A new Bill? Why not strengthen
the Hunting Act instead?
We need a proper ban on hunting, which is why we commissioned Advocates for Animals to help us campaign for a new law – The Hunting of Mammals Bill.
But why not work to strengthen the existing legislation?
Protect the Wild has been in many discussions about strengthening the Hunting Act over the last few years (we began life as Keep the Ban after all) but we have decided we need something different, something better:
- The loopholes and exemptions that hunts use need to be removed entirely, not argued about for years to come.
- Biases caused by ‘trail hunting’ being categorised as a ‘lawful activity’ must be ended.
- Growing public awareness and a potentially seismic change in the political landscape gives us the perfect opportunity to build a better future for wildlife.
Loopholes and exemptions
Protect the Wild has detailed how hunts are using loopholes and exemptions (like the appalling ‘Research and Observation’ exemption used by stag hunts) many times (above – March 2023 image of Quantock Staghounds by North Dorset Hunt Sabs)
Written into the Hunting Act by pro-hunt members of Parliament, these loopholes and exemptions have changed a straightforward piece of legislation banning the hunting of wild mammals with hounds into something far more uncertain and malleable.
Prosecutions have to survive legal challenges around ‘intention’ and debates around what constitutes ‘searching’. Was an individual in court engaged in hunting an ‘identified’ wild mammal or not? Even unequivocal video evidence that stops just seconds before a hunt makes a kill has not been considered strong enough proof of ‘hunting’.
Prosecutions are routinely dropped because the CPS feels that the chances of conviction are low (or even because they make ‘mistakes’).
And all the time hunts claim – whilst providing no proof – that they are ‘trail hunting’, something which didn’t even exist as a genuine alternative to hunting animals before the Hunting Act was passed. Long after senior hunting officials were caught on camera admitting that ‘trail hunting’ was a ‘smokescreen’ for fox hunting, the same excuse is made by hunts week after week.
While some major landowners like the National Trust have now buckled under public pressure to ban hunts from their land (something we are currently petitioning the Ministry of Defence to also do) because of the ‘smokescreen webinars’, this one exemption alone still allows hunting with hounds to continue pretty much unchanged.
At least it does so in England and Wales. In 2023, Scotland passed ground-breaking legislation, the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Bill, that bans ‘trail hunting’ and effectively outlaws hunting with hounds.
The law in England and Wales now needs to do the same.
A ‘lawful activity’
While ‘trail hunting’ isn’t even mentioned in the Hunting Act (it didn’t exist until hunts conjured it up to allow them to continue hunting) it has a disproportionate influence on the way that the police (and the courts) respond to monitoring and sabbing hunts. This is because of the spurious mantra ( repeated ad nauseam by pro-hunt MPs in parliamentary debates) that trail hunting is a ‘lawful activity’.
That broadly means that the disruption of ‘trail hunting’ by sabs is assumed to be unlawful, biasing how police see interactions between hunts and monitors and sabs from the outset.
It also potentially changes the way the police respond to trespass. When the purpose of trespass onto land – normally a civil offence that doesn’t carry a prison sentence – is to ”intentionally obstruct, disrupt, or intimidate others from carrying out lawful activities” it becomes aggravated trespass – a criminal offence. The introduction of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 could make ‘protesting’ at a hunt (ie saving animals from criminals) even more likely to result in prosecution.
We must ensure that violent hunts and their employees no longer go into the field protected by the assumption that what they are doing is a ‘lawful activity’.
If we don’t, we are tackling illegal hunting with one hand – if not both – tied behind our backs, and we’re failing the courageous monitors and sabs who are out every week trying to prevent crime taking place.
Opinion is shifting towards a complete ban
Hundreds of hunts take place every week during the so-called ‘hunting season’. While many are monitored or sabbed by some remarkably dedicated individuals and groups, reporting on incidents involving illegal hunting has been mainly confined to sites like Protect the Wild, the Hunt Saboteurs Association, and social media accounts.
That has changed over the last few years. With the increasing usage of digital cameras, drones, and bodycams, video evidence of illegal hunting is widespread, and national news media channels like ITV and Channel 4 have noticed. Incidents like the digging out of two foxes by the Avon Vale Hunt in February 2023, for example, a fox being torn apart by the West Norfolk Foxhounds in a private garden the same month, and the discovery of a bagged fox being kept in an artificial sett by the Cotswold Hunt in March 2023 have been broadcast to primetime audiences. The response has been outrage and calls to end this cruelty forever.
At the same time, police attitudes towards hunts have been slowly changing. That began in February 2022 when the well-connected Wild Mammal Persecution UK blog reported that “at least two police forces in England and Wales are now treating hunts operating in their areas as Organised Crime Groups”. OCGs are defined as having “as as its purpose, or one of its purposes, the carrying on of criminal activities”, signalling the start of an important rethink on hunts and their so-called ‘lawful activities’.
In March 2023 a peaceful protest attended by many local residents took place outside the HQ of Wiltshire Police. It focussed on the recruitment of PC Cheryl Knight, a hunt supporter who has ridden with the Avon Vale Hunt, to the force’s Rural Crime Team – the same team which would be overseeing the investigation of the Avon Vale Hunt for the digging out! Wiltshire Police backtracked and made an announcement about making such sensitive and inappropriate appointments, something they wouldn’t have done in the past.
In another notable shift in position, Matt Longman, Chief Superintendent for Plymouth and NPCC Lead on Fox Hunting Crime, noted in a tweet the following week that “some Forces are now taking a very firm stance on which officers police hunts”.
Whilst that stance needs to be much firmer, it is clear that after so much video footage and public anger, the stranglehold held by hunts on police officers has definitely been loosened.
We must make sure that grip can never be tightened again.
Now is the time
Buckling under the scrutiny of monitors and sabs, a significant ramping up of media pressure, and the dawning (and long overdue) realisation by police forces that hunts have been pulling the wool over their eyes for nearly two decades, hunts are folding and hunting itself is on the way out.
Crucially the political environment is changing too. Elections in the near future will undoubtedly see influential pro-hunt parliamentarians leaving office, and a more empathetic, wildlife-friendly generation of MPs coming to power.
Now is most certainly not the time to try to take existing legislation back to Parliament to have it derailed yet again by the same politicians that have lobbied for years to keep hunting alive.