If you are privileged to see a stag in the British countryside, you should cherish the moment. It’s our equivalent of seeing a lion in Africa. But as with lions, you may be shocked to know that these magnificent animals are still chased and killed for ‘fun’. 

Stag – and deer – hunting is illegal in the UK, but the hunts continue to kill hundreds every year. In many cases, they are doing so by claiming to be undertaking scientific research. 

On the BBC tonight (start from 12.15), audiences would have seen hundreds of hunt supporters gathered happily, preparing for a day’s hunt, which ultimately featured the nine-mile chase of a stag across the countryside. Viewers then saw the lifeless body of the stag, cornered and shot twice, being dragged into the back of a van. The stag was later carved up for trophies among the hunt supporters.

I’ll repeat the earlier statement: this hunt claims to be killing stags for ‘scientific research’. Common sense will tell you that ‘scientific research’ doesn’t look like that. So how are they getting away with it? 

Exemption or pretension? 

Hunting is banned by the Hunting Act 2004, which aimed to stop animals being killed for sport. The law, in one sense, is very clear. It states: ‘A person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog, unless his hunting is exempt.’ 

What BBC viewers saw, and what League Against Cruel Sports investigators see on a regular basis, is a wild mammal being hunted with a dog (several dogs, in fact). This therefore must be illegal – unless the hunting is ‘exempt’. 

Most laws have exemptions written into them. For example, there’s a law which allows people to get information from organisations which might be important – the Freedom of Information Act. It’s an important law, to stop shady activities being kept secret, but within that law are exemptions. 

The Hunting Act is the same. The lawmakers tried to allow for certain situations which might occur which might involve mammals being disturbed or killed, but shouldn’t be classed as hunting. These included ‘stalking and flushing out’, which allows two dogs to be used to flush out a mammal ‘for certain purposes’ before it is shot. Another is ‘rescue of a wild mammal’, which was designed to be used to catch an injured mammal. ‘Research and Observation’ was another – for the ‘study and observation of a wild mammal’. 

The purpose of this last one was discussed at the time the law was conceived. It was included to allow academic studies which needed an animal to be moved from cover so that they could be observed. An example would be when an animal is tagged and scientists want to study its movements. 

But is that what is actually happening in the UK countryside? 

Brazen manipulation 

The League believes that hunters are brazenly using this exemption as an excuse to carry on hunting and killing stags and deer just as they did before the Hunting Act came in.

We believe that the evidence that League investigators see every week proves they are manipulating the exemption to their own purposes, and so far they have got away with it. A brief history is enlightening – after hunting was banned, the Quantock Staghounds were prosecuted by the League Against Cruel Sports for stag hunting. They tried to use the ‘stalking and flushing out’ exemption of the Act, but they were found guilty, proving that trying to use that exemption as an excuse wasn’t going to work. 

They then tried the ‘rescuing a wild mammal’ exemption, but again were prosecuted and after the court saw footage, again provided by the League, they were found guilty. That one wasn’t going to work either. 

The hunts, notably the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, started using the ‘Research and Observation’ exemption. Third time lucky? Apparently, yes. Attempted prosecutions of the hunt have so far failed, with the Crown Prosecution Service dropping the cases because they felt a prosecution wouldn’t be successful, because of the exemption. 

Time to stop them 

The question therefore is whether what the stag hunters are doing can genuinely be ‘research and observation’ in the spirit of the law? 

Returning to the example of the Freedom of Information Act, exemptions within that law allow organisations to withhold information for certain reasons. This might be national security, for example. But if an organisation was found to be withholding information under the national security exemption, when actually there was no national security aspect at all, they would be breaking the law. 

Are the hunts genuinely taking part in research? If so, where is that research published? Do they need 200 riders to get their data? Do they need to carve the stag up at the end, handing out the body parts as trophies? Do they need to rub blood on the faces of those youngsters attending their first hunt? Is that research? 

We believe that public opinion very clearly says that they are not researching anything. Hopefully legal opinion will catch up and agree. 

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