The Hunting Act 2004 outlawed fox hunting with dogs in England and Wales. Tony Blair forced the legislation through by invoking the Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949, allowing the Commons to over-rule the Lords.
The Act is widely acknowledged to be bad law. It is difficult to interpret and enforce, illiberal, bad for animal welfare and a waste of police resources.
Hounds can still be used to follow a scent and to flush out a fox. It is not uncommon for hounds to kill the fox before a huntsman is able to shoot it. For a prosecution to be brought, it would be necessary to prove that it was the intention of the hunt’s organisers to hunt illegally. This is far from easy to do.
If the hunting ban was intended to prevent foxes being killed, it has failed. The number of foxes killed by hunts and farmers has actually increased since the ban took effect. Further, if the ban was intended to limit the cruel and inhumane treatment of foxes, it has failed on that score too. Foxes are now more likely to be shot – shotguns being the most common tool for the purpose. Frequently, foxes are not killed instantly, but face a long and agonising death as they are slowly poisoned by shrapnel.
A more sensible approach would be to implement a strict licensing scheme. Each hunt should be forced to apply for a licence, which would only be granted if they could show that their method of killing involves less suffering than any alternative method. Hunts should also be limited to a certain number of days per calendar year (with the possibility of being increased if it can be shown that foxes are worrying local livestock).
It cannot be right that a large section of law-abiding citizens live in fear of prosecution. This is especially the case when they are frequently the ones targeted by groups, such as ‘Hunt Saboteurs’, acting illegally.
David Cameron said in January 2012:
“I always thought the hunting ban was a pretty bizarre piece of legislation…I think there should be a free vote in the House of Commons. [The Hunting Act 2004] took the criminal law into an area of activity where it didn’t really belong.”
Polls have shown that 75% of the population are against the Hunting Act being repealed. But polls taken in rural areas have shown that as many as two-thirds of people wish to see hunting with dogs brought back. There is a clear divergence of opinion between ‘townies’ and those who live in the countryside (where hunts actually take place). It may therefore be argued that this is simply a case of one group imposing its will over another – what de Tocqueville called ‘tyranny of the majority’.
Fox hunting is an important part of rural cultural heritage – and it remains popular. Over 250,000 people turned out at Boxing Day hunts across Britain. Hunting provides an important social contribution to the lives of rural communities. It gives participants a sense of ‘belonging’ to their local hunt in following a shared activity. This cohesion of hunting communities became ever more apparent during the foot and mouth crisis – an example being trained hunt staff helping with the contiguous cull.
The government has promised to give MPs a free vote to “express a view” on repealing the Hunting Act. This should take place as soon as possible. The current law targets the wrong people, allows for more inhumane fox deaths, and threatens the lifeblood of many rural communities.