When invited to a protest against fox hunting in December 2016, I had no idea how it would change my life, probably forever.

I thought hunting was long gone. I knew little about foxes and badgers or the persecution they face every day of every week throughout the hunting season. Like many National Trust members, I had no idea that National Dis-Trust, the League Against Cruel Sports and many other campaigning groups, hunt monitors and hunt saboteurs, had been working to shine a light on what happens when hunts run down and kill foxes, stags and hares and the damage they do to badger setts.

Once I found out that so-called 'trail' hunts were invented after the ban to find a way for hunts to continue, I went out to see trail hunting for myself. The truth was horrific. I saw aggressive thugs facilitating hunts and foxes fleeing for their lives. The police, I came to realise, were often reluctant to use their powers, powerless due to the way the law has been enacted and in some cases they seemed simply corrupt. When I learnt the Trust license this activity, I contacted them. I naively thought they had no idea what happened and spent a great deal of time asking if I could talk to the trustees but to no avail; the only avenue, it eventually transpired, was to bring a resolution to the Trust's October 2017 AGM.

People from around the country quickly gathered to co-sign a resolution designed to shut down the 'excuses' for wildlife crime and as a campaign rookie, I had to learn how to persuade often cynical journalists that there was a real issue and it needed media coverage. Meanwhile a small group grew around the existing National Dis-Trust campaign into an amazing team of like-minded individuals, bound together by the idea that the third biggest landowner in England - a conservation charity - would come to its senses and join other charities, such as National Trust of Scotland and The Woodland Trust, in extricating itself from this abhorrent past-time and finally developing a basic respect for legal wildlife protections.

The evidence against hunting is compelling in every way, both morally and scientifically, and those who talk to us can see we personally have nothing to gain from challenging bloodsports (often the reverse is true). The same cannot be said of lobbyists for the bloodsport movement, who have a vested interest in deceit and peddling the myth of 'trail' hunting. Our small team worked tirelessly to get the message out in the run up to the AGM, whilst juggling family, work and study and as a result of this campaign I met genuinely inspiring people - not out for personal gain or glory, but for standing together in opposition against widespread wildlife crime.

Supporters outside the National Trust AGM

Never having spoken at such a large formal debate, I arrived at the AGM nervous after a restless night, concerned I would let supporters down. But when I saw how many had come along to support the resolution I was overwhelmed - even the police were smiling (they'd never seen such a friendly protest, apparently). Sally, the second formal proposer speaking on the resolution, seemed calm and resolute and we both agreed we could only do our best, whatever happened. Throughout the debate I was incensed by those who hunt trying to defend the cruel reality as a tradition, even describing trail hunting as 'pest control' - I couldn't help but shout out that this was admission of a crime. Although disadvantaged by the Trust's use of a statement advising members to vote against this resolution on what we have now seen to be a completely false premise (the Trust has not provided specific routes or dates, key promises it gave in the AGM booklet), and the Chairman's use of discretionary proxy votes, we were defeated by a mere 299 votes. We knew there was just a slim chance that the trustees would use their discretionary powers to do the right thing and support the objectives of the resolution, but instead they dug their heels in. The Trust would continue to license hunts, saying they would impose a more robust licensing process and monitoring plan.

Incidentally at no time during the AGM, would the Trust, or it seemed could they, explain, how they intended to carry out this monitoring - monitoring that would have to involve fell packs for example, who hunt in huge areas, on foot, not on horseback. Those who try to monitor hunts have great difficulty. The hunts are, for reasons we must all deduce for ourselves, extremely secretive and when I tried to observe a local hunt myself I was abused and followed. At the time of writing, hunting season is drawing steadily to a close, yet still no proper monitoring has been implemented by the Trust.

The first sign of problems in the licensing system was a steady stream of hunt trespass on National Trust land, in some cases from hunts that were subsequently rewarded with licences - like the Warwickshire Hunt, the Eskdale & Ennerdale Fox Hounds, and others. Members and the public responded with an avalanche of questions but the Trust refused to answer fully, instead responding with cut and paste replies and by referring people to their new 'trail hunt' web page. Trust members asked what was being done to uphold the new licences, having read about the trespass incidents and aware that a number of these newly licensed hunts had possible associations with criminal activity. Hunts that have been featured in the media this season behaving recklessly, if not illegally, including those who have trespassed, appear to have no trouble convincing the Trust, if no one else, that they are trustworthy. I am finding it very hard to make the case to members not to leave the Trust in the sole hands of those who support bloodsports. They are asking, as I have asked - what do hunts have to do exactly to prevent a licence being issued?

A group of us met with the Trust in January 2018, which served only to confirm what we suspected - that monitoring has not changed or improved. It's been cursory at best and in some cases virtually non-existent, for example no scent sampling process had been initiated. The Trust's revised licensing guidelines included that hunts use artificial, non-animal-based scent but the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) have always insisted fox scent is used for the so called 'trails' and the hunts themselves describe their use of fox urine. The simple reality though is that hunts do not actually lay genuine trails. Time and again in well respected reports and investigations, such as those from the League, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the RSPCA, this has been shown. Perhaps this explains why, even though these hunts still claim to be using fox scent when not on Trust land, they are able to adapt so easily to the new guidelines - because it doesn't matter what scent you pretend to use if your hounds are really hunting wild animals - the end result is the evisceration of wildlife.

Hunter gives a dead fox to a pack of hound while other hunters and supporters look

I was also flooded with messages from people who couldn't get specific information about where hunts might be and when. One lady very concerned to avoid her grandson being distressed by seeing a hunt, was directed to contact the hunt directly but didn't feel able to do this, having heard about their reputation. Others made contact with the hunts as the Trust directs on their website, but found them far from cooperative, in one instance a hunt secretary directed someone back to the Trust website in a clear refusal to give more detail - in complete contravention of licence conditions. Despite all these months of campaigning and the long debate, people are still left afraid to walk with dogs and small children, on land which is supposed to be 'Forever, For Everyone'.

The Trust has promised their new monitoring and sampling system will be up and running soon, but in the meantime hunts have virtually free reign. For four months hunts have hunted, as they always have, becoming emboldened as new licences are granted, regardless of whether the applicants have trespassed, have convictions for assault or breaches of the Hunting Act 2004. What a pity more members were not privy to the facts as they stand when they voted. I now have some idea how campaigners, hunt monitors and hunt saboteurs must have felt when they realised back in 2005, that the fight was not over and the Hunting Act 2004 changed very little.

National Dis-Trust and the League have been getting the word out on this issue and we will all be campaigning on February 25th during a national day of protest at Trust properties across the country. It is vital to continue informing the public about what is happening and to show the trustees that the situation is both unacceptable and unsustainable. The Trust could see themselves go down in history as an organisation which supported and facilitated the last gasps of a medieval relic of barbaric cruelty, while conversely trying to assure us that it values wildlife. Their alternative option is to dismantle their policy of collusion and, at last, stand for wildlife protection. We hope to see what they choose very soon.

- Helen Beynon


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