such ‘woke’ sympathies down) it did show that the spectre of defeat is being felt across hunting’s most vociferous lobby group. The abuse of animals by an influential but increasingly small minority is no longer passively tolerated by the public and hunting knows it.

Yes, foxhunting is banned but still takes place – but Protect the Wild honestly believes that every ‘season’ sees us moving closer to its endpoint.