Hunting was banned in Scotland in 2002 and England and Wales in 2004. However, these bans have not been properly enforced, the attempts to eliminate or weaken them continue, and hunting is still legal in Northern Ireland.

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What is trail hunting?

The hunting of mammals like foxes, hares and deer using dogs is illegal in the UK. Many people however remain confused when they hear terms like ‘trail hunting’, ‘drag hunting’ and ‘exempt hunting’. This page explains what these terms mean, and why two of them are often used to cover up the actual chasing and killing of animals.

What is the difference between trail hunting and drag hunting?

Prior to 2005, there were two types of hunting:

  • ‘Traditional’ hunting involved the chasing and killing of animals. This was banned by the Hunting Act (2004) in England and Wales, and the Protection of Wild Mammals Act (2002) in Scotland
  • Drag Hunting, a legitimate sport created in the 1800s which was not intended to mimic animal hunting, but instead is a sport using foxhounds to search for a non-animal scent laid by a drag pulled on a string, without the pursuit or killing of wild animals

After the ban

Once the chasing and killing of animals was banned, those hunters who were no longer able to do this could have converted to drag hunting, as most used the same types of hounds, but they chose not to. Instead, they invented an activity called trail hunting:

Trail Hunting

  • Trail hunting purports to mimic traditional hunting by following an animal-based scent trail (using fox urine, according to the hunters) which has been laid in areas where foxes or hares are likely to be.
  • Crucially, those laying the trail are not meant to tell those controlling the hounds where the scent has been laid, so if the hounds end up following a live animal scent the hunt can claim that they did not know.
  • In drag hunting the trail doesn’t contain animal-based scent, is never laid in areas likely to have foxes, and those controlling the hounds always know where the trail was laid.
  • This is why in drag hunting, 'accidents' when live animals are chased are very rare, while in trail hunting they are very common.

An explosive exposé aired on ITV in November 2020 showed senior figures within the Master of Fox Hounds Association and the Countryside Alliance caught on camera admitting that ‘trail’ hunting is a “smokescreen” for the chasing and killing of foxes. Police are now investigating the contents of the webinars which were leaked by the Hunt Saboteurs Association.

Phil Davies, the Countryside Alliance police liaison officer, said:
“Now you know more about hunting than the saboteurs or courts will know but what it will do is create that smokescreen or that element of doubt that we haven’t deliberately hunted a fox, so if nothing else you need to record that and it will help us provide a defence to huntsman.”

Mark Hankinson, MFHA director, said:
“It’s a lot easier to create a smokescreen if you’ve got more than one trail layer operating, and that is what it’s all about, trying to portray to the people watching that you’re going about your legitimate business.”

If 'trail' hunting is real, then why are hunts out of control on roads and railways, trespassing on private land, and worrying domestic pets and livestock as well as still killing wildlife? Find out more below:

"Claim of trail hunting was a cynical subterfuge"

– Judge Michael Pert QC after Fernie Hunt unsuccessfully appealed their guilty verdict.

The case against trail hunting

If the hunts really wanted to avoid chasing and killing animals, they would have converted to genuine drag hunting or to ‘clean boot’ hunting, which is similar.

The hunts operate in exactly the same locations they used prior to the ban – areas which are known to contain foxes (or hares, deer or mink).

Trail hunts are always accompanied by terrier men – contractors who follow the hunt on quadbikes and with terrier dogs. In traditional hunting these dogs were sent underground to find a fox if it had escaped the hunt by, for example, hiding in a hole underground. Terrier men would place the terrier in the hole to force the fox out so the chase could continue. If trail hunts genuinely don’t try to catch foxes, why are they always accompanied by terrier men?

Trail hunts very rarely even bother laying a trail. Having looked at over 4,000 hunt monitoring reports of over 30 hunt monitors from different organisations covering the majority of hunts in England and Wales (157), since the Hunting Act 2004 was enacted, these hunt monitors have reported witnessing someone laying a possible trail only in an average of around 3% of the occasions they monitored hunts, but they believed that only an average of around 0.04% of the occasions they may have witnessed a genuine trail hunting event, rather than a fake one.

So, we think that trail hunting is not a genuine sport but a cover for illegal hunting, designed to deceive the authorities and make the prosecution of illegal hunters very difficult. Now the hunting fraternity themselves have admitted to using trail hunting as an excuse to circumvent the law, and it is only a matter of time before trail hunting comes to an end. 

Illustration that shows what a trail hunt looks like.

Exempt hunting

The Hunting Act 2004 and Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 allowed hunting to take place in certain circumstances by including exemptions’ that would only apply if several conditions were fulfilled. These were intended to allow the killing of mammals if required for exceptional reasons, and included, among others:

  • Flushing to guns - this was intended to allow the ‘humane’ shooting of foxes as soon as they had been flushed from cover by dogs
  • In England and Wales two dogs were allowed, while in Scotland a full pack is permitted. In both countries, hunts have been found guilty of illegal hunting while claiming to be flushing to guns
  • Falconry - designed to ensure falconers did not get prosecuted if their birds killed a mammal that had been flushed out of cover by a dog, some hunts take a bird of prey with them to enable them to use this exemption
  • Again, it is an exemption that has been found to be a mere cover for illegal hunting
  • Research and Observation - this was intended to allow scientific study, but has been abused regularly, particularly by deer hunts

At present, despite evidence suggesting this exemption is being abused (in much the same way that Japanese whalers claim to be ‘researching’ the whales they kill), no hunt claiming it has yet been successfully prosecuted

Learning what these terms mean, and how they are being misused by hunts is key to understanding how and why they continue to get away with illegal hunting.

Find out more

More details in our report: Drag hunting, clean boot hunting and trail hunting 

Read our trail hunting leaflet and see what a 'trail' hunt looks like.