Under siege and ‘observed’ to death – the plight of Britain’s hunted stags

Despite being banned under the Hunting Act, deer are regularly being chased for miles by hunts and their hounds before being killed - due to a loophole in the law, reveals a new exposé by the League Against Cruel Sports.

‘Observed’ to death, is the first ever report to look at how stag hunts are breaking the law, 12 years after the hunting ban was enacted. League investigators regularly witness stags being chased on National Trust land adjacent to the charity’s wildlife sanctuary in Somerset.

When the Hunting Act was written, an exemption allowed for ‘Research and Observation’ with the intention, in certain cases, to further scientific knowledge. However the League believes the spirit of this exemption is being crushed, week in, week out, by stag hunts who claim to be undertaking observation for research – while simply chasing and killing stags in a similar way to before the ban.

Loopholes and Law breaking

The report shows stag hunts routinely breaking the law. Investigators who have monitored stag hunts since it was banned, believe that in the majority of cases they witnessed illegal hunting.

Under the Hunting Act 2004, a person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal with dogs, although there are several exemptions, including ‘Stalking and Flushing Out’, ‘Rescue a Wild Mammal’ and ‘Research and Observation’, all of which have specific conditions that need to be fulfilled for the hunting to be legal.

Stag hunts have continually tried to circumvent the law by exploiting these exemptions, with mixed results. Initially stag hunts tried using the ‘Stalking and Flushing Out’ and then the ‘Rescue a Wild Mammal’ exemptions, but in both cases successful prosecutions against them showed that their interpretations of these exemptions would not be allowed.

Stag hunts then tried using the ‘Research and Observation’ exemption, which has proven to be a successful loophole. Despite there being several recent attempts to prosecute members of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, who use this exemption as a defence, the Crime Prosecution Service (CPS) has on each occasion chosen not to pursue these cases.

Philippa King, Acting CEO at the League Against Cruel Sports said: "Stag hunts claim to be undertaking ‘research’ – in much the same way the Japanese Government claim that they are killing whales for research. The League believes hunts are cynically exploiting a loophole in the law and the hunts need to face that same public outcry that meets whalers.

"Polling carried out last year showed that 88% of people in Great Britain want deer hunting to remain illegal. Because of this loophole, stag hunts are laughing in the faces of public opinion, and mocking the spirit of British law. We need Government action and effective enforcement to ensure that the law is respected."

Stags under siege

Hunts are taking place twice a week for most weeks of the year, year on year, chasing adult stags, young stags and hinds, some of them pregnant – leading to more than 200 deer hunted with hounds every year to be ‘observed’.

Stag hunting on National Trust land

Hunts can last several hours, and the evidence is compelling that they inflict great suffering on the deer. In the late 1990s the National Trust commissioned and resourced a study into the welfare implications of hunting with hounds. The report highlighted the physical impacts on deer of being chased over long periods of time, showing that ‘red deer are not well-adapted by their evolutionary or individual history to cope with the level of activity imposed on them when hunted with hounds.’ Following the release of the report, the National Trust banned stag hunting on its properties the next day.

Stag hunts like other types of hunts, can also claim they are ‘trail’ hunting, another invention developed when the Hunting Act came into force. Trail hunting claims to be the following of a pre-laid animal-based scent – however this often leads to hunt hounds picking up on a live animal’s scent and results in it being killed, which is passed off as ‘accidental’.

The National Trust assert there is no evidence of illegal hunting taking place on their land and say if there was they would take action – despite the League witnessing and presenting evidence to the Trust showing, what they believe to be illegal hunting taking place.

Philippa King continued: "Stag hunts have cynically and methodically worked their way through the exemptions to the Hunting Act 2004 until they found one that worked. The Research and Observation exemption has proven to be that successful loophole, as no hunt has yet ended up in court to defend it, despite several prosecutions having been attempted.

"We believe the evidence in this report proves that stag hunts are not abiding by the hunting ban, and that the exemption should be removed from the Hunting Act immediately to prevent further illegal hunting and animal suffering.

"We would also like to see the law amended so ‘trail hunting’ can no longer be used as a cover for illegal hunting and sentencing strengthened so that the maximum penalty for Hunting Act offences carries a prison sentence rather than a fine. This will bring sentences in line with other wildlife legislation and send out a strong message that killing animals for ‘fun’ will not be tolerated."


Notes to Editors

Footage of stag hunting and the below case studies to accompany the report are available on request

  1. Stalking and Flushing Out
    On the 16th February, 2006 the League Against Cruel Sports investigators filmed the Quantock Staghounds hunt a stag.
    Based on this evidence the League undertook a private prosecution against two suspects, who despite claiming they were hunting legally under the “Stalking and Flushing Out” exemption, were eventually convicted. They subsequently lost their appeal against the conviction.
  2. Rescue a Wild Mammal
    In November, 2010, huntsman Richard Down was convicted at Taunton Magistrates court of hunting a wild mammal with a dog. He was the first huntsman to be convicted twice under the Hunting Act 2004. This time Down claimed to be using the ‘Rescue a Wild Mammal’ exemption and had hunted an injured stag to relieve its suffering.
  3. Research and Observation (2013)
    On 14th September, 2013 and the 24th October, 2013 League Against Cruel Sports investigators filmed the Devon and Somerset Staghounds (DSS) hunt and kill at least one stag. The police investigated and suspects were charged despite claiming they were hunting legally under the ‘Research and Observation’ exemption, but later on the CPS dropped the case.
  4. Research and Observation (2015)
    On 4th April, 2015, the Devon and Somerset Staghounds (DSS) met at Cuzzicombe, North Devon, with around 400 people participating in the event. Two teams of wildlife crime investigators surveyed the hunt’s activities from the meet until the hunt ended, one team in a covert position observing the hunt from a distance, and the second team in an undercover position posing as hunt supporters. After their evidence was assessed, the case was brought to the authorities to seek prosecution for illegal hunting. After some delay the police investigated the case, but the CPS decided not to prosecute because the defence claimed “Observation and Research” and supported their claim by producing the same researcher as in 2013.
  • Trail hunting - An analysis of over 4,000 reports on the majority of hunts in England and Wales compiled by more than 30 hunt monitors from different organisations, has revealed that trails are laid in only a very small number of so-called ‘trail hunts’. On average, monitors believed they witnessed a genuine trail hunting event in around 0.04% of occasions.
  • There are only three remaining registered staghounds packs in the UK, all based in a relatively small area of Devon and Somerset: The Devon and Somerset Staghounds, the Quantock Staghounds, and the Tiverton Staghounds. These hunts are active for most of the year, undertaking three types of deer hunting: autumn stag hunting (hunting adult male red deer); hind hunting (hunting adult female red deer); and spring stag hunting (hunting young male red deer).
  • For more information, or interview requests please contact the League Against Cruel Sports Press Office on 01483 524250 (24hrs) or email pressoffice@league.org.uk. Further images and footage of stag hunting, including on National Trust land are also available on request

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