A Political Bloodsport: the Hunting Act in 2017 and Beyond
Last month Theresa May reaffirmed her support for fox hunting and promised a free vote during the next parliament. What is the future for this broadly unpopular bloodsport?
Some of the issues being debated during this general election campaign divide opinion almost right down the middle. Take Brexit: 51.9 per cent of those who voted last June were in favour of leaving the EU, while 48.1 per cent wanted to stay. Whatever your stance it's clear that debate and consensus-building are necessary, because the nation is evidently split.
The same cannot be said for fox hunting, however. A poll conducted last year found that 84 per cent of the public oppose making hunting with hounds legal again – a new high for opposition to the bloodsport. You might think that this renders a future vote on the issue not only unlikely, but also politically inexpedient.
Yet despite an overwhelming majority of voters opposing hunting, it has become a topic of debate once more in 2017. Last month Prime Minister Theresa May told a group of factory workers in Leeds that she has "always been in favour of fox hunting," creating considerable interest among huntsmen, animal welfare advocates and journalists (though little among her audience, who it is safe to assume have more pressing concerns than the recreational killing of animals).
May went on to explain that there will be a free vote on repealing the ban in England and Wales during the next parliament. It should be noted that this is nothing new: a similar commitment existed in David Cameron's 2015 manifesto, though a vote did not take place, in part because his government was brought down early by another questionable manifesto pledge.
May's remarks came early in the election campaign, at a time when a sizeable Tory majority seemed inevitable and thus the prospect of the hunting ban being repealed became a genuine possibility.
Labour have since rallied in the polls somewhat, though the political makeup of Britain on the morning of June 9 remains wholly uncertain. According to a report in the Mirror, Tory peer and staunch hunting advocate Lord Mancroft believes that a majority of 50 or more MPs would be enough to secure repeal. Despite the party running an increasingly chaotic campaign, this remains a possibility.
The Conservatives are split on the issue themselves. Sports minister Tracey Crouch is vehemently opposed to any relaxation of the Hunting Act and is a patron of Blue Fox – a Conservative anti-fox hunting organisation. She is not alone: according to the same poll referenced previously, 74 per cent of Tory voters do not support amending the hunting ban.
One who does is Simon Hart, Conservative MP for the Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire seat in Wales. Hart believes his party leader is "being entirely consistent with Conservative values," adding that the act "was never about animal welfare – it was always a vindictive Corbyn-esque attack on the countryside."
It is fair to say that Hart and Jeremy Corbyn are opposed on this issue: the Labour leader has consistently voted for the hunting ban, while Hart is a former hunt master who has actively campaigned to have it overturned. Incidentally, you are more likely to actually see a fox in Corbyn's Islington North constituency than in Hart's, with urban foxes considerably more visible than those that live in the countryside.
Putting the political aspect aside, we spoke to Chris Pitt from the League Against Cruel Sports to learn more about the practical realities of the Hunting Act in 2017.
"There are a lot of confusions being spread about hunting that some people still buy in to," Chris told VICE Sports. "People try to claim that fox hunting is necessary for some kind of wildlife management. Whatever the discussion about wildlife management or fox control, fox hunting has nothing to do with it. If you were involved in pest control, you wouldn't start the day with a glass of wine and a smile on your face.
"Secondly, hunts deliberately capture foxes, move them around the country and keep them in artificial earth so that they can then be released and hunted. This is a known practice. If they were trying to control fox numbers, why would they do that?"
When the Hunting Act is discussed it almost always centres on foxes, but Chris was keen to emphasise that the ban also covers other animals such as stags and hares, relaying a particularly harrowing story about a stag that was hunted to the point that it threw itself off a bridge.
"The media tends to focus on fox hunting, perhaps because it's the most famous, and the pro-hunt lobby are able to use the animal control argument as a justification," he said. "It puts doubts in people's minds, which is why the figure for people opposing fox hunting, while very high [at 84 per cent], is still slightly less than for stag [88 per cent] and hare hunting [91 per cent].
