Boxing Day brings confrontation over U.K. Hunting Act enforcement

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2010:


LONDON–The British ban on pack hunting is at risk if the
Conservative slate led by David Cameron wins a majority in the 2010
Parliamentary elections, but Labour environment secretary Hilary
Benn served notice in a Boxing Day op-ed column for The Independent
that the Hunting Act, passed in 2004, will not go down without a
fight fully backed by Labour leadership.
Along with Christmas, Benn wrote, “We should also celebrate
the fifth Boxing Day without the sight of foxes being torn to pieces.
In years to come I think we will look back with horror at a time when
hunting wild animals with dogs was viewed as respectable
entertainment. Like badger-baiting and cock-fighting, ripping
animals to shreds with dogs will become a relic of history.”

“The Hunting Act is under threat if the Tories have their
way,” Benn acknowledged. “They have made clear that they want to
get rid of it as soon as they can.”
Indeed, Cameron and supporters rallied opposition to the
Hunting Act at some of the mass rides to hounds that are a Boxing Day
tradition in Britain.
“The ‘back the ban’ campaign makes clear that Labour will
make hunting an issue in the 2010 general election,” predicted
Andrew Grice, political editor of The Independent. “Although Benn
insists hunting is not a ‘class issue,’ the move follows Prime
Minister Gordon Brown’s attack on Cameron’s plans to cut the
inheritance tax. When Labour focus groups remind voters of the
Tories’ stance on hunting,” Grice continued, “many people are said
to reply, ‘I guess they haven’t changed.’ People are surprised that
Cameron wants to overturn the ban, and Labour believes this
undermines his claim to have modernised the Conservative Party.”
“This isn’t a class issue,” wrote Benn, “nor is it
about the countryside against our towns, and it isn’t about stopping
people from riding their horses together, either. It is about what
we think a decent, civilised society should stand for. Lots of
people in rural areas oppose fox hunting,” Benn said. “According to
a recent Ipsos Mori poll, three-quarters of the population do not
want hunting with dogs to be made legal again. The same poll showed
that 72% of the rural population want to keep the ban in place. And
yet 84% of Tory candidates want to repeal the ban, according to
recent research. The Tories claim they have changed. Their stance on
fox hunting makes clear that they haven’t.”
Conservative candidates, reported Grice, “are said to have
been advised not to state their view on hunting, but to promise to
consult their constituents before deciding how to vote. The Tory
manifesto [platform] will promise a free vote on a government bill,
rather than a private member’s bill, a move which guarantees
parliamentary time and would be harder for opponents to block.”
The pro-hunting Countryside Alliance responded to the Ipso
Mori poll that Benn cited with their own poll findings, showing that
57% of those questioned believe the Hunting Act is ineffective, and
that 49% favor either repeal or the free vote plan. Supporting the
Hunting Act, according to the Country-side Alliance, were 45%.
Joining in Boxing Day 2009 hunts were 295 hunt clubs plus 25
Welsh “fox control societies,” with 181 packs of foxhounds, 90
packs of hare-chasing dogs, three packs of staghounds, and 21 packs
of mink hounds.
The Conservative and Countryside Alliance strategy on Boxing
Day, wrote Martin Wainwright of The Guardian, was to use hunts “to
highlight enforcement problems, rather than the principles of the
issue, by following artificial trails, which seldom fail to set up
an actual fox. These are inevitably chased by the hounds. If the
foxes are killed, the defence of lack of intention has almost
invariably held good. Only nine prosecutions of traditional hunts
have reached court since the act was passed in 2004,” Wainwright
said, “with three convictions. Other loopholes include the right to
use dogs to set up quarry for birds of prey, which Labour conceded
in order to protect hawking enthusiasts. Equipped with a variety of
eagles, hunts have sidestepped the law.
‘The Hunting Act’s limited successes have been against
organisers of coursing events on the fringe of organised hunting,”
Wainwright contended, “including the conviction of seven people for
killing rats for sport on Merseyside.”
But lack of police enthusiasm for enforcing the Hunting Act
has been a factor. In May 2009 the Association of Chief Police
Officers adopted a policy statement urging police to avoid
“acrimonious, time-consuming, frustrating and ultimately fruitless
activity” in trying to enforce the Hunting Act.
“Hunting is definitely not a policing priority,” said
Richard Brunstrom, Chief Constable of North Wales and the ACPO
spokesperson on rural affairs. “It is not illegal to wear a red coat
and ride a horse in a public place. If you look at hunting,”
Brunstrom told London Times countryside editor Valerie Elliot, “the
penalties do not include a prison sentence. This puts the Hunting
Act to the lower rather than the higher end of offences.”
Five months later, reported Jonathan Owen of The
Independent, “Crimes against wildlife, including badger baiting
with dogs, hare coursing [setting dogs on rabbits released from a
cage or in a confined place], poisoning of protected birds, and
even trapping them to sell as caged pets have soared to unprecedented
heights. New figures from the police show that the number of
wildlife crimes more than doubled in the last year, from 2,177 to
Most of the offenses involved activities banned by the
Hunting Act. “One of the sharpest rises,” Owen wrote, “has been in
what police call ‘badger persecution,’ a term that includes badgers
being dug out of their setts, pitted against terrier dogs, and
being shot. Between February and July 2009, the National Wildlife
Crime Unit recorded 241 incidents of badger persecution–a total that
in just six months almost exceeded the 280 reported incidents in
In Lincolnshire alone, Owen noted, “Between September 2008
and March 2009 there were more than 900 reports of hare coursing.”
Other crimes against wildlife also increased. “Crimes
against bats have increased 10% a year since 2007,” Owen noted.
“Last year the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds received
1,206 reports of shooting, poisoning, trapping and disturbance of
birds and their eggs–the second highest they have ever recorded.”
But, amid continuing hunter opposition to enforcing the
Hunting Act, “The National Wildlife Crime Unit has seen its staff
slashed from 14 to nine since it was set up three years ago,” Owen
wrote, “and there were just 51 convictions in 2008-09, accounting
for just 3% of the cases dealt with.”

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