Boxing Day ‘hunt’ tradition is a festive deception

Christmas is a time of tradition, but there’s one that leaves a bad taste in the mouth (and I’m not referring to three-day-old Christmas pudding). Every Boxing Day we see hunts parading through local towns and villages, and every Boxing Day we are fed the same diet of well-dressed riders, gorgeous horses and cute hounds. They look amazing – but do we really know what we’re looking at?

Hunts claim that 250,000 people turn out on Boxing Day to celebrate hunting (though seriously, has anyone actually counted?). They say this shows that support for hunting is as strong as ever – and what they are implying is that therefore the chasing and killing of animals like foxes, deer and hares should be made legal again.

Here then is the contradiction. We know through regular, respected polling that over eight out of ten people – including those in rural areas – want fox hunting to remain banned. So, an awful lot of those people out watching on Boxing Day will not be there for the reason the hunts claim they are.

The confusion is because most people think that nowadays hunts just go out to follow a ‘trail’ and don’t attempt to kill animals. The evidence though tells a different story.

The vast majority of the hunts out on Boxing Day will be ‘trail’ hunts – the clue is in the name, suggesting that they follow a trail, not animals. However, trail hunting didn’t exist before 2004, when the Hunting Act came in. Prior to that, there were effectively two types of hunting: non-lethal, and lethal. The main non-lethal sport is ‘drag’ hunting, invented 200 years ago and involving the hounds tracking an artificial scent across country. This looks exactly as you’d expect a hunt to look, but because the hounds are trained to follow a non-animal scent such as aniseed, incidents of animals being killed by the hunt are extremely rare.

When the lethal version of hunting was banned in 2004, you would have expected that if these hunters had wanted to hunt legally, they would have switched to drag hunting – but they didn’t. Instead they invented trail hunting. This was designed to look very similar to drag hunting but with key differences, mainly the hounds are still trained to follow animal-based scents. This means that very frequently, the hounds pick up the trail of live animals, chase and kill them. The hunts then claim that this was ‘accidental’.

But if accidents keep occurring, why not do something about it? Why not switch to drag hunting? The answer is because they don’t want to – they want to keep chasing and killing animals.

Hunts claim that anti-hunt protesters are simply ‘attacking the countryside’. But we’re not trying to stop drag hunting. Hunt saboteurs target trail hunts, not drag hunts (though pro-hunt groups will desperately claim this isn’t true, after a rare recent incident when a saboteur group came across a drag hunt – the reality is that when they realised it was a drag hunt, they just left).

This Boxing Day the hunts will once again claim that their tradition is under attack. But please be clear in your mind exactly which tradition they are talking about. There’s nothing wrong with beautiful animals being paraded – but when those animals are being used to chase and kill other animals in the name of ‘sport’ – then there’s something very wrong indeed.

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