English flout hunting ban in foxy style

Fox hunting in the English countryside remains a hotly contested issue, partially because the 2005 ban has had little impact on the widely-practiced tradition. 

Jane Mingay/AP
A giant fox and stag float on a barge on the Thames in London past Britain's parliament, Sept. 14, 2004 on the eve of a historic vote on hunting as part of a campaign to ban hunting with dogs in the UK. The ban has done little to stop fox hunting with hounds because of loopholes in the law.

“Baffle!” yells huntsman Peter Collins, summoning one of his hunt's dogs midway through his explanation of why the United Kingdom’s Hunting Act is not working. “Baffle! Here!”

From a tangled scrum of foxhounds, rolling around in the damp grass as they wait for the hunt to begin, an alert brown and white dog looks up at him, mounted on a large brown horse and dressed in scarlet.

“That bitch is from an unbroken female line of dogs going back to 1883,” says Mr. Collins, who has earned his living working with hunts since he was 15. “This [sniffing out and chasing and killing a fox] is what she’s been bred to do. Stopping her is not easy."

As the Quorn – one of the world’s oldest hunts, established in 1696 – gathered on Dec. 26 for its annual Boxing Day Hunt at Prestwold Hall, an 18th-century estate in Leicestershire, the invincibility of the 400-year-old tradition of fox hunting, despite a ban, was never far from conversation.

Six years after the Labour government passed a ban that sought to abolish killing foxes with hounds, one of the most contentious laws in recent British history, Britain's 300-plus hunts appear to be flourishing. More than 1,000 locals turned up at Prestwold to wave off the Quorn – a scene that was repeated at other fox hunts throughout the countryside.

The Hunting Act of 2005 has failed to curb hunting because loopholes in the legislation allow hunts to continue killing foxes, either accidentally with hounds or by using hounds to flush out foxes who are then killed by other means. 

“We were worried it would all collapse when the ban came in in 2005,” says Mary Clark, a grandmother who has watched the Quorn ride out to hunt on Dec. 26 since she was a child. 

“We’re so happy that all this continues,” she added, standing in a crowd that watched as smartly dressed men and women mounted on glossy horses were handed drinks.

Legal loopholes

Britain's hunts continue to thrive largely because of loopholes in the law that allow hunts to still kill foxes. The Hunting Act allows hunts to exercise packs of hounds and to follow scented trails that mimic the odor of the fox. If the dogs pick up the scent of a real fox, the hunt must try to call off the hounds – but if the fox is killed accidentally the hunt has not broken the law. This is the scenario Mr. Collins described when he mentioned the difficulty stopping one of his hounds.

The law also allows hunts to use two dogs to flush out a fox if it is then shot with a bullet or killed by a bird of prey.

Although there are no figures on the number of foxes that have been killed by hounds since the law was passed in 2005, anecdotal evidence suggests that the hunts routinely kill foxes, sometimes illegally.  

A local judge, who did not want to be named, said he had stopped hunting when the law was passed because, “I felt I could not enforce the law Monday to Friday and break it on Saturday." 

It can be difficult to prove that someone has broken the law because the law is ambiguous. Despite anti-hunt activists’ efforts to monitor hunts, only six people who belong to registered hunts have been convicted since the law was passed, according to the Countryside Alliance, an nongovernment organization that promotes the interests of rural England and is strongly opposed to the ban. 

“It’s not acceptable for hunt staff to go out with the threat of prosecution hanging over them,” says Alice Barnard, the chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, as she watched the Quorn assemble.

Ms. Barnard, who has hunted since she was 9, says that trail hunting is no substitute for the real thing. “It doesn’t have the pause and rhythm of real hunting. It doesn’t come close."

Is a change coming?

On Dec. 26, as Britain's hunts prepared to ride out, Agriculture Minister Jim Paice called for a repeal of the law.

"It has been criticized by virtually all levels of authority – by the courts, by the police – as unenforceable," he said. “Efforts by the pressure groups to force the police to enforce it are just distracting the police from more important issues."

Even former Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose government passed the law, wrote in his memoirs that the ban was one of his biggest regrets.

The current coalition government has promised to hold a parliamentary vote on whether to repeal it, but no one is expecting that to take place any time soon. Such an emotional issue would spark a furious debate that would distract from more pressing economic matters. The hunting issue is often seen as a symbol of the polarization between rural and urban England, with many city dwellers opposing hunting.

Joe Duckworth, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said in a statement issued Dec. 26, "We have seen poll after poll show that the public support and belief in the Hunting Act is overwhelmingly high. The vast majority has absolutely no desire to see wild animals being chased and killed legally in our countryside."

In the meantime, the hunts argue that the law has failed to obtain its real objective: the abolition of cruelty to foxes. Huntsmen argue that the restrictions have actually worsened foxes’ lot. Foxes are being shot more often, they say, which can leave them lying wounded but not killed, something that never happens with hounds.

“So many more foxes are dying and being wounded now,” says Edward Pack-Drury-Lowe, who owns Prestwold Hall and hunts with the Quorn.

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