The Chron looks at the debate surrounding the 2004 Hunting Act

Grafton Hunt boxing day meet 2011.
Grafton Hunt boxing day meet 2011.

IT is almost eight years since a law was passed banning the traditional blood sport of fox hunting.

Since the controversial 2004 Hunting Act came into force, debate on the subject has never quietened, and the biggest date in the hunting calendar saw renewed calls in Northamptonshire for it to be repealed.

As the argument over the act, from its enforceability to its effect on animal welfare, rages on we looked at the arguments for and against, and the chances of it being repealed.

‘Repeal the act’:

WHEN the act first came into force in Northamptonshire, hunters feared for a decline in the sport and a knock-on effect on scores of jobs associated with it.

But a few years on and its popularity continues to grow, and when the joint master of The Grafton Hunt, Colin Richmond-Watson, called for the act to be repealed on Boxing Day, as the Paulersbury-based hunt set off from Easton Neston, near Towcester, it was in front of well over 1,000 spectators.

“Those kind of numbers have been quite constant over the last few years,” said Colin.

“When the act came in a lot of people said we don’t know much about the hunt but we think this act affects our basic liberties and thought that the Government was trying to deride the countryside.

“We had a surge of support and that has stayed.”

Despite its continued support The Grafton Hunt, which now continues its activities legally, by laying out a false scent trail for a pack of dogs to follow, still wants the law repealed, partly due to the importance of the countryside community.

“The hunt involves lots of social occasions,” said Colin.

“Farmers have the highest suicide rate in the country. It is a lonely job, but nothing else provides a network like this.

“The Grafton Hunt has been going for 250 years and it is part of the fabric of countryside life.

“I think it is to the credit of the Northamptonshire community that we still keep as many people involved in it.

“At first we did make people redundant but we found we could operate within the law and reinstated them, we also hoped the Conservative Government would repeal the act, so we have held the community together in expectation of it being revisited.”

He also disputed that the act has helped animal welfare.

“There are no fewer foxes being killed,” said Colin, who has been joint master of the Grafton Hunt since 1998, and has been hunting since childhood.

“If you look at the welfare argument, a hound is three or four times the weight of a fox and able to kill it almost instantly. Reports of the fox being ripped limb from limb alive are unfounded, as this doesn’t happen until the fox has died.

“If you shoot a fox it is more likely to slink away and die a slow death in the woods.

“This law was never really about cruelty and foxes do need to be controlled.

“It’s a get-even act, which is not well defined or drafted,” said Colin.

“We are not against regulation but we prefer self regulation and we want to have a hand in forming it.

“We think it is of public benefit to repeal the act. The police waste thousands of hours investigating and policing it.”

Sara Rutherford, Midlands regional director of the Countryside Alliance, added: “Ninety-seven per cent of convictions under the Act are for poaching or casual hunting offences unrelated to registered hunts.

“There are 181 convictions under the Hunting Act since it came into force in 2005 but only six of those relate to registered hunts.

“Nearly every prosecution under the Act has been for poaching and would previously have been prosecuted under other laws.

“The Act is illogical and unclear, which becomes obvious as soon as you look at it in detail.

“It is legal to hunt a rabbit, but not a hare; a rat, but not a mouse.

“It is legal to use a terrier underground to control foxes because they are killing game birds, but illegal to use the same dog to kill the same fox if it is killing lambs.”

Colin added: “I can’t pretend the repeal is a priority for the Government as they have a lot of things to at the moment, but it is in the Conservative Manifesto to give a free vote on it,” said Colin. I don’t expect it to perhaps happen in the next three years, but maybe in the next five.”

‘Keep the Act’:

“THIS sport comes from a time when we were less evolved,” said Clive Richardson, a spokesman for the Northamptonshire Hunt Saboteurs, which monitors the county’s hunts.

Despite often claiming to receive a hostile response from hunters, Clive continues to work with other group members, to monitor hunts on a weekly basis.

