In a few short days, the country will vote for a new government. God willing, “the man who beggared Britain” will no longer be Prime Minister and the disgraceful years of New Labour’s term in office will be over. Among Labour’s appalling record of bad governance – the Iraq war, Afghanistan, a ruined economy – it is the deliberate and sustained aggression towards country people, symbolised by devoting more than 700 hours of Parliamentary time to banning hunting with dogs, which will astound future students of British political history.
The bill to ban hunting with hounds was forced through Parliament on 18 November 2004, when the Speaker of the House of Commons invoked the Parliament Act. This enables the House of Commons to pass legislation against the wishes of the House of Lords and had been used previously only in times of national emergency. The Hunting Act, which became law on 18 February 2005, was a nonsense, condemned by Parliamentarians of all parties. Sir John Chilcot, chairman of the 2009 enquiry into the legality of the Iraq War described it as a “notorious example of bad government”.
The Act contained a bewildering series of “exemptions” which were both illogical and unclear, whose definition was ultimately left up to huntsmen, the police and the courts but which inevitably placed law-abiding people at risk of pros-ecution. It ignored the government Inquiry into all aspects of hunting, chaired by Lord Burns who, in a reply during the debate in the House of Lords, said: “Naturally, people ask whether we were implying that hunting is cruel. The short answer to that question is no.” It condemned the species it claimed to protect to being shot at or snared, was wickedly socially divisive and diverted police attention from real crime. Only New Labour could be capable of passing legislation that was so counter-productive.
At the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) annual general meeting in June 2009, the guest speaker, William Hague, described the Act as “a piece of legislation so deeply prejudiced and so ridiculously unworkable that its existence weakens and discredits the laws of the land” and repeated the Conservative promise of a government Bill in government time to repeal the hunting ban. At the Conservative Party Conference, David Cameron called the Act a farce and confirmed his pledge that repeal of the Hunting Act would form part of the manifesto on which the party would fight this election and if asked to form a government, as we all hope, scrub this obscene law off the statute books.
MONITORING OR HARASSMENT?
The last five seasons have been purgatory for huntsmen as they have tried to keep the heritage of hunting alive within the exemptions permitted under the new law. These simply demonstrated New Labour’s ignorance of animal behaviour and included such gems of wisdom as making it an offence to allow a dog to chase a mouse but not a rat. A rabbit could legally be hunted with a dog, but not a hare, unless it had been shot and wounded. A fox, hare or deer could be legally flushed to guns with two dogs but not with three, and any number of them could flush a mammal to a bird of prey. Separate from exemptions, a pack of “dogs” was permitted to hunt a scent trail or be taken out on exercise and after much persuasion the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) accepted that on these occasions, it was possible that “dogs” might accidentally pick up the scent of a fox. If a huntsman were unable to reach his hounds before they killed, DEFRA said there would be no prosecution as there was not “the intent” of allowing hounds to chase and kill a fox.
The League Against Cruel Sports took a different view and embarked on a concerted campaign of monitoring hunts, which in any other country would be treated as harassment, in an attempt to prove that the law was being deliberately broken. Since February 2005, the 325 or so registered hunts in England and Wales have carried out approximately 70,000 days’ hunting and during that period, nine registered hunts – the Exmoor, Isle of Wight, Flint and Denbigh, Heythrop, Ullswater and Percy Foxhounds, the Minehead Harriers, Quantock and Devon and Somerset Staghounds – have faced prosecution under the new legislation. Three prosecutions resulted in convictions, six prosecutions have failed, three were dropped before trial and three resulted in all defendants being acquitted.
LYING IN WAIT
The open countryside of Cumbria and the practice of hunting on foot have made the six central fell packs targets for hunt saboteurs and monitors working for the League. During the first season following the ban, Barry Todhunter, huntsman of the Blencathra, was visited by police investigating complaints on 25 occasions. I asked what repeal would mean to him. His replies were typical of the fell huntsmen: freedom from the endless anxiety of the consequences of a fox doubling back across a trail line and hounds changing scent, freedom from the feeling of uneasiness every time the phone rings, always being on guard, always assuming the worst and the dreadful sense that personal integrity is always questioned. “Before the ban,” he told me, “I could sit down after hunting and reflect on the day. Now I wait for the bang on the door or the blue reflector arriving outside kennels.”
More than anything else, repeal would mean the freedom to get back to the historic service which the fell packs have provided farmers for centuries. John Harrison, huntsman of the Ullswater, whose summons by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) based on video evidence from League employees was dismissed, makes the very pertinent point about the effect of the ban on hounds. “Trail hunting is asking hounds to do something that is alien to them,” he told me. “If they are not allowed to hunt foxes, hundreds of years of hunting instinct will be lost.” Apart from the endless worry that League monitors are lying out on the fells with cameras waiting for something to go wrong, repeal would mean hunt staff being able to concentrate on breeding hounds to do a job and the pride that goes with hounds performing as they want them to. Revoking the Hunting Act would return a sense of genuine relevance to the great hound shows such as Royal Peterborough, Honiton, Ardingly, Builth Wells and Harrogate.
Mark Bycroft, huntsman of the Old Surrey, Burstow and West Kent, comments that unless young entry can be blooded early it leads to rioting and if trail hunting is to continue, hounds will have to be bred accordingly. In common with other huntsmen, he emphasises the stress of trying to provide entertainment for the field while hunting within the law. Repeal would signify relief from the burden of worry that an accident beyond his control might have been recorded by League monitors and that in five or six weeks he could be arrested and, potentially, acquire a criminal record.
The first huntsman to be found guilty, in a private pros-ecution taken out by the League relating to an incident on 29 April 2005, was Tony Wright, huntsman of the Exmoor Foxhounds. Tony was found guilty in August 2006 and had his conviction overturned on appeal on 30 November 2007. The CPS sought to appeal against this judgment on points of law. This application was refused on the grounds that it was frivolous. The CPS responded by launching a Judicial Review. On 18 July 2008, the High Court ordered that two points of law should be heard at appeal and these, with the Judicial Review, were finally heard on 16 December 2008.
WIDENING THE DIVIDE
Judgment was reserved and finally delivered on 3 February 2009, when two judges found for the Exmoor on all questions. The judgment limited the definition of “hunting” to the pursuit of an identifiable mammal with dogs; it upheld the presumption of innocence for people in legal “exempt” hunting by putting the burden of proof on the prosecution to prove that any hunting was illegal; and it confirmed that “hunting” can only be intentional and not accidental. On 3 March 2009 the Director of Public Prosecutions announced that he would not be appealing the judgment, and the pending cases against Julian Barnfield, huntsman of the Heythrop, and Maurice Scott, Master of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, were subsequently dropped, as was the private prosecution of the Isle of Wight Hunt by the League.
This ruling was a breakthrough but it subjected an innocent man to four years of worry and anxiety before his name was cleared. I asked Tony what hunting repeal would mean to him. “It will be the day that hunts have endured the last five years for.” It will also be the day that young people determined to make a career in hunt service have longed for. Tony raised another point and one that may take a long time to ameliorate. A direct consequence of this ridiculous law and the covert activities of hunt monitors has led to hunting people adopting a feeling of suspicion and distrust towards any strangers, successfully widening the urban-rural divide.
From my perspective, repeal was succinctly summed up by my Joint Master, Charles Stirling. ” Repeal,” he said, “would redeem the insult that anything we do, or anything previous generations have done, is in any way remotely cruel.” For that reason alone, this vindictive, contemptuous piece of legislation must be abolished.
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