First, any chance that hunting would be made legal again in the near future was crushed by the reaction to Theresa May’s announcement that she personally supported the sport.
Secondly, the attempted ban of trail hunting on National Trust land was an unwelcome exposure of what has been hunting’s main deception since ‘lethal’ hunting was banned in 2005.
Thirdly, Michael Gove’s announcement that animal sentience must now be considered in any future law-making must be of great concern – it’s a lot harder to inflict animal cruelty, even in the guise of ‘sport’, when your prey is recognised as having feelings.
The ‘nasty’ party
It’s worth looking at each of these in more detail. The announcement of an election back in Spring buoyed those who support hunting – there was every chance that a government with a pro-hunting majority would be elected for the first time since hunting was banned in 2005.
The mood was positively jubilant among some, thinking that the hated Hunting Act would finally be gone. Theresa May’s comment that she personally supports hunting would have given another boost to their cause – but her statement triggered a backlash in the media.
Over the next couple of weeks, fox hunting became one of the most talked about issues of the whole election, which frankly was interesting given how many major issues should have been on the table.
But the discussion went beyond the normal debate of pro versus anti hunting. It became an issue of compassion. Are we a nation of animal lovers or not?
The debate stirred up party vs party differences, and the perception of the Conservative Party as the ‘nasty’ party was reignited. It’s hard to know exactly how much of an impact this debate had on the election result as a whole, but it’s generally recognised that it cost the Conservative Party a lot of votes. It may even have cost them seats.
The result was that the Conservative Party won the election but quickly dropped the manifesto promise to hold a free vote on repeal of the Hunting Act. A massive switch from just weeks before.
Quickly after the election came another hunting-related battle, this time fought on the grounds of a beloved institution – the National Trust. NT members put forward a motion asking for trail hunting to be banned from National Trust property – if successful, hunts would have lost a significant amount of the land they use and could have resulted in some hunts having to close down.
The National Trust issue was not a simple one. The crux of it was the term ‘trail’ hunting and what that actually means. Most people’s understanding – guided by the National Trust’s advice – was that ‘trail’ hunting is a legal activity whereby hunts follow an artificial trail and do not kill animals.
If that was true, then of course most people wouldn’t vote to ban it – why would they? But again, if that was true, this motion would never have been put forward, as no-one was trying to ban legal hunting from NT land.
This reality of trail hunting is very much disputed. Evidence gathered for ten years or more events shows trail hunts repeatedly chasing and killing foxes, deer and hares.
The most common reason they give is that the hounds picked up the scent of the animal accidentally and couldn’t be stopped. But this happens repeatedly. When does an accident become deliberate? We believe that these are no accidents, and never have been.
Trail hunting is not the only kind of hunting – there is also ‘drag’ hunting. Drag hunting has been in existence for 200 years, and involves the hounds following an artificial scent – such as aniseed. The chances of any animals being killed ‘by accident’ are minimal. There was no attempt to ban drag hunting from NT land.
When ‘lethal’ hunting was banned in 2005, if those hunts who had been chasing animals had genuinely wanted to obey the law, they could have switched to drag hunting. But they didn’t – none of them.
Instead they invented trail hunting. This looks similar to drag hunting, but there are key differences: the fact that hounds are still trained to follow an animal-based scent is vital.
Dogs don’t by nature tend to chase and kill foxes, they have to be trained to do so. Thus by training the dogs to follow an animal-based scent, the hunts are making these accidents much more likely.
There’s a list of other evidence and incidents which cast a huge shadow over the credibility of trail hunting; these have been discussed this year, perhaps more than ever, and the veneer of respectability around trail hunting has been dangerously cracked.
Coming to the recent announcement of a new Animal Welfare Bill by Michael Gove, this has generally been met with enthusiasm by animal welfare groups.
An increase in sentencing for animal cruelty, which includes dog fighting which the League has been working hard on, was a popular move which few would have argued with – congratulations to the Government for pushing this through.
The section on sentience was interesting because it came soon after a story (or was it fake news?) around the potential removal of acknowledgement that animals are sentient from UK legislation once Brexit goes through.
Once again, the government were being hit with accusations that they are anti-animal and anti-compassion, so for a new Bill to be announced so quickly was always going to be seen as a direct response to what had gone before.
The recognition of sentience in future legislation does pose a real problem for those who like hunting. Can a decision be taken to repeal an Act which is designed to protect animals from cruelty? An Act which was built on a report which stated that animals suffer from hunting?
With sentences for animal cruelty being increased, what does (or should?) this mean for those convicted of illegal hunting, which at present only leads to paltry fines. Why is setting one dog on another dog (dog fighting) any different to setting a pack of dogs on one fox?
There are interesting questions to be answered. Meanwhile, this Boxing Day, hunts will parade, and claim that the number of people watching them is a sign that hunting is as popular as ever.
This year has shown that not to be true. The election showed that people are massively opposed to the killing of animals. The National Trust story showed that people previously didn’t realise that trail hunting generally equals ‘lethal’ hunting – but more of them do now. And the new Animal Welfare Bill showed that the government has realised that voters in this country want them to be compassionate towards animals. It’s not been a good year for hunting.
Chris Pitt is deputy director of Campaigns at the League Against Cruel Sports.