Jack Riggall is an independent hunt monitor and anti-hunting campaigner.
Fox hunting, in the last few years, seems to be an activity of increasing interest to the media as well as social media which has helped voluntary activists to document the reality for the wider public to see. In the midst of all this, the National Trust has seen it
’s fair share of criticism; their support of hunting has been highlighted regularly in local & national media, both in the run up to their AGM in 2017 (in which they rallied their members to close down an anti-hunt resolution) and beyond. But focusing on the National Trust perhaps lets other large landowners ‘off the hook’, such as the Forestry Commission (FC) and National Park Authorities, and perhaps even County Councils that own farmland*, given that they all have agreements which allow access to a number of fox hunts.
The FC licenses a small number of legitimate drag hunts and many more so-called ‘trail hunts’ that claim to be following pre-laid scents rather than live quarry. The terms ‘drag hunting’ and ‘trail hunting’ are very similar, which is no doubt on purpose, as the claim of ‘trail hunting’ is presented by the Countryside Alliance at any given chance so that they can confuse the public and allow fox hunters to continue killing.
Fortunately, a comprehensive report by Jordi Casamitjana/International Fund for Animal Welfare explains the differences as well as how ‘trail hunting’ works as an effective cover for criminal bloodsports. The hunts that the FC licences are sometimes the same hunts that the National Trust supports, for example the United Pack (filmed trespassing on National Trust land by Shropshire Monitors on 11th December 2018 ) and the Portman Hunt (on 2nd January 2019, the aftermath of a fox allegedly killed by this hunt was documented by North Dorset Hunt Saboteurs). Others aren’t licensed by the National Trust, only the FC. The Kimblewick Hunt, for example, were recently exposed by the Hunt Saboteurs Association for allegedly hunting a captive fox on New Year’s Day (footage here) and yet, according to the FC’s own spreadsheet of dates for so-called ‘trail hunting’, they went on to use public land just two weeks later. They have other agreed dates in February & March. That these hunts should be afforded access by a government department pretending they are genuine is absurd; the FC’s own documents seem to use ‘trail hunting’ and drag hunting interchangeably.
DEFRA’s response to my petition calling for an end to trail hunting licences conflates the two terms despite the fact that the petition isn’t targeting licences agreed with the Master of Draghounds & Bloodhounds Association, which governs drag hunts; it only seeks a ban on the ‘trail hunts’ who gain licences under agreements with the Master of Foxhounds Association or the Association of Masters of Harriers & Beagles.
But what really highlights how the FC are largely content with trail hunting is that even when hunts repeatedly trespass on FC land or hunt staff are convicted of wildlife crimes, they are still given licences. Two examples are the Meynell & South Staffordshire Hunt and the Cottesmore Hunt. The Meynell & South Staffordshire Hunt were cubbing in Derbyshire on 22nd October 2011, and because they were filmed by Derby Hunt Saboteurs their huntsman and terrierman were both convicted under the Hunting Act 2004 in August 2012. The Cottesmore Hunt’s terrierman illegally blocked a badger sett in Leicestershire on 29th November 2014 and was convicted under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 based on footage from League Against Cruel Sports. That individual is still believed to be the terrierman for the Cottesmore. Both of these hunts have been warned for trespass & potential trespass by the Forestry Commission in emails dated 18/02/2015, 24/11/2016 & 24/11/2018, and the Cottesmore Hunt were documented by Hertfordshire Hunt Saboteurs on FC land that they aren’t licensed for on 22/12/2018. The main reason for hunt trespass is because they are chasing foxes wherever they go, rather than following organised trails.
Perhaps this ‘turn a blind eye’ stance is because the FC haven’t yet realised how the country is turning against increasingly weak hunts. The Quorn Hunt (licensed by the FC) are one of the oldest fox hunts in the world, but face financial collapse according to a recent article (The Telegraph, 22/12/2018) and on a regular basis hunts are being banned thanks to the campaigning of grassroots anti-hunt activists — whether from Council land or events, nature reserves or pubs, the message is the same. Land managed by the FC belongs to the public, and so management should reflect this and protect the wildlife that lives there not allow it to be slaughtered for sport. Other organisations such as Shropshire Wildlife Trust are having to contend with hunt trespass from FC-licensed hunts, and they show no sign of being deceived by so-called ‘trail hunting’ – so why should the FC? Especially given that the FC record licensed hunts killing foxes on their land themselves, such as the New Forest Hounds who killed a fox on 21/11/2017 according to a FC log of incidents.
“We have a very simple policy that we don’t allow hunts on our land because of the disturbance it causes to wildlife and in the past we’ve written to all the hunts to make this clear. We’ve bought our nature reserves with public donations to protect wildlife, not destroy it and it shows huge contempt for our supporters when a hunt chooses not to follow our wishes.” – Jan McKelvey, Conservation Manager for Shropshire Wildlife Trust [Shropshire Star, 19/01/2019] in response to hunts [including the FC-licensed Ludlow Hunt] trespassing on nature reserves.
Those who want to see fox (and hare) hunt licences revoked for Forestry Commission land can sign my petition: petition.parliament.uk/petitions/227405.
The FC’s current agreement with the Master of Foxhounds Association states in Clause 19 that they will monitor the hunts they licence. Wonder what they’ve seen when they’ve been out (if they’ve monitored any hunts at all)?
Finally, in the interests of fairness, it has to be said that in some areas the FC are taking genuinely positive steps to stamp out what is clearly illegal hunting. For example, in Somerset, stag hunts were banned from FC land in 1997 due to the Bateson Report.
* – Note for all anti-hunt campaigners – you can get maps of Council farmland via Freedom of Information requests.
Note from Mark: Forestry Commission England were shown a draft of this blog and were asked to comment on it. They did comment and some passages have been changed slightly as a result. I have also offered FCE a right of reply and they have said they will send me something soon.