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Dressed to kill ... the Essex Hunt. Photo: League Against Cruel Sports.
Dressed to kill ... the Essex Hunt. Photo: League Against Cruel Sports.
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Fox hunting season begins under cloud of political spin

Dr Toni Shephard

8th November 2015

The fox-hunting season is now well under way, writes Toni Shephard. But with Cameron still pressing for a Commons vote on wrecking amendments to the Hunting Act, political controversy shows no sign of subsiding. Take, for example, the proposed lifting of the limit on number of dogs that can be used for the 'observation or study' of a wild mammal.

What were described as 'minor tweaks' needed to iron out anomalies between the two laws were actually substantial changes that would have made the Act unenforceable.

The traditional fox hunting season began at the start of this month, and the hunts no doubt hope this is the last year their cruel pastime will be hampered by the restrictions of the Hunting Act.

With the Conservative government still proclaiming its commitment to a vote on hunting, and a government Order proposing changes to the Act still on the table, it is important to understand what these changes would mean.

Earlier this year the Westminster government attempted to seriously weaken the Hunting Act in England and Wales under the guise of bringing parity with Scottish legislation.

What were described as 'minor tweaks' needed to iron out anomalies between the two laws were actually substantial changes that would have made the Act unenforceable and led to a dramatic increase in animal suffering.

How many dogs does it take to flush out a fox?

Both anti-hunting laws currently include exemptions to permit the 'control' of mammals in certain specific circumstances. In both England and Scotland dogs can be used to flush a wild mammal out of cover to be shot by waiting guns if undertaken for the purpose of reducing serious damage to livestock, game birds, crops, property or biodiversity.

Only two dogs may be used for this purpose in England whereas in Scotland there is no limit on the number of dogs.

The Government's proposed changes would remove the limit on the number of dogs used for flushing to guns in England, seemingly bringing parity with Scotland.

However, Scotland has only ten hunts yet enforcement of the exemption has proven difficult as demonstrated by a League investigation last year, which showed half of the hunts claiming to be flushing to guns - but without a single gun in sight. With 300 hunts in England and Wales enforcement would be nearly impossible.

But there are also serious welfare problems with allowing the use of more dogs. While it may be more efficient at flushing animals from cover, it makes the dogs much more difficult to control, especially in dense cover. A pack of dogs is much more likely to catch and kill a fox, hare or even deer before it breaks from cover and can be shot. It is also difficult to get a clean shot with 30-40 dogs running around the animal.

Earlier this year League investigators filmed a Welsh fox hunt flushing a fox to waiting guns using a full pack of hounds (in contravention of the Hunting Act). However, the hounds caught and killed the fox while the men with guns were out of sight.

Our investigators returned the next day and collected the dead fox. An autopsy revealed the fox had been shot and wounded before it was killed by the hounds. This demonstrates the difficulty in a) controlling a pack of dogs and b) taking a clean shot when a pack of dogs is present.

These welfare concerns are confirmed in a new report by world fox expert Professor Stephen Harris at the University of Bristol. He believes that using two dogs to flush foxes is likely to ensure higher levels of welfare since the dogs are easier to control and the fox is flushed more slowly, reducing the risk that it will be wounded rather than killed by the waiting guns.

This report has been submitted to the Scottish government which has committed to review the hunting legislation (Protection of Wild Mammals Act) in Scotland this year with a view to strengthening it if necessary.

Dogs as binoculars for observation and study?

But there were more alarming changes proposed as part of the Government's attempt to weaken the Act. The England and Wales legislation already contains one exemption that is not allowed in Scotland: two dogs can be used for the purpose of, or in connection with, the observation or study of a wild mammal.

The exemption states the dogs must be kept under sufficiently close control as not to harm the animal. The proposed amendment was to lift the restriction on the number of dogs so a full pack of dogs could chase a mammal for observation purposes.

It is the widening of this exemption that would make the Act unenforceable. No guns need to be present for research and observation, so any hunt could claim they were using a full pack to flush a fox, hare or deer simply to observe it and whoops, the hounds accidentally killed it.

As hunting has to be an intentional activity under the English law - that is they had to set out with the intention of hunting a mammal - they could not be prosecuted for an accidental kill. And as highlighted above, keeping a full pack of dogs 'under sufficiently close control as not to harm the animal' is virtually impossible.

Furthermore, little mention has been made of the areas where Scotland's anti-hunt law is clearly stronger than England's, and no effort has been made to bring parity in these areas. In England and Wales, a High Court ruling states that hunting does not include searching for a mammal. It only becomes hunting once there is an identifiable mammal.

The law in Scotland explicitly states that to 'hunt' includes to search for a mammal. More importantly, in Scotland you can go to prison for up to six months for illegal hunting. In England and Wales the maximum penalty is a £5,000 fine.

So the Westminster Government clearly 'cherry picked' bits of the Scottish legislation that favour hunters, without also taking on the related obligations that come with greater freedom. They cynically used national tensions to try and sneak in a return to pre-ban hunting.

It will be poetic justice if their underhand action ultimately results in the strengthening of Scotland's hunting legislation. I doubt the pro-hunt lobby will be so keen on 'parity' between nations then.



Dr Toni Shephard is Head of Policy and Research at the League Against Cruel Sports.


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