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Trail hunting exposed

Head huntsman’s guilty verdict should push the government to act

By Christie Edward James

Image courtesy of Elien Smid via Pixabay


Conservationists and animal welfare activists finally have a rare moment of delight. In the fight for animal liberation, there’s been a big step! In the fight for who owns the countryside, well, it’s a slightly smaller one.


On the 15th of October, Mark Hankinson was found guilty of encouraging or assisting others to act illegally under the Hunting Act of 2004—famous legislation introduced under Tony Blair (of which he has since regretted, further exposing what a traditionalist he really is). But nonetheless almost overturned by David Cameron and Theresa May during their time as PM, respectively, but thrown out for not being popular enough with their supporter base (Christ alive, imagine being ‘out of touch’ by Tory standards). Using the very language that activists label against him, he told his peers to ‘create a smokescreen’ when on hunts. That is, to seem as if you’re carrying out a legitimate trail hunt (of which is allowed in the UK and involves hounds simply following a fake scent to mimic a real hunt, with no killing) with the intent of distracting the authorities, saboteurs or other onlookers while, in reality, purposefully going off course or into areas where it is known there are foxes to illegally hunt and kill them. It’s like if Nestlé started using ‘greenwashing’ in internal memos.


Hankinson is (well, was) the director of the Hunting Office and considered Britain’s leading huntsman. In 2020, he was caught in a leaked online meeting, as uncovered by ITV News, telling hunters how to carry out their blood sport outside of the law. Little did he know he was being recorded. Hardly a surprise, really. You can’t expect people stuck in the sixteenth century to know how a Zoom call works. The League Against Cruel Sports commented that this conviction goes to show that trail hunting is indeed a smokescreen: ‘[the case] has proven beyond doubt that trail hunting is nothing but a sham’. It goes to show that hunters will go to extreme lengths, and often violence, to keep alive their archaic weekend hobby. They are utterly dishonest, cruel and self-appointed ‘regal’ roleplayers who, despite claiming their love more than anyone else, in fact despise this country’s natural beauty and wildlife.


On the back of this the National Trust’s (for UK excluding Scotland*) membership has voted to ban trail hunting—including hound exercising—on its land. A historic vote. They also called for other landowners to do the same. Far from controversial, and rather a shame that a big exposé court case was needed for it to be passed, considering 81% of the UK public agree that fox hunting should be and thusly remain illegal (you can’t get that many people in the UK to agree on anything).


The Scottish government has taken ‘pre-emptive action to prevent trail hunting becoming established in Scotland’ in a proposed fox control bill to reduce hound numbers, but has not yet introduced any legislation. And although traditional hunting is banned under the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act of 2002, there has existed a loophole since its creation that allows for hounds to ‘flush out’ foxes from cover so that they can be shot. Essentially, fox hunting is still allowed in Scotland; a ban on trail hunting, while useful, isn’t the first priority.


It still happens. To this day. Despite overwhelming public opposition. The Ferret and OneKind found that in Loch Farr Wood, Farr Wood and Meall Mor near Inverness, huntsmen lured foxes out to be ‘controlled’ (killed)—in public forests owned by Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS). FLS’s response has been disappointing and confusing; their internal policy hardly aims to tackle such wildlife crime, and only acts to enable it. This repugnant ‘sport’, if you can call it that, is being backed by public funds.


Ten hunts still take place every year, killing over 800 foxes in Scotland. All under the guise of ‘pest control’. Tough legislation is needed. Not only that though; enforcement is needed. Wildlife policing is barely non-existent. There has only been one successful conviction of an illegal hunt in Scotland, back in 2017.


Current proposed legislation by the SNP is totally unfit. A reduction in the pack numbers of hounds doesn’t ban the sport, despite Nicola Sturgeon’s apparent personal opposition to fox hunting. Maybe you’re on the side that pest control is a good thing? However, it’s known that foxes are not disruptive to agricultural activities. Moreover, there are far more humane ways to deal with overpopulation or general distribution, for example, than by brutal murder: with intense and incredibly prolonged pain and suffering for the animal. It’s plain to see by those who take part in it, and consequently those who defend it, that it’s a sport for the posh. The rich and backwards. It’s an excuse to keep their acres of land and stay far away from the poor folk.


If you’re as appalled as I am—which puts us both in the vast, vast majority—be sure to contact your local MSP and council, and sign the League Against Cruel Sports’ petition. Hankinson was fined just £1,000, but the real justice comes with a national ban.


 

*As of the the 8th of November 2021 as per an information request to the National Trust for Scotland, traditional fox hunts do not occur on National Trust property in Scotland and have not for decades, the last being at the Hill of Tarvit in Fife many decades ago. On occasion where control of foxes is needed, such as to protect livestock or ground-nesting birds, non-lethal methods are used wherever possible. This is to ensure wider conservation objectives. Rarely, however, trained shooting staff must resort to lethal control. There is no use of snares or fox hunts. It is believed that current conservation objectives would not allow for traditional fox hunting to resume on their land.


Although the National Trust for Scotland does not have an official position on fox hunting in general, they treat foxes as a valued part of our natural heritage and support their presence in the Scottish countryside.


Equally, the National Trust for Scotland would like to emphasise their independence from the National Trust (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) as an entirely separate charity with no connections to their organisation or activities.


I would like to thank the National Trust for Scotland for the timely response to the information request.