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How do hunts get away with illegal
fox hunting?

Lamping is a loose term that covers a number of different activities. However, they all take place at night and they all result in the murder of wildlife in the British countryside.

People on all sides of the hunting industry recognise that the Hunting Act is a problematic and nearly unenforceable law. While hunts make such claims on the premise that in theory it stops them from killing animals, the reality is that the Hunting Act’s wording is vague enough that hunts have broadly continued hunting as they did before the law was introduced.

To do this, hunts exploit one or multiple loopholes in the Hunting Act in order to create a facade of legality. This is often not done to convince or deter hunt saboteurs, but to create enough ambivalence in their actions should a hunt ever go to court.

This article is a rundown of the different ways hunts circumvent the Hunting Act and how they do it.

 

INTENT TO HUNT

Trail Hunting

This is by far the biggest obstacle to securing a conviction under the Hunting Act. As we explain on our Protectors of the Wild page on the Hunting Act explains, intent needs to be shown in order to prove guilt. But proving an intent to hunt is difficult because hunts have employed a variety of ways to hide their true actions.

Infamously, hunts have used ‘trail hunting’ as a smokescreen to make proving intent difficult. Even the Crown Prosecution Service  website points this out, saying that hunts may say “an accident occurred where the dogs chased a wild mammal out of their control” as a defence against illegal hunting.

An analysis of daily record sheets submitted by the Blencathra Foxhounds to the Lake District National Park Authority showed how frequently a hunt may use this excuse. Between the 2012/13 and 2018/19 seasons the Blencathra Foxhounds admitted to killing foxes at 9% of its meets. But the excuse provided each time was that hounds ‘accidentally’ killed the fox after it “jumped up” or got into the path of the hounds of its own volition.

Hunts have used claims of hounds accidentally leaving the path of an artificially laid scent as a defence since the introduction of the Hunting Act. In fact, the concept of ‘trail hunting’ was created specifically to exploit loopholes in the Hunting Act. Specifically, the alleged trail uses the scent of the same animal that hounds traditionally hunted. This ambiguity provides enough reasonable doubt to use as a defence in court.

Mark Doggrell, former  huntsman of the notorious Blackmore and Sparkford Vale Hunt, used this as a defence in 2020. Despite monitors capturing his hounds chasing a fox on two different cameras, Doggrell successfully defended himself by saying the hounds had “temporarily” left the pre-laid trail. In another example, the Grove and Rufford Hunt used the same excuse in their defence case during a 2017 case.

Most notably, sabs claimed obscuring the intent to hunt was the true meaning of a presentation by former head of the Master of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) Mark Hankinson during leaked Hunting Office webinars. Hankinson said:

“It’s a lot easier to create a smokescreen if you’ve got more than one trail layer operating and that is what it’s all about, trying to portray to the people watching that you’re going about legitimate business.”

Letting hounds run on

Proving intent means showing the hunt intentionally encouraging hounds onto a fox, hare or deer. This is generally done through capturing the huntsman or other hunt staff using horn or voice calls, although the huntsman of the Thurlow Hunt was convicted on just the sounds of him encouraging hounds on. But one way a hunt may exploit this loophole with intent is to send the pack of hounds ahead of the hunt.

Hounds running ahead of the hunt and field is a standard part of hunting, as this is part of observing the chase. However, hunt staff and masters can effectively use distance as a form of plausible deniability. Ideal monitor or sab footage captures the huntsman encouraging hounds on in the same frame as hounds chase their quarry. But if the huntsman is two or three fields away from the hounds, this is nigh on impossible. As a result, the huntsman can claim that they were unaware that the hounds were chasing quarry. And this once again makes proving intent more difficult.

To combat this, some anti-hunting groups have asked that a ‘recklessness’ clause is added to the Hunting Act. This would return the onus of responsibility onto the hunt to prevent hounds from killing wildlife. Protect the Wild has made a ‘recklessness’ clause an integral part of our ‘Hunting of Mammals Bill‘ which we would like to see replace the Hunting Act.

 

FLUSHING TO GUNS

Flushing to guns was the most common smokescreen used by hunts in Scotland prior to the introduction of the much improved Hunting with Dogs Act (Scotland) in 2023.