“I want to keep the act in place,” said Clive.

“The basic act is OK, but there are a few loopholes which need tightening.

“They often make use of the fact they can flush an animal out to a bird of prey.”

Clive is concerned that the method of using the hounds to flush out the animal can end up in a traditional chase.

The introduction of the laws on hunting has allowed the anti-hunt campaigners to go out and film hunts, something which they say prevents hunts from being tempted to flout the law.

“Before the law came in if we were there they would say we were breaking the law and call the police.

“But now when we turn up the last thing they want there is the police and we will call the police if they break the law. It is hard to say whether the act has affected the number of foxes being killed, but it has led to more convictions.”

Despite monitoring most hunts, Clive claims that sometimes the response they get from hunters is so hostile there are some hunts they can’t visit.

“We wouldn’t keep doing it if we didn’t feel strongly about this. It’s just horrendously cruel.

“I have been following hunts for 30 years and the fox is chased to absolute exhaustion and desperation before it dies a violent death.

“I don’t agree the hounds just give a nip on the back of the neck . . . the fox is torn apart.

“If you think how painful one dog bite is and think that a fox is bitten not by one dog, but two, three, four, five, pulling parts of its body off. I think for any person to find that fun they must have something wrong with them.”

Liam Raftery, campaigner from the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “I think it is nonsense to say the foxes suffer more being shot at than having 30 or more hounds chasing them and ripping them to pieces.

“Fox hunting has never been about managing population but about traditions. We are cautiously optimistic that the act will not be repealed.

“We think it works fairly well, there’s been about 180 convictions under the act and we are working with the police and getting more convictions.”

Clive also remains optimistic the act will stay in place: “I wouldn’t say it being repealed is a massive concern. I don’t think the law is flawed and I do think it can be enforced.

“The Conservatives have promised a free vote on it, but they need a majority and it’s not that simple to repeal.”

The MP’s view

DESPITE the coalition agreement that there will be a free vote on whether to repeal the Act in the future, few think it will happen soon.

Chris Heaton-Harris MP for Daventry, said: “Personally I would like to see the Hunting Ban repealed.

“In the past it has taken up a lot of police time, but that is not so much the case now.

“Essentially it needs to be got rid of but I can’t see it being looked at in Parliament for a while yet.

“We have a lot on our hands re-balancing the economy and I think that people understand that is more important right now.”

Michael Ellis MP for Northampton North, said: “There are far more important things to deal with at the moment.”

The Police view

Chief Inspector Helen Pritchett, of Northamptonshire Police says: “Local hunts still meet legally for exempt hunting activities such as trail hunting.

“Northamptonshire Police does not actively police hunts but will provide an effective, measured and intelligence-led response to hunts and hunt activity in the county when required.

“Northamptonshire Police realises that hunting is an emotive issue and will deal with any incidents impartially and without prejudice.

“We will investigate and enforce in the appropriate manner any offences reported under the Hunting Act and other wildlife legislation. We will support and respect the right to both legal hunting activities and to proactively minimise disruption to everyday life in the countryside.”

About the act

The Hunting Act 2004 came into effect on February 18, 2005.

It bans the hunting with dogs of all wild mammals in England and Wales, except where it is carried out in accordance with the conditions of one of the exemptions set out in the Act.

It also bans all hare coursing.

Exemptions in the Hunting Act allow the following activities to take place in limited circumstances: stalking and flushing out; use of a dog below ground, in the course of stalking and flushing out, to protect birds being kept or preserved for shooting; hunting rats and rabbits; retrieval of hares which have been shot; falconry; recapture of wild mammals; and research and observation.

Exempt hunting can only take place on land which belongs to the hunter or which he has been given permission to use for that purpose by the occupier or owner.

A person convicted in a magistrates’ court of an offence under the Act risks a maximum fine of £5,000.

The court also has the power to make an order against a convicted person for the forfeiture of any relevant dog, vehicle or hunting article.a