Why people continue to hunt...
Despite it being over a decade since the Hunting Act came into force in 2005, the hunting community have not given up on their sport, says Camilla Swift.
Ten years ago, when Fieldsports Magazine was founded, hunting in the UK was facing quite a different political situation than the one we find today. On September 22, 2002, the biggest civil liberties demonstration in modern British history had taken place. This was the Countryside Alliance’s Liberty and Livelihood march, in which almost half a million people marched through London, converging at Whitehall to make their displeasure at Tony Blair’s treatment of the rural community heard. I’m sure we all know the rest of the story. Despite the uproar – the protests, the votes and the debates, and the attempts to create some form of compromise – the Hunting Act came into force on February 18, 2005.
This time a decade ago, then, hunts across the country were preparing for their second season with the ban in force. Pre-ban, there were fears that kennels would be closed down, and both hounds and horses would have to be put down if they couldn’t be rehomed. Now, people were living with the Hunting Act. You might have expected the mood to have been fairly low and dispirited – but in actual fact most people I spoke to remembered the atmosphere as being fairly upbeat. Yes, the ban might have been in place, but the hunting community were positive, and determined to repeal it at some point. For the time being though, the show had to go on – and go on it did. Hunts were now hunting within the new laws; following scents laid down by trail layers. This was a new challenge, but one that hunts were willing to step up to.
But looking back on the past is one thing. Looking into the future is quite another. What does the next 10 years hold for hunting? Well, to a certain extent the future of hunting depends upon our politicians and whether they decide that the issue of hunting and repealing the ban is a ‘vote winner’.
We’re very early on in the new government, so it’s nigh-on impossible to predict how the next four years of Tory rule will play out, let alone what happens after that. Looking at the political situation right now, it’s almost impossible to think that the Labour Party could win a General Election – but as they say, stranger things have happened! It seems more sensible, though, to look at the new Conservative government, and their attitudes to hunting. After all, when it comes to hunting, the law is in their hands now.
Theresa May, the new Prime Minister, has said before that she had thought “for many years that the Hunting Act should be repealed” – but it doesn’t seem to be an issue that she is particularly fired up about. Would she want to spend precious time in her first term in office pushing for a repeal of the Hunting Act? It seems unlikely – and accordingly a Number 10 spokesman confirmed in July that “foxhunting [isn’t] top of the in-tray”.
In the short-lived Conservative leadership election it was interesting to see Andrea Leadsom – now Defra minister – vocally support foxhunting. “I would absolutely commit to holding a vote to repeal the hunting ban,” she said, adding that “it has not proven to be in the interests of animal welfare whatsoever”, and that a “licensed regime” would be far more sensible than the current arrangement. At that point Leadsom needed all the support she could get – so maybe she simply decided that this was an easy way to win over the rural vote. But on the other hand, maybe it is something that she chooses to focus on – and with pressure from her, perhaps May could decide to push for a vote on repealing the ban. Previous Conservative Party manifestos have described the Act as ‘unworkable’ – a consensus that many within the party agree on. But even so, the negative publicity of repealing, or even adjusting the law, is not necessarily something that either woman would find attractive.
Fortunately, a positive future for hunting is not entirely reliant on the whims of politics. The ban has been in force for almost 12 years now, and despite the doom-laden stories about the future of hunting, it seems to be in relatively fine fettle. Encouraged by the Countryside Alliance, who have started an annual Hunting Newcomers’ Week, many hunts now run newcomers days in a bid to attract new blood to the hunting field – and their tactics seem to be working. This year, around 250,000 people turned out to support the 300 or so hunts who still organise a traditional Boxing Day meet. There’s no reason why any of this should change – and in 10 years’ time we can only hope that hunting is as popular and thriving as it is today. It’s vital that the younger generations stay involved; both on the field and off – since as anyone who’s been involved in hunting knows, there’s even more going on behind the scenes as there is on stage! Newcomers’ days are vital, as are children’s meets, Pony Club activities, and schemes such as the MHFA Bursary Scheme, which helps and encourages hunts to train up young huntsmen.
That’s not to say that things are perfect. Far from it. With the ban in force, the people who bear the brunt of the ban are the huntsmen who are simply trying to do their jobs, but are hounded (excuse the pun), put under covert surveillance and sometimes dragged through the courts – only for the vast majority of prosecutions to fall through, after vast amounts of both time and money have been spent on them. The RSPCA have been making noises about becoming ‘less political’, and indicating that they will no longer be bringing private prosecutions under the Act – but whether they stick to that or not remains to be seen.
The law on hunting remains a bit of a dog’s dinner; and although hunt saboteur numbers are on the wane, there will still be the odd one lingering around, no matter what the law says. One thing that hunting – and horsey – people are, however, is tenacious. Look at the GB equestrian team at the Rio Olympics; Nick Skelton, who broke his neck in 2000 and was told if he ever fell off again he might die, who had a hip replacement in 2011, won Individual Gold in the Showjumping, aged 58. William Fox-Pitt, who was in a coma last October after a fall in France, still came back to compete at Rio, and Fiona Bigwood, a GB dressage rider who fractured her skull two years ago still competes wearing an eye-patch to help her double vision.
Hunting people and horsey people are tough. They aren’t going to give up on their sport easily – and if that means living under the ban for decades, then that is what they will do.