Hunting Act repeal ‘by the back door’

It now appears that the Government is seeking another avenue through which it can appease the pro-hunt minority, by bringing back hunting by the back door via an amendment which the majority might neither understand nor gauge the significance of; but that in reality would make the Hunting Act unenforceable.The time has come to defend the hunting ban.

You may have heard recently about possible repeals and amendments of the Hunting Act, underhand tactics and political tricks, lambs disappearing and hunting returning. You may not be entirely clear what is happening. If that is the case, please read on, because all will be explained in detail which you may not find elsewhere. Read on, and you’ll get the full picture.

Let’s begin at the top. Prime Minister David Cameron has long acknowledged his desire to overturn the ban on hunting wild mammals with dogs which came into effect with the Hunting Act 2004. With the formation of the Coalition Government, the manifesto pledge to introduce a vote on repeal of the Act was changed to a vote on whether to hold a vote on repeal.

While the Government has reaffirmed its commitment to this pledge in numerous media articles in recent months, it has faced the dilemma that despite continued pressure from influential pro-hunt party supporters and funders for a return to hunting, it must know that a vote on outright repeal would fail as it is still opposed by the majority of MPs, across all parties, in addition to the backlash it would prompt from the UK public.

It now appears that the Government is seeking another avenue through which it can appease the pro-hunt minority, by bringing back hunting by the back door via an amendment which the majority might neither understand nor gauge the significance of; but that in reality would make the Hunting Act unenforceable, thereby allowing those intent on chasing and killing sentient British mammals with packs of dogs for fun to do so. The intended amendment – changing a current hunting ‘Stalking and Flushing out’ exemption allowing an animal to be flushed to guns by two dogs to be flushed now by a pack of hounds - was revealed in the answer to a recent parliamentary question, and also by the Prime Minister.

The impact of such an amendment would be, in effect, a return to the hunting of wild mammals such as foxes and stags with packs of hounds, as the changes would make the Hunting Ban almost impossible to enforce, therefore, a return to hunting by the back door.

Hunts which currently still try to hunt illegally sometimes try to use hunting exemptions as an alibi for their actions but the current restriction on no more than two dogs being used to flush a fox or stag to guns is one of the easiest to gain evidence of when breached, so makes the Hunting Act enforceable in cases where a pack of hounds is used to chase a fox or stag. Removal of this restriction would make enforcement of the Act very difficult, as hunts could merely ensure they have someone present with a gun, while an animal is needlessly chased for the hunt’s own enjoyment.

Many people may overlook the impact of this amendment if they do not know the Hunting Act in detail, or have a broad knowledge of the history of prosecutions under it. Hunts can currently claim a defence under Section 4 of the Hunting Act, if they claim “they reasonably believed the hunting was exempt”.

However, in order to do so, they should claim that they are ‘exempt hunting’, and therefore they need to comply with all the conditions the Act imposes for such ‘exemptions’, which often includes limiting the number of dogs used to two. Because illegal hunters find it difficult to hunt with two dogs, fox hunts had become more inclined to claim they were legally trail hunting, because they can then use a full pack of hounds and do not need to follow any conditions.

In such cases, however, if the hunts are caught chasing a fox, they are likely to claim it was an ‘accident’, but the court may not believe them if there is enough evidence to show that they knew the chase was happening and did nothing to stop it (most recent successful prosecutions on mounted hunts are based on this, as was the case of the Seavington huntsman successfully prosecuted by IFAW’s evidence).

This is the dilemma the illegal hunters face:

  • On one hand, if they use an ‘exempt hunting’ alibi they have a stronger defence because they can use the ‘reasonable belief’ part of Section 4, but then they are forced to use two hounds on most occasions.
  • One the other hand, if they use ‘trail hunting and accident’ alibi they can use a full pack but their defence is weaker.

So what is their solution? Find a way to use the ‘Section 4’ defence with a full pack of hounds and this is where the current amendment comes in. If the exemption for the number of dogs is removed, fox hunts will be more likely to claim a ‘Section 4’ defence, a stronger defence, because it has the ‘reasonable belief’ component to it. Put simply: more hounds will mean a better defence for illegal hunters; more hounds will mean more cruelty to British wildlife.

Illegal stag hunters would also benefit most from the proposed amendment as currently the number of dogs exemption has seriously hampered their criminal intentions. If the two-dog exemption is removed, illegal stag hunts will be very difficult to prosecute even if they hunt in the open with a pack of hounds, hence a return to stag hunting almost as if the ban did not exist. This will be extremely unpopular, as shown in a 2013 Mori poll on deer hunting where 85% of people wanted stag hunting to remain banned.

The main reason given for introducing this amendment – that foxes are preying on lambs at Welsh farms– is not valid either. Wild mammals, including foxes, do not significantly predate on lambs, and the study the government is likely to base its position on is limited in its scope and is flawed. It refers only to fox hunting in Scotland yet is being justified to introduce a sweeping change to the legislation in both England and Wales, and the amendment will also affect the hunting of other wild mammals (stags, hares, mink, etc. ), not just foxes, as the Hunting Act does not distinguish between any “wild mammal”, and effectively bans the hunting with dogs of all wild mammals (except rats and rabbits). The amendment has been sold to the public so far as only affecting foxes in Wales, but if it its only based on removing the number of dogs condition it will in fact affect most wild mammals, anywhere in England and Wales (therefore, it will affect more than 12,000 hunting events every year!).

Estimates of annual UK lamb losses range from 7% to 15% (Binns et al, 2002, Defra, 2004), though studies suggest that predators and misadventure (where lambs go missing) account for only 5% of these losses, with the actual proportion of these lost to foxes being difficult to determine and likely to be overestimated (Macdonald et al, 1997). According to Defra (2004), 95% of lamb losses are due to farm husbandry practices. Establishing whether a lamb has been killed by a fox, or died as a result of sudden bad weather or mis-mothering and been subsequently scavenged by a fox, is very difficult. Foxes may in many circumstances be blamed for killing a lamb when they simply found it dead or dying (Natural England, 2011).

Therefore, if the Government case for bringing the amendment is solely based on research by Naylor & Knott (2013), the fundamental assumptions underpinning the Government’s case are flawed, namely that fox numbers have increased since the Hunting Act came into force, that fox predation has a major impact on farmers’ incomes and that killing foxes helps to reduce fox numbers. All empirical evidence demonstrates that these assumptions are untrue.

We expect that the amendment will be brought forward under a Statutory Instrument (SI), as an amendment to Schedule 1 of the Hunting Act. This would need to be approved by both Houses of Parliament, and, as a contentious issue, we would expect it to be voted on, on the floor of both Houses rather than just in an SI Committee. This could take place in a very short space of time.

It is essential that the UK public, media and politicians see this amendment for what it really is. We need everyone to tell their political representatives to stand firm against any return to cruelty and reject the proposed amendment regarding number of dogs and any other attempt to weaken or repeal the Hunting Act.

Let’s call it what it is. This is an attempt to bring back hunting ‘when nobody is looking’, and we should not allow it.

There should be no return to cruelty.

--JC

Take action now and let your political representative know you want them to stand firm against any return to cruelty.

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Experts

Jordi Casamitjana, Campaigns and Enforcement Manager, IFAW UK
Campaigns and Enforcement Manager, IFAW UK