Ever since the Hunting Act was forced through in Parliament using a variety of Draconian and largely undemocratic processes, a primary tenet of the hunting community has been to have it repealed in full, and therefore to support the politicians most likely to vote to repeal the Act who have mostly been considered to be in the Conservative party. There are some arguments for this, but as time goes on without repeal being delivered we as a community should take a step back and ask ourselves whether our focus needs to change. We believe we have reached a point now where in reality full repeal is not the only, or even perhaps the best, way forward.
There will be many in the hunting community who will be incensed by this view. However tempting it might be to shout down any suggestions other than demanding full repeal, we have to face the fact that if we make it non-negotiable we will probably be stuck with the Act indefinitely. Instead of sticking in our heels over this, we should look at the factors affecting hunting and form an approach based on a combination of fact and addressing concerns; if that means changing the focus of what we want, we should be open to that so that we can define a path to follow proactively rather than always having to react to attacks from our opponents. So let’s look at some of the factors now and throw a suggestion into the debate.
Firstly, everyone in the hunting community and a significant number outside it accept that the Hunting Act was entirely politically-motivated based on an incorrect view of the demographics involved in hunting. It was NEVER About the welfare of the fox or any other non political animal. A number of the key players involved have openly admitted that it was all about “getting back at the Tory toffs” thus making hunting all about Conservative voters and people perceived to be wealthy or aristocratic; nothing could be further from the truth, of course, as the hunting community embraces people from all social backgrounds and political standpoints, but it is a belief strongly held by many in the Labour party. However, unfortunately many of the people who have been put forward to speak for us have been from the very backgrounds most likely to reinforce that prejudice. Media coverage has not helped us either, as the stock images used are almost exclusively of mounted hunt servants which many in the public will associate with wealth and privilege. This leads into an argument that if a Labour government forced the Act into being, then only a Conservative government will effect repeal.
However, given the increasing numbers of Conservative MPs who are allegedly being convinced by our opponents constant media savvy drip, drip, drip, of emotion fuelled, often deceitful anti-hunting rhetoric, combined with the fact that many MPs, representing totally urban constituencies, would not consider it to be a priority, and would be inclined to either abstain, or vote against repeal, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that this will ever happen.
Let us consider next what would happen if, by some miracle, the Act did get fully repealed. There would be a lot of short lived celebrations, but with the next majority left wing government the chances are very high that there would be a new Act proposed which would be much harsher, would remove the need for any ‘burden of proof’ making all offences ones of strict liability e.g. the antis say there was illegal hunting and must be believed. Leading to an outright ban on all hunting with hounds, including drag packs and bloodhounds which some opponents are already unjustly vilifying as being merely a front for foxhunting without bothering to understand the difference between the various types of hounds and packs. The fact that traditionally hunts have been historically seen to be answerable to no-one would act against our interests; We’ve heard it put that repeal would mean “going back to Tory toffs riding around and doing just what they want, with no-one protecting the rights or property of the rural workers.” Whilst highly inaccurate on several levels, it is very difficult to argue against this based on the way some hunts behave and how hunting has previously operated. There is little doubt that some of our traditional behaviour patterns as a community have not helped us here. Hunting has always had largely unwritten conventions and codes of conduct which members of the community know, and the very small number of people who have broken those conventions have traditionally been dealt with quietly in the background.
As a community, we have been almost indoctrinated into accepting a ‘Granny knows best’ mentality and that mistakes, however rare, should be kept from public awareness to avoid giving our opponents ammunition against us. As a result, we have only ourselves to blame if both the public and wider media now believe that there are no penalties for hunts or sanctions for supporters who break the rules, and even that there are no rules. Prosecution under the Act is seen as the only way of sanctioning the hunting community, even though the vast majority of prosecutions have not been against hunts or hunt supporters. In the modern world, with the increasing public demands on organisations to be transparent and willing to deal effectively with transgressors, this collective mindset has to be convinced that the correct governance is in place and fit for purpose. We are some way from that position today.
Before the Act came into place, the Third Way group were looking at how hunting could be operated with some kind of regulatory body, and the Donohue report proposed how to do this. At the time many in the hunting community were totally against this as there was a belief that the Act would not be implemented, and they succeeded in shouting it down in favour of “tradition” and holding out for keeping the status quo. In hindsight, this resistance to any kind of regulation was used to support the politically-driven desire to push for the Act; the argument being that if hunting would not accept regulation then it confirmed the view that hunters considered themselves answerable to no-one, which is no longer acceptable to the wider reaches of society. The pro-hunting arguments of the Donohue report regarding utility and welfare were lost along with the rest of the report, when instead we should have been building on it as a foundation for the positive standpoint to promote the animal welfare benefits of hunting compared to alternatives.
Our suggestion is that hunting needs to accept that we will never be going back to the pre-Act situation; the world has moved on, and we have to fit within current society norms as well as planning for the future. As such, we also need to bring back the idea of some kind of regulatory body, including some form of licencing. This would allow for building a solid foundation of written rules, building the unwritten conventions and codes into a cohesive set which includes defined sanctions for any individuals or hunts who transgress (which could include loss of licences in extreme cases); any such regulatory body has to be seen to be quickly and effectively applying the sanctions where it is proven that the rules have been broken. The rules would have to be applied across all types of hunting to ensure fairness, and would need to look at all aspects of hunt organisation.
Now, we can hear the screams from the various hunt associations that they already do at least some of this, such as kennel inspections. However, the existing associations are focussed at specific types of packs, and there appears to be limited collaboration between them so that there is no single, consistent set of rules that applies across the board. There are also packs which do not belong to the existing associations and refuse to join them for various reasons (“scratch” or “pirate” packs), who therefore are not currently monitored by the associations, but they are still seen as hunts by the public; with a licencing scheme these packs would have to be included even if not members of existing associations, so that the rules could be applied to them – a principle could be introduced of no licence, no hunting and if found hunting without a licence then defined sanctions would come into play. We need a single overarching central controlling body that covers all packs, and part of setting this up would be to work with all existing associations to agree who does what within any new regulated environment. We also need to get this set up sooner rather than later, demonstrating the value it would bring within the current environment to stand any chance of using it as a springboard to push for repeal of the Act in favour of operating a regulated framework.
Without proving that hunting will accept and operate an effective regulated environment and being able to show that we can be trusted as rural custodians, it will become increasingly difficult to promote any kind of future for it as a way of life. We don’t have to like it, but we must accept working with change to prevent hunting in the UK, and the benefits that brings to the rural society, being relegated to history. There is a way forward, we just have to be brave enough to take it.