Deceit, subterfuge, cruelty. Those were the words which rang out at the recent Parliamentary debate on wildlife crime. The horror of hunting wild animals with dogs featured heavily, as MPs called for the Hunting Act to be strengthened and lawbreakers brought to book.

Continued illegal hunting has gained increasing political attention of late, and calls for action have grown louder since the public’s clear rejection during the 2017 General Election of ambitions to return to the dark days of legal hunting.

While widely known by animal protection campaigners, the continued killing of foxes, hares and deer by hunts and their brazen exploitation of loopholes and exemptions has only recently gained common political currency. Rather than focusing on simply defending the hunting ban, the conversation has now shifted to the many ways hunts flout the law and the simple changes which could end the killing once and for all. Significantly, the Labour Party announced this Boxing Day the detail of its commitment to strengthen the Hunting Act.

The debate, held in Westminster Hall, marked another significant step, allowing discussion approaching the length and vigour that this important issue deserves. Crucially, it has put on record the depth and scale of animal abuse still perpetrated by hunts, and the deception they rely upon.

The Government response, delivered by Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey, was disappointing though not unexpected, amounting to an acceptance of the claim by hunts that animals are chased by accident rather than by design during so-called ‘trail’ hunts. She told the MPs present that the Government has “no plans to amend the Hunting Act”. This follows a recent pattern in which Government statements have suggested that ‘trail’ hunting is a ‘legitimate’ activity, while making contradictory claims that the Government holds no information on, and has made no assessment of, its use as a cover for illegal hunting.

With MPs speaking passionately about the cruelty of hunting with dogs and the wildlife crime it is linked to, it was clear however that many have taken on board the evidence presented by the public, campaigners and the League. It is welcome that, for example, the “cynical subterfuge” of trail hunting, the links between hunts and badger persecution, and the threatening and intimidating behaviour of those connected to hunts are now so clearly on the Parliamentary record.

Chester’s Chris Matheson led the charge, citing figures collated by the League of reports of illegal hunting and kills, recounting the shocking evidence of badger set blocking witnessed by hunt monitors, and echoing one of our key calls to close loopholes in the law.

“At the very least, the law on hunting with dogs needs to be changed to include recklessness as an offence.” - Chris Matheson MP (Labour), Chester

The tenor of the debate and the need for action was also well reflected by the words of Weaver Vale MP Justin Madders and Southend MP Sir David Amess:

“In so many ways, the quality of a nation should be judged by how it treats animals […] We desperately need the Act to be strengthened to ensure that the will of Parliament, and that of the overwhelming majority of the public, is respected.” – Sir David Amess MP (Conservative), Southend

“No ifs, no buts, no exceptions under the legislation. No more excuses. […] Let us reform it so that the cruel and vindictive practice of hunting with dogs is outlawed once and for all.” – Justin Madders MP (Labour), Weaver Vale

Speaking powerfully from personal experience of witnessing the chaos caused by hunts tearing through gardens and frightening children and animals, Laura Smith MP also highlighted the odious practice of terrier work.

“I would like to see more clarity on the role of terrier men […] Their only known function is to block badger setts and escape holes to prevent foxes from escaping underground, and to use dogs to flush out any creature that tries to hide.” – Laura Smith MP (Labour), Crewe and Nantwich

The contribution of Shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman was particularly welcome, calling time on illegal hunting and reiterating the commitment of the Labour Party to strengthen the law through various measures proposed by the League. She also noted how out of step hunting with dogs is with the values of rural residents, as demonstrated by polling commissioned by the League and published on Boxing Day.

“As we have heard, a poll commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports found that only one in six rural residents believe that hunting with dogs reflects countryside values. More than nine in 10 think that countryside values are really about observing nature.” – Sue Hayman MP (Labour), Shadow Environment Secretary

The more often the scale of illegal hunting, the reality of the abuse involved, and the overwhelming public support for compassion over cruelty are aired in Parliament, the better. It is vital groundwork in creating the conditions for the strengthening of the law British wildlife so badly needs. In unison with supporters, campaigners, and politicians we will continue to call out hunting for the cruelty that it is and to advocate for change.