The Act that made hunting an underground covert deception

I remember it as if it was yesterday.

Precisely 12 years ago, on the 18th of February 2005, after a long and arduous Parliamentary process, the Hunting Act 2004 finally came into force in England and Wales, so hunting wild mammals with dogs became illegal. And I remember it well because I had joined the League Against Cruel Sports a few months before as the hunting campaigner.

Despite the fact this moment could easily be seen as the end of an 80 year long campaign which started when the League was founded in 1924, by Henry B Amos and Ernest Bell, it actually signalled the beginning of a new campaign in which I am still involved today -  the campaign for the proper enforcement of the hunting ban.

We all wondered what the hunts would do from that cold February day because before the Act was passed they had been very defiant. Indeed, many hunters signed a written declaration stating that they would break the law if the ban was enacted.

Prior to the Act coming into force, in 2003, Prof. Roger Scruton and others founded the Hunting Declaration Initiative, and a series of events were organised so hunters could physically sign this declaration. The press at the time reported that 50,000 people had physically signed the declaration.

But two things happened during that cold February day which shaped the hunting debate for the next decade: those alleged 50,000 signatures mysteriously disappeared, and Trail Hunting was invented. Goodbye to the era of open defiance, and hello to the era of covert deception.

It didn’t  take long for hunt monitors to realise that the new game hunts would play would now be claiming that they would hunt within the law by either using some of the hunting exemptions that the Act provided, or using a new form of temporary “simulated hunting” that would look exactly the same as hunting before the ban. Trail Hunting was a completely new activity that should not be confused with drag hunting, which had existed for many years earlier and it was a genuine field sport without any wild animal victim. Trail Hunting was a simulation of hunting designed to make the enforcement of the ban more difficult; a cover for illegal hunting; a false alibi, if you will. An elaborate deception which fooled the public, the media and the authorities then, and is still fooling them today.

Theoretically both Trail Hunting and Drag Hunting involve the use of an artificial scent being dragged through the fields to simulate the scent of a wild mammal, so the hounds chase this artificial trail instead of the animals. But I say theoretically because although this actually happens in drag hunting, most foxhunts that claim to go out trail hunting actually chase foxes as before, hoping that nobody will notice, or pretend  that someone is laying a trail - but this is just for show and the hounds don’t really follow it.

How do I know this? Because if you ask any hunt monitor in the country how many times they have seen anyone in a hunt laying a trail when unknowingly being observed, they will tell you that they have only seen it a handful of times at the most.

And when they saw it, the hunt may have still been illegally hunting because when you understand the differences between trail hunting and drag hunting, you can easily see that the former was designed to work as a false alibi against allegations of illegal hunting so that any evidence obtained of a hunt chasing and/or killing a fox or a hare can be passed off as an “accident”. For instance, in trail hunting the scent trail is laid in areas known to have foxes or hares, while in drag hunting such areas are avoided; in trail hunting, if a trail is laid at all the urine of the animals the hounds used to chase is used in the trail, while in drag hunting they always use a scent that does not resemble that of a wild mammal; in trail hunting those in control of the hounds are deliberately unaware of where the trail has been laid, while in drag hunting they always know so they can stop the hounds if they deviate from the artificial scent. All this makes “accidental” chases of mammals very common in trail hunting, and practically absent in drag hunting.

And here is the final piece of this deception: foxhunts never correct the authorities or the media when they erroneously describe their activities as drag hunting, because that helps to cement the false perception that they are now hunting within the law.

What is the result of this covert deception? I estimate that since February 18, 2005 roughly 200,000 illegal hunting events undertaken by registered hunts may have taken place in the UK - with not many prosecutions as the police and the CPS have often been successfully deceived, with the legislators that created the Hunting Act not anticipating this level of organised crime and unwillingness of the authorities to deal with it properly.

But here is the good news: now that we know what is happening, we can solve this problem with just a few amendments to the Hunting Act. Now we can enter the second phase any law in this country has to go through, which is its strengthening when it has been tested for a while in the real world and the way criminals try to circumvent it has already been detected. This is what amendments are for, to improve legislation. Not to weaken it or to repeal it, as the pro-hunting politicians want to do, but to strengthen it. 

So, after 12 years here we are still working on hunting, defending the hunting bans in the UK and campaigning for their strengthening to allow better enforcement.

I am looking forward to the anniversary of a stronger hunting ban.

I just hope that it is not going to take us that long this time.

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