How illegal deer hunts in England avoid prosecution

An effective loophole to the hunting ban has now been exposed.

In the UK staghunting is a blood ‘sport’ going back many centuries which uses horses and staghounds to chase and kill red deer. However, its popularity has decreased over time, and currently, more than 80% of the UK population, both in urban and rural areas, is opposed to it. There are only three remaining registered staghound packs in the UK, all based in a relatively small area in Devon and Somerset: The Devon and Somerset Staghounds, the Quantock staghounds, and the Tiverton staghounds.

Hunting with dogs was banned in England with the Hunting Act 2004. However, there has been a problem with the enforcement of such ban, as far too many allegations of illegal hunting are not investigated, and not enough illegal hunters are prosecuted. And now a new comprehensive report published by the League Against Cruel Sports titled “Observed to Death” shows in detail how illegal deer hunters have been avoiding prosecution for the last twelve years.

The report shows that over the years the staghounds have been trying different ways to circumvent the ban with mixed results. The Hunting Act allows some “exceptions” under certain conditions, but there is always one condition that limits the number of dogs allowed to two. So, for the stag hunts to claim any “exempt” hunting they had to invent ‘relay hunting’, in which several pairs of dogs are used in relay to hunt. Initially, stag hunts using relay hunting tried claiming the ‘stalking and flushing out’ exemption of the Hunting Act but a successful prosecution against members of the Quantock staghounds using this exemption as a cover for illegal hunting showed that this was not going to work. Later they tried claiming the ‘rescuing a wild mammal’ exemption of the Act but another successful prosecution against members of the Quantock staghounds claiming this exemption also showed that this was far from an effective loophole.

Finally, they tried using the ‘Research and Observation’ exemption, claiming that the reason they were chasing deer for hours and killing them afterwards was because they were “observing” them as part of scientific research (pretty much the same lame excuse Japanese whalers have been using to continue killing whales). This one worked, as no hunt using this exemption has been successfully prosecuted yet. There have been several recent attempts to prosecute members of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds that use this exemption as a defence, but unfortunately the Crime Prosecution Service (CPS), rather than press such cases into Court in order to close the loophole, decided to drop them.

The report shows four case studies to illustrate the ways stag hunts do all this. The fourth case, the most detailed, is a 2015 case against members of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, alleged to have chased a stag for seven and a half miles for about four hours before shooting it dead. Because of the “Research and Observation” excuse, the CPS eventually rejected the case, despite the unprecedented amount of overwhelming evidence produced (it is possibly the most detailed account of post-ban hunting with dogs ever published).

The comparison of the study cases in this report with the stag hunting activities before the ban shows that, as far as the hunted deer is concerned, the ban does not seem to have made any difference. They are still selected to be killed for the same reasons in the same way, they are still chased by hounds to exhaustion for many miles and hours, they are still shot dead in the same way, and all this is done by the same people. The only operational difference is relay hunting: now the pack of hounds is divided into groups of two hounds to chase the deer in turns, that’s all.

Effectively, the defiant attitude of staghounds, the existence of a weak ‘Research’ exemption, and the poor response of the authorities when addressing those suspects claiming such exemption, has created an effective loophole that desperately needs closing. As it does not seem the authorities are keen to enforce this law properly, the only effective way to solve this problem is to strengthen the Hunting Act 2004 and remove the ‘Research and Observation” exemption in its entirety.

Let’s close this loophole once and for all.

Jordi Casamitjana

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