That flushing to guns had been used as a cover for ongoing illegal hunting appeared to be have been recognised by a 2016 Scottish government review into the Protection of Wild Mammals Act. The review said some of the footage it had seen could lead “an impartial observer… to suspect that there are occasions when the packs of mounted hunts engage in chasing foxes”. 

Flushing to guns is also an exemption in the Hunting Act, though it is limited to using just two dogs. This is most regularly seen in the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, who chase deer using a pair of hounds in relay before shooting the deer. The first prosecution under the Hunting Act, against Tony Wright of the Exmoor Foxhounds in 2006, also saw a defence of flushing to guns. Though initially convicted, Wright ultimately appealed and won. His appeal also helped set a precedent for the Hunting Act in which the term hunting did not apply to searching for as-yet-unknown quarry in order to flush them out. In other words, only the searching for an identified quarry constituted illegal hunting.

FALCONRY EXEMPTION

The Hunting Act’’s falconry exemption states that “flushing a wild mammal from cover is exempt hunting if undertaken… for the purpose of enabling a bird of prey to hunt the wild mammal”. Unlike the flushing to guns exemption of the Hunting Act, this one doesn’t contain a two-dog limit. As a result, a full pack of hunting hounds is legally able to flush out a fox or hare for a bird of prey to then kill the creature.

Hunts across the country turned to this as one of their smokescreens from the get go. A Guardian article from October 2005 reported on DEFRA’s concerns over the race by “scores of hunts” to buy raptors. Despite the government department warning against using it as a loophole for hunting, many hunts continue employing birds of prey until today.

The falconry exemption had its time in court in 2018 during the trial of huntsman George Adams and falconer John Mease, both of the Fitzwilliam Hunt. The court found Mease not guilty of criminal hunting as the hounds on the day were not his responsbility, with the court finding Adams guilty instead. The More Than Just Badgers, written by a sab involved with getting the case to court, claimed that the failed appeal against Adams’s conviction in 2019 established “case law” against the falconry exemption.

However Mease himself was found not guilty, meaning the falconry exemption went unscathed by the court case. As a result, hunts continued using birds of prey as part of their smokescreen. Although no hunt has provided public evidence of using a raptor to undertake exempt hunting, the presence of a bird handler is part of the pantomime that hunts put on to cover their true intentions.

RESEARCH AND OBSERVATION

Today, this is used exclusively by staghound packs in the southwest of England. It is meant to provide an exemption for people using hounds in the “observation or study” of wild mammals. But staghound packs have adopted it as their primary smokescreen. As outlined by in the 2017 report Observed to Death, written by Jordi Casamitjana and published by the League Against Cruel Sports, this exemption enables hunts to watch hounds flushing and chasing stags in order to ‘learn’ something about the process.

Staghound packs openly hunt due to this exemption. They use the aforementioned rule on two dogs flushing out a mammal to initiate the hunt, whilst technically preventing a chase from occurring by relaying multiple pairs of hounds in the field to pursue and eventually exhaust the stag. All of this activity, however, counts towards the alleged research and observation undertaken by the hunts. Exactly what research is being carried out, though, is unknown.

Observation alone is enough to fulfil the exemption, with the caveat that any information gained will be passed onto a third party – although there are no parameters on what the third party must then do with the information. Crucially, there is also no public evidence of research or studies that have emerged from over a decade of so-called research and observation.

Nonetheless, to date there have been no successful prosecutions against staghound packs using this exemption.

RABBIT AND RAT HUNTING

Hare hunts will occasionally use rabbits as a cover for their activity. Rabbits have no special protection under the law and are exempt under the Hunting Act for almost all types of hunting. As a result, when caught by sabs, hare hunts such as beagle packs will sometimes claim they are out hunting rabbits rather than hares. In one extreme case from 2016, the Easton Harriers even claimed that the dead hare concealed by master Lydia Freeman was an “enormous rabbit”.

While rabbits and hares are physically very different creatures, making a claim like that of the Easton Harriers easily dismissible, the claim of hunting rabbits remains a common excuse for a niche part of the hunting industry.

Meanwhile, mink hunts will occasionally claim they are hunting rats. Like rabbits, rats have no legal protections and are almost fully exempted from the Hunting Act.