National Trust vote is the beginning of the end for trail hunting

Trail hunting, hounds exercising and exempt hunting will continue to be allowed on National Trust land. That was the outcome of the National Trust AGM on Saturday, when a motion to ban them failed by the narrowest of margins. But while this was disappointing, we believe it was actually a moral victory for anti-hunt campaigners.

Here’s why.

We won the popular vote. More than 1,100 people voted for the motion (28,629) than against (27,525). However, some members leave their votes in the hands of the Chairman of the AGM – and as the National Trust had stated that they were opposed to the motion, most of these ‘discretionary’ votes would have been used to support the continuation of trail hunting. The final result saw the motion defeated by 299.

On top of this, every year the National Trust give their ‘advice’ on each proposed motion, and traditionally National Trust members tend to follow this advice, in large numbers. Realistically then, this wasn’t a level playing field, so to actually get more votes than those following the National Trust’s advice was quite an achievement.

The other barrier which we had to overcome was confusion. The term ‘trail hunting’ is unfamiliar to most people. Most also believe that hunting is illegal (it is), but therefore they assumed that trail hunting must be a legal sport. This is the line that the National Trust have been supporting, and therefore it sounds reasonable that they should allow a legal sport on their land.

The truth though is different. A brief history lesson is enlightening: there are two main types of simulated hunting – ‘trail’ hunting and ‘drag’ hunting. Drag hunting has been around for 200 years, and involves the full regalia and tradition you’d expect to see on a hunt, however the hounds are trained to follow a non-animal scent – they aren’t trained to chase or kill animals. The National Trust motion did not attempt to ban drag hunting.

When actual hunting was banned in 2005, you would have thought that if hunts had wanted to hunt legally, they would have simply switched to drag hunting? But they didn’t – none of them. Instead they invented ‘trail hunting’ – which was designed to look and sound like drag hunting, but with many differences. One crucial difference is that the hounds were still trained to follow animal-based scents. So, if the hounds ‘accidentally’ pick up the scent of a real fox (or deer, hare), chase and catch it, the hunt can claim it was an accident.

But it’s not the only difference. In drag hunting, the huntsmen knows where the scent is being laid in advance of the hunt, preventing risk to wildlife and people alike. ‘Trail Hunting’ is deliberately different, with the course of the trail only being known to the trail-layer. Without knowing where he’s going, how can the huntsmen be sure the hunt’s not at risk of killing a fox?

There have been many successful prosecutions of hunts which have been found guilty of illegal hunting while claiming to be ‘trail hunting’. But many more have escaped justice, because the police and the CPS have often believed the hunts’ version of events, because trying to prove that there was intent to chase and kill the victim is extremely difficult.

Although it should be simple – you trained your hounds to follow animal-based scents, and you did not stop chasing wild mammals. Guilty.

If you add to this the countless examples which show that ‘trail hunting = illegal hunting’ – foxes captured and raised so they can be hunted, badgers setts blocked to stop foxes bolting underground, cub hunting where young hounds are trained to kill foxes, terrier men on quad bikes riding with the hunts, when their presence should be unnecessary on a trail hunt, as they are only used to dig out foxes – the list goes on.

Returning to the National Trust – we are disappointed because they have been shown this evidence, but for some reason they have chosen not to believe it. We have also shown them footage of regular stag hunting taking place on their land adjacent to the League wildlife sanctuary at Baronsdown – this time without a licence to be there –the local National Trust warden was seen to ignore the hunt, and the National Trust management ignored the footage. We also provided over 400 pages of reports providing evidence to support the AGM motion.

We believe that if every National Trust member in the country had seen this evidence, then the vote to ban trail hunting would have been massive.

Moving on, trail hunting is still allowed on National Trust land. However, the Trust has recently changed the licensing conditions for trail hunting – this includes banning the use of animal-based scents, and also banning terrier men. While we think these changes didn’t go far enough – a crucial part of all this is that hunts need to be closely monitored, something the Trust haven’t effectively done in the past – they are a step in the right direction.

We are hearing that hunts are unhappy with these changes and claim that they might not be able to hunt on National Trust land if they are enforced. But their argument only makes sense if they want to hunt illegally – if not, then what’s the problem? Of course, the problem is that they do not want to hunt legally.

The vote to ban trail hunting on National Trust land was defeated by a whisker on the basis there would be a new licensing regime for hunts. The hunts will try to get the National Trust to weaken those new licensing conditions. We will be watching carefully to make sure they don’t.

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