"But the hunting act includes stag and hare hunting, and the pro-hunting lobby finds those harder to argue [for]. There's no justification for chasing a stag for many hours until it's exhausted and then killing it; the same goes for hares, which in certain areas are on the verge of extinction. There's no justification for hunting any of those animals, but maybe the fox allows the pro-hunt lobby to use an excuse.
"There's no debate here," Chris continued, "hunting has nothing to do with fox control whatsoever. People like doing it because they like chasing and killing an animal. So we don't want MPs of any colour to be misled by that kind of line – it's simply not true."
Though the Hunting Act was passed almost 13 years ago, the bloodsport remains a popular activity for many of its old adherents. Ostensibly, much of the hunting with hounds that takes place in 2017 does not involve an animal being chased – the hunts lay an artificial trail and follow this instead. However, Chris says that this is often a smokescreen used to continue hunting as it was done before the ban.
"The hunts go out, they either pretend to lay a trail or not and then if they catch a fox they will claim it's an accident. They'll say: 'The hounds just saw the fox and set off after it, we did everything we could to stop them but unfortunately the fox died.' That is something you can read in all kinds of court documents as an excuse.
"We don't believe it's true – we believe many of the hunts are going out intending to catch a fox."
Writing in 2015, right-wing columnist James Delingpole confirmed as much, saying: 'If, on occasion – whoops! – the hounds do chase a fox, things get rather exciting.' Chris believes that stiffer sentences are required to discourage such open flouting of the law.
"Increasing sentences is one of the things we're calling for in terms of strengthening the act," he said, "because the deterrent isn't there. It needs to be jail time." To date there have been more than 430 successful prosecutions under the Hunting Act. In March 2017 three members of the Grove and Rufford Hunt were fined after being found guilty of killing a fox. They claimed that the animal jumped out of a hedge and was then chased and killed before they could intervene, but amateur footage showed that no attempt was made to call off the hounds.
"At the same time as campaigning on hunting we also work on dog fighting and other animal cruelty issues," said Chris. "We're calling for a five-year minimum sentence for animal cruelty. Currently you can take part in a dog fight and the most you'll get is six months in prison, which simply isn't enough."
Chris expanded on this point by suggesting that dog fighting and hunting – both illegal, both involving harm to animals for humans' enjoyment – should be treated as one and the same.
"From our point of view, if you set one dog on another dog and call it dog fighting, most people in this country will abhor that; what's the difference if you set a dog on a fox? It's the same kind of cruelty and there should be similar penalties. You wouldn't see the government trying to legalise dog fighting.
"Unfortunately, there is an influential minority who like hunting and have friends in high places.
"But… if a couple of young guys in an urban area were caught fighting dogs they'd soon be shown the law – so why shouldn't the same be true for people chasing foxes in the countryside?"
It is certainly true hunting has friends in high places, notably among senior members of the royal family. Prince Charles was a keen huntsman before the ban and took his two young sons out several times. All three continue to hunt legally in this country and abroad, while also speaking on animal rights issues.
Charles was particularly aggrieved at the Hunting Act, reportedly telling Tony Blair that the then-Prime Minister "would not dare attack an ethnic minority in the way that supporters of fox hunting were being persecuted." He is also alleged to have remarked that if hunting was banned he might as well leave Britain and spend the rest of his life skiing, though as of 2017 the Prince continues to ski only recreationally, rather than in full-time protest at a piece of government legislation.
At a time when sport in all its forms feels secondary to the very real issues facing the country, the decision to bring fox hunting back to the fore seems increasingly strange. The largest public protest of the general election campaign to date was against a repeal of the ban, and it could cost the Conservatives crucial support. A recent poll found nearly half of all voters are less likely to back candidates who want to make fox hunting legal, while a further third were much less likely. In fact, only three per cent were much more likely to vote for a pro-hunting politician.
"The Hunting Act is doing a good job," said Chris. "It was brought in for the right reason – to prevent cruelty – but it needs a bit of tweaking to make sure it does what the lawmakers intended. It needs tightening up in certain areas and that way we'll have the law that people wanted.
"Originally and continually [pro-hunt campaigners] claim the law was about class warfare and that it was designed to punish the upper classes. We dispute that. This is about animal cruelty, not class."