Charlotte Cooper: Ten years of hurt but hunts will be out in force

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THE start of this year’s hunting season marked a date none of us involved in hunting can ever forget. On November 18, 2004, the Hunting Act was forced through Parliament to fulfil the promise Tony Blair had made prior to the 1999 election. Three months later, on February 18, 2005, it became law – making this the 10th hunting season to take place under the unpopular Hunting Act.

There was a tremendous feeling of gloom. The superb Matt, cartoonist of the Daily Telegraph, joked that the staff at my former employers, Horse & Hound magazine, would have to be shot. Had the marches, rallies and hard work of the past eight years been in vain? Was hunting about to be consigned to history as effectively as the superior but unfashionable Betamax video player?

Politicians on the left crowed that this was one for the miners and that the toffs had it coming. The “antis” could all mothball their balaclavas and citronella and find a new cause because Labour had won and hunting was dead.

But wind forward 10 years and here we are again. Hounds are still bred, huntsmen still trained, hunters still bought, the staff of Horse & Hound have not been euthanised and it’s time to bring out the port and sausage rolls for the traditional seasonal spectacle of Boxing Day meets all across Yorkshire once again.

They did not believe we had it in us. They thought we’d all take up birdwatching, golf or some other suitably PC country pursuit.

But we have proved them wrong. Hunting is still extremely popular. Hundreds of new people gave it a try during October’s Hunting Newcomers’ Week, organised by the Countryside Alliance. Around 45,000 people still hunt regularly and somewhere in the region of a quarter of a million people will don their wellies and warm coats to turn out to support their local hunts today on the most high- profile hunting day of the season.

The only packs to have amalgamated in the last decade have been victims of development, not vindictive laws, as growing towns and an expanding road system means less countryside in which to hunt.

Hunting is as strong as it ever was and the fight goes on to repeal the unfair and unworkable law that means that the hunt’s real work is left to a terrier or couple of hounds and a man with a gun.

Yes, that’s right it is still lawful to kill foxes, you just have to shoot them or trap them now – so not even the foxes have benefited. In fact it could be said that they are in a worse situation as the natural selection element of hunting with hounds – ie that the healthy foxes get away but the old and injured are caught – is no longer in effect.

Dozens of hunt staff and masters have been hauled into police stations and courts under the Act over the past decade. Very few of them have been found guilty, but that is the point. These innocent people will have suffered months, in some cases years, of worry before the court comes to its decision, all because it is far too easy for those opposed to hunting to bring charges against hunt staff who are just going about their lawful business.

We think it is unfair that huntsmen should be looking over their shoulders every time they take hounds out of kennels. More importantly it is costing you, the taxpayer, hundreds of thousands of pounds and wasting thousands of hours of police time that could be usefully spent tackling real crime.

The Hunting Act needs to go and the next few months running up to the general election will show who is honest about its failings and who has their head buried in the sand. Hunting is not a matter that should be any party’s first priority but good law, passed for good reasons should be high on any political party’s to-do list.

That is why the Countryside Alliance will continue to make sure that the voices of the countryside and hunting people are heard and the Hunting Act is repealed or replaced by our next government.

In the meantime, please do go along to the meet of your local hunt today. Not only will you be very welcome and get a chance to be part of the most British of traditions but it’s a free and fun outdoor activity for all the family – and we could all do with that after the excesses of an average Christmas Day.

Charlotte Cooper is head of media relations at the Countryside Alliance.