Tim Bonner: Ten years on from an Act of prejudice

TODAY marks the 10th anniversary of the Hunting Act being passed by Parliament. It came into force six months later.

For hunting, and for many people in the countryside, this was the lowest moment, but hunting still thrives despite all the fears and the dire predictions. How is it that an activity that was outlawed after an epic and bitter political campaign has survived?

There are many reasons, but high amongst them is the determination of a community that rejects every charge made against it, and has never been shown to be doing anything wrong.

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Despite 700 hours of Parliamentary debate, a Government inquiry and tens of millions of pounds spent by the animal rights movement, the case against hunting was never proved.

However hunting people were determined not to bow to this prejudice and have had the support of a broad swathe of the countryside and many others who support basic liberties.

Urban politicians and the animal rights movement have never understood hunting, or its place in the wider countryside. Many honestly thought that the hunts would disband, and hunting people would take up some “acceptable” activity like golf.

This was never going to happen. Nobody in the countryside believes that the campaign against hunting is anything other than the first item on the progressive agenda of the animal rights movement.

Far more people shoot than hunt and just a few weeks after the ban came in League Against Cruel Sports reported to its AGM: “The League may need to acquire new areas of land such as moorland, foreshore and wetland for the anti-shooting campaign and… may need to dispose of properties that were purchased to further the anti-hunting campaign, but are no longer needed for that purpose.”

The strategy could not have been clearer: the battle for hunting had been won and the battle for shooting was beginning, while racing and farming were also increasingly being targeted.

Ten years later, however, practically every hunt that was operating when the ban was passed is still going strong. That is not to say there have not been challenges.

Hunts can, and do, continue to provide an opportunity for people to see hounds work, and in the case of mounted packs, ride across country. They are, however, now limited in how they can contribute towards fox control.

Ironically the Hunting Act provides absolutely no protection for foxes. It still remains perfectly legal to shoot or trap a fox, and in some cases to use dogs in the process. In fact anecdote suggests that in many areas there are more foxes being killed since the ban came into force.

Hunts continue to offer a legal fox control service to farmers whose land they are invited onto, using terriers or two hounds to flush and shoot foxes, but they cannot use a full pack. Even more bizarrely the law is different in Scotland where the law does allow the use of as many hounds as needed for farmers to find and flush foxes.

There are a tiny number of prosecutions each year under the Hunting Act. Given the confusion that surrounds the law and the tens of thousands of days hunting carried out every year these are probably inevitable, but over 95 per cent of prosecutions have no connection to hunts and involve casual hunting or poaching, mostly of hares with lurchers.

There have been three Hunting Act cases involving Yorkshire hunts in recent years – two of which collapsed. Three members of the Sinnington were accused of illegal hunting in 2009 but cleared the following year. In 2012 three members of the Holderness were also charged, but the case collapsed a year later with the district judge stating that there was “no case to answer” and that the Hunting Act is “difficult to interpret and apply and difficult for the CPS to prosecute”.

So what does the future hold? On the one hand it is undoubtedly bright. The hunting field is full of keen youngsters and the infrastructure of hunts has survived nearly a decade under the current law. On the other, there has not yet been a political resolution and those running hunts and hunting hounds are under unnecessary and pointless pressure. The current coalition in Westminster has not been willing or able to sort this mess out, but a future Government will have to do so.

Tim Bonner is director of campaigns at the Countryside Alliance.