Government should end hunting on its land, say leading animal protection charities

Once in a while something comes out of the blue that changes things forever. An event opens eyes and compels change that few can resist. It might initially be viewed as temporary, so as to get over the initial crisis. But when people realise the merits of doing things differently, looking beyond the individual to the collective benefit of all, change can be permanent.   

I am of course describing revelations contained in the leaked webinars from a meeting of the Masters of Fox Hounds Association last year, exposed by Rupert Evelyn on the ITV news a few times since. For wildlife, it is probably the most compelling event of the last decade. In that webinar, trail hunting was described as a smokescreen. I wrote to the largest and most high-profile landowners, including the National Trust and United Utilities. They immediately suspended hunting on their land. So why not all government land and as it is tax-payer funded, why not ban it permanently?

That is precisely what we asked Environment Secretary, George Eustice, when accompanied by my colleagues from the country’s leading animal welfare charities we met with him virtually on 4 March. If Forestry England, which manages huge tracts of government land, can take a stand, why not all departments in government?

What about strengthening the Hunting Act too? With its nine exemptions, it is hardly robust legislation. The police, already so thinly stretched, cannot be in every field or wood across the country trying to catch the hunts breaking the law. The 2.4m acres of land denied the hunts from the responsible actions of the biggest landowners at the end of last year would be hard to fill with the British Army, let alone with a handful of Bobbies taken off their beats over the entire UK.

It is not just foxes that suffer. Badgers, a protected species and with their own dedicated legislation under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, suffer from terrier men blocking and otherwise interfering with setts. The Hunting Act that needs tightening. Why do you need terriers if you are following a trail? No wonder terrier men were described as the ‘soft underbelly’ of hunting on the webinars.

Mr Eustice pointed out that the Hunting Act has resulted in successful prosecutions. There have been, but not nearly as many as should have been, thanks to those nine exemptions in the Hunting Act. Strengthening the act to introduce proper custodial sentences, just as we have for other serious crime, is the only serious deterrent for both individuals and gangs of people intent on evading or breaking the law. There’s nothing like a bit of porridge to focus the mind.

Just like Covid-19 has shaped the debate on everything from tax to pollution, so too has the content of the leaked webinars on the issue of hunting. We recognised that the Government has moved from repeal to keeping the Hunting Act as it is. However, you do not need the results the impending court case, brought under the Serious Crimes Act 2007 against a Director of the Masters of Fox Hounds Association, to realise that the current settlement of not moving further on hunting is unsustainable.

Surely no responsible landowner, let alone one funded by us the taxpayer, can think that allowing the killing of any animal on its land for the purposes of fun is acceptable. An Act of Parliament that is so easy to circumvent, which allows for the laying of smokescreens to try to evade it, is not good law and we are asking that it is strengthened.

I am delighted to say that along with my coalition colleagues Heidi Allen, director of advocacy at the RSPCA; Claire Bass, executive director of Humane Society International UK; James Sawyer, UK director of International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW); Dawn Varley, chief executive of the Badger Trust; and Dominic Dyer policy advisor at Born Free, we have been invited back to present our proposals to Mr Eustice more formally.

Protecting animals, as readers will know, is often hard and progress slow. But on this occasion our coalition was heartened by the dialogue we have started with the Secretary of State. We believe our arguments are compelling and as the recent consultation on hunting in Northern Ireland reveals, the public are overwhelmingly against hunting in every corner of this, our country of animal lovers. Our first ask is simply to permanently ban hunting on government land.



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