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Labour wants to eliminate the ‘trail hunting’ loophole if it gets into government

Labour says it will tighten the Hunting Act when it comes into government. The statement came after the party’s shadow minister for the armed forces said that he wants hunting “consigned to the history books”.

On Boxing Day 2022, the Labour Party said it will “close the loopholes” that exist in the Hunting Act. Huffington Post reported that the party wants to tighten up the legislation in order to eliminate trail hunting as a smokescreen for hunting live animals in England and Wales. Labour’s shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon said Labour wants to “protect animal welfare by putting an end to trail hunting”.

The hunting industry in England and Wales mostly claims to ‘trail hunt’ today. This is when hounds follows an artificially laid trail using an animal-derived scent. However, hunt saboteurs and monitors have consistently said and shown that hunting as usual has continued after the ban. This was explicitly stated by the former head of the Master of Foxhounds Association, Mark Hankinson, in a webinar leaked by the Hunt Saboteurs Association.

Rupert Evelyn of ITV News interviewing Mark Hankinson after he was found guilty.
ITV News reporter Rupert Evelyn with Mark Hankinson following his guilty verdict, via ITV News.

Labour’s statement came as Luke Pollard, its shadow minister for the armed forces, told DevonLive that:

Today, hundreds of foxes up and down the country and here in Devon will be needlessly killed. Fox hunting is a cruel sport that needs to be consigned to the history books.

We need to tighten the rules to ban trail hunting and end this practice for good.

Pollard has taken an outspoken stance on the hunting and its legislation for some years. He published videos calling for tightening the law on Boxing Day in 2021 and 2020, and was reported as saying the same thing in 2019.

Long, hard look in the mirror

Labour was, of course, in government when the Hunting Act was first passed in 2004. And Tony Blair, the party leader and prime minister at the time, reportedly regretted his role in its introduction. In 2010, Channel 4 News said Blair wrote in his published memoir that he:

claims… he was “ignorant” about the sport and underestimated public feeling about it, and says he then deliberately sabotaged the Hunting Act to ensure there were loopholes which would allow the sport to continue.

Trail hunting was created by the hunting industry in advance of the ban. It is described in the Countryside Alliance’s 2005/06 How to Keep Hunting Handbook as:

the hunting of a scent laid by man in such a way best to simulate traditional hunting activity.

The less that the followers, or even the huntsman, know of the route of the trail, the more the hunting will mimic its traditional and challenging form.

A hound chases a fox in Protect the Wild’s “A Trail of Lies” animation.

However, as an article by German newspaper DW reported on 18 February 2005, the day the law came into effect, the hunting industry knew trail hunting was a sham from the outset. DW reported that Tim Bonner, now chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said at the time:

The law says that if you lay a scent of a dead fox and the hounds then run off and hunt a live fox, which they are quite likely to do, and kill it, then you won’t be breaking the law because you intended to hunt an artificial trail

These are loopholes apparently written into the law by the very prime minister that passed it. Despite public outrage by hunt supporters at Blair and his Labour party for introducing the Hunting Act, the law may have been the very thing that enabled it to continue for another few decades.

Labour vs Labour

As highlighted by the Huffington Post, the Conservatives have moved away from promising a free vote on repealing the ban. In its 2019 election manifesto, the party’s position was that it would make “no changes” to the Act. This is, in part, due to the toxicity that another free vote promise had on former prime minister Theresa May’s 2017 election campaign. But it was also a nod and wink, whether intentional or not, to the fact that little has changed under the guise of ‘trail hunting’. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat manifesto for 2019 didn’t even mention hunting with hounds.

Hare in the foreground with two harrier hounds chasing in the background
Two harrier hounds chase a hare, via Hare Preservation Trust Investigation Team.

Labour’s commitment to tightening the Hunting Act is, in theory, a noble one. However, the party has not yet made it clear what measures it’d take to correct its own historical faults. It could look to Scotland’s new Hunting With Dogs Bill for inspiration, of course. It could even look into its own history at the Wild Mammals (Hunting With Hounds) Bill, introduced by Labour MP Michael Foster in 1997. However, unless the law actively disbands every pack and shuts down every kennel, then it’s not tight enough.