So, after 15 years of the Hunting Act and despite the intention of the its authors and supporters both foot and mounted packs are still here having conducted hundreds of thousands of hours without incident, although the freedom to carry out their job based on the principles of utility and welfare in accordance with the landowners wishes has been largely curtailed. Let us not forget this was a statute ‘gift-wrapped’ and presented to the Blair government who were desperate to reward their left-wing for their support of pet ‘New Labour‘ policies such as foundation hospitals. However, we now hear that the Act, which was heavily promoted by the wealthy supporters behind IFAW and LACS, has ‘loopholes’ and is ‘not fit for purpose’ as it is not achieving the results demanded by supporters of such organisations. They are frustrated that prosecutions are undertaken only when untainted evidence, rather than emotion and vitriol, exist.
As our new expert on anti-social behaviours such as stalking points out elsewhere in Baily’s, what the Hunting Act has done is to illustrate the urgent need for the police to have more power in the area of harassment and control of anti-social behaviour of those opposed to hunting with hounds. Currently, it is difficult to establish the line between nuisance and malicious behaviour. However, failing to identify and deal with the pattern of behaviour and the underlying malicious intent that characterise such harassment can have adverse consequences for victims.
Furthermore, the rate at which technology is evolving and being utilised by perpetrators almost “legitimises” stalking e.g., purchasing a tracking device online requires no justification and its use is both effortless and inexpensive. Legislation has not adapted effectively to penalise the illegitimate use of these devices. Therefore, as our expert points out, they are increasingly being used to elicit a change of behaviour reinforcing fear of the threat of violence as part of their aim to force victims to refrain from engaging in a particular legitimate activity, such as hunting which they happen to dislike. Which poses the question – when tracking devices are found why has no action been taken against these stalkers? Experienced officers who understand the internet and social media, in particular, should be given the resources to find, investigate and where appropriate prosecute those individuals using and deploying such devices under harassment legislation.
Elsewhere in the world, a number of recent statements coming from DEFRA would appear to suggest that policies are being developed by those whose concept of rural life is determined by listening to the ‘Archers’ or who see the rural lifestyle through rose-tinted spectacles. The goal seems to be to protect a ‘chocolate box’ view of life (though without an open fire of course), such as that promoted by the TV media in programmes such as Country file and Escape to the Countryside, or, to give it its full title ‘Escape to the Countryside (as long as it’s quiet, clean and the Parish Council is run the way I ran committees before I retired)’ although we note the more expansive, but accurate title, is never displayed on screen.
A brief look at the history of hunting with hounds indicates that hare numbers, in the West Country at least, have always been low – so much so that in the early years of the twentieth century a Devon landowner was importing American hares from Colorado to restock and improve the gene pool of his local hare population. Estimates from DEFRA indicate that there are around 576000 hares in England and Wales, yet the Mammal Society (https://www.mammal.org.uk) points out that hares are not equally distributed throughout a locale and never have been, which is why those who indulge in illegal coursing travel for hundreds of miles by road to find hares. The Mammal Society also states that “there now appears to be many more foxes in the countryside than there were a hundred years ago”. And “Foxes are important predators of young hares and where foxes are common there are likely to be few hares”. Could it be that yet another unintended consequence of the ban on hunting with hounds has been the negative impact that fox numbers have had on the hare population in some areas? Furthermore, another unintended consequence of any closed season for hares would allow the current lagomorph virus to continue spreading.
Hare shoots reduce local numbers, but shooting is non-selective whereas hunting with hounds removes the sick and old hares, allowing healthy hares to escape. There is an erroneous assumption which is both emotion-driven and not supported by evidence or evolution that “hare shoots create an animal welfare issue in that dependent baby hares (leverets) are left to starve if their mother is shot”.In all countries where hares are present leverets have the ability to live on their own after one hour from birth. The argument that hare hunting is a direct cause of ‘orphaned’ leverets is not supported by observed evidence. It is normal for the mother to leave soon after the baby is born, and as such this ‘abandonment’ ‘cannot be said to be a result of pursuit, but is a natural occurrence. It just does not fit with our vision of good parental care.
Apart from the latest virus outbreak, perhaps a more serious issue for hare numbers in certain lowland areas is the impact of illegal hare coursers. The aforementioned criminal element that undertakes illegal coursing is not the neighbourly ‘one for the pot’ poacher type, but are more often career criminals. Illegal hare coursers have been charged with a catalogue of offences ranging from:- offences against the person, criminal damage, theft and money laundering, in addition to a whole host of animal welfare issues relating to both their dogs and their quarry. DEFRA seems to have decided that the best solution to dealing with illegal hare coursing and the various crimes that accompany this activity is to introduce a closed season for the pursuit of hares – this will, of course, lead to both a reduction in the number of crimes and have a positive effect on hare numbers! Given the ongoing threat to rural localities posed by illegal coursing, it appears the preferred solution is not for the Home Office and College of Policing to ensure Police are properly resourced as a reasonable person might expect. No, the solution is brilliant and cheap. You ban the pursuit of hares via the cunning introduction of a ‘closed season’ – and the problem goes away.
As with the constantly increasing restrictions on shotgun and firearms licences, the only people who will be impacted are those who are law-abiding; but the people who are really causing the problems will carry on regardless, or even increase the scale of their activities. We can only hope that those with influence over the rule-makers are able to get them to understand that many things are different in the countryside for a reason – but given previous experience, we fear the worst.