Eighteen thousand, four hundred and twenty-five. 18,425.

That’s how many people put finger to keyboard and told the Northern Ireland Assembly they want their voices heard about whether hunting with dogs should be banned.

If you told me on Boxing Day 2020 that the Assembly’s consultation would have that many respondents by the time it closed on February 12, I wouldn’t have believed you.

And if you’d told me that of those thousands of people, a whopping 78 per cent back a ban on hunting with dogs, I would not have been surprised but my jaw would have still dropped.

But that’s exactly what happened, and I am so pleased to have been able to give John Blair MLA the League’s full support to promote the consultation to the people of Northern Ireland, and help them understand the importance of a ban – not only for Northern Ireland, but for the rest of the UK too.

Let me take you back almost 20 years ago, to the hunting ban coming into force in Scotland, followed three years later by similar legislation in England and Wales.

We monitors and campaigners in NI watched in dismay as we were left out of the legislation, letting hunting carry on unfettered. But then our dismay turned to anguish as we saw hunts in the rest of the UK bypass the law and use the ‘trail hunting’ excuse and exemptions to the law to carry on hunting anyway.

We have campaigned in NI to introduce a ban on hunting with dogs, but to make it as robust a piece of legislation as possible – the law that should have been passed in the rest of the UK.

Hampered by the suspension of the assembly for a number of years we waited and gathered support from farmers and other landowners, the League working side-by-side with other organisations including the NI hunt sabs to ensure the pressure was there ready for the politicians’ return to Stormont.

When John Blair, MLA for the largely rural South Antrim, announced he wanted his first Private Members’ Bill to ban the hunting of wild mammals, including deer, foxes, rabbits, hares and mink with dogs, to ban trail hunting and to effectively control the limits placed on flushing with dogs for pest control, we were delighted to give him our support.

We helped launch the consultation on Boxing Day, creating a bespoke page on our website and contacting our supporters directly in Northern Ireland asking them to take part in and share the consultation. We promoted it widely on social media, and – most importantly – worked with our friends in other organisations with the shared goal of getting as many people as possible to take part.

We would like to thank the bigger organisations like Peta, and the smaller organisations like Hunt Sabs NI, and the tiny ones like our friends with animal sanctuaries, for spreading the word on behalf of the assembly and making this consultation a historic one.

So what’s next? Well, we’ll be working behind the scenes to support the bill and lobby for it to be worded in such a way as to avoid the pitfalls of the Westminster and Holyrood legislation. And then we’ll be giving the bill as much support as we can, reminding politicians of the overwhelming support the bill received from those taking part in the consultation.

We will keep our supporters updated, so please do sign up at www.league.org.uk/ban-hunting-ni for the latest news. Similarly, please do follow us on @LeagueNI on Twitter.