Hunting with dogs (fox hunting)

What is hunting with dogs?

Hunting with dogs has been practised widely across rural Britain, involving the pursuit and usually killing of animals with one or more dogs, frequently followed by riders on horseback.

A number of different animals have been hunted with dogs, including foxes, deer, hares and mink, with each quarry species hunted in a different way.

Hunting has been regarded variously as a recreational pastime, a pest control measure, or a cruel and inhumane blood sport. It has been one of the most divisive political issues of recent years. Although all forms of hunting are controversial, fox hunting was the most widespread form of hunting with dogs, and as such, has been the focus of public and political attention.


The hunting of animals with dogs has been a rural activity for centuries. The development of modern fox hunting is believed to have arisen following the Restoration in 1660, and modelled on the royal sport of stag hunting. As stag hunting declined in the 18th century, many stag hunts shifted to fox hunting.

Some farmers have traditionally welcomed hunts on their land for their pest control functions, but others have been concerned that the environmental damage caused outweighed any pest control benefits. Proponents of hunting argue that hunts provide an essential service to rural communities, and are an important component of rural culture and the economy.

There has long been opposition to hunting on animal welfare grounds, and during the 1970s and 1980s the activities of "hunt saboteurs" - who sought to disrupt hunts - increasingly came to prominence with occasional violent clashes with huntsmen.

Hunting became a particularly high-profile political issue in the late 1990s, with the election of Tony Blair's Labour government, which in its 1997 manifesto promised MPs a free vote on a ban on hunting with hounds.

A large number of Labour MPs were very keen to use the party's majority to ban hunting, but the government remained formally neutral. As a result, MPs sought to ban hunting through a number of private members' bills, which failed for lack of parliamentary time.

By 1999 no such free vote on a ban had appeared. The government appointed the Burns inquiry to investigate the practical aspects of the different types of hunting with dogs, the implications of a ban and how any ban might be implemented. The Burns inquiry was not asked to judge whether hunting was cruel.

The resulting report, published in 2000, was seized on by both sides with each claiming that it validated their argument. On animal welfare, the Burns report did conclude that hunting "seriously compromises the welfare of the fox", but suggested that other methods such as using shotguns during the day or snaring could be considered equally cruel.

The report also agreed that hunts did contribute to the cohesion of rural communities, but qualified this by saying that this was not as important as the bonds formed by the village pub or church. In terms of the economic impact of any ban, Burns estimated that there were around 700 jobs directly associated with hunting, and a total of 6,000 to 8,000 jobs dependent on it.

However, the report qualified this by saying that "in terms of national resource use, the economic effects of a ban on hunting would be unlikely to be substantial", with the effects most likely to have dissipated within a decade, but that in the short term "the individual and local effects would be more serious".

In response, the government pursued a number of bills that would give parliament a free vote on a number of options: an outright ban, hunting with regulations, and maintaining the status quo. In each case, the bill failed due to irreconcilable differences and the impossibility of getting a bill that satisfied the Commons through the House of Lords.

The Labour government made a manifesto commitment in 2001 to resolve the contentious issue of hunting with dogs in England and Wales. The rural affairs minister, Alun Michael, introduced a new hunting bill in December 2002 which would ban stag hunting and hare coursing and introduce a system of licensing for fox hunting. Hunts would be eligible to register if they could show that hunting was undertaken for purposes specific to pest control (the utility test), and that it would cause less suffering than any alternative method of pest control (the cruelty test).

This bill, however, met opposition in the Commons and the Lords. The Commons amended the bill to push for an outright ban, but this was then amended to a licensing system by the Lords. It was then re-amended to a ban by the Commons, before being finally rejected by the Lords. Eventually, the bill ran out of time.

Hunting with dogs was banned in Scotland by a 2002 Act of the Scottish parliament, which was two years in the completion.

In 2004 the government reintroduced the issue and gave MPs a free vote to pass an outright ban on hunting with dogs. The leader of the House, Peter Hain, made the decision to rush the bill through the Commons in a single day - drawing protests from pro-hunting groups and politicians. The bill was, however, comprehensively backed by the House and was sent to the Lords with the government warning that an outright rejection would be met with the Parliament Act.

The Parliament Act of 1949 gives the House of Commons the ability to pass legislation even if the House of Lords has rejected it twice, but only after a year has passed since the Commons first introduced the bill. The act is controversial because it was not initially passed by both the Lords and the Commons.

In November 2004 the Commons decided to invoke the Parliament Act to ban fox hunting outright in England and Wales after weeks of legislative ping-pong between the two houses. The Lords repeatedly voted to allow hunting to continue under licence, but this was rejected by the Commons.

But on the last day of debate, the government attempted to amend the bill to delay implementation of the ban to July 2007. MPs rejected this, agreeing to July 2006 instead. This presented the House of Lords with a dilemma.

If they voted for the bill the ban would have been delayed until July 2006. This would be good for pro-hunting campaigners but it would have let the government off the hook by relieving them of the need to use the Parliament Act and to introduce a potentially unpopular ban just months before a general election in May 2005.

Another choice was to vote for an amended bill that would allow fox hunting to continue under licence. Peers chose this option, and, as a result, the government enacted the Parliament Act. The bill was forced through on November 18 2004, stipulating a full ban on fox hunting, deer hunting and hare coursing to come into effect in February 2005.

According to Defra, 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 either on land which belongs to the hunter or which he has been given permission to use for that purpose by the occupier or, in the case of unoccupied land, by a person to whom it belongs. Permission may also be given by a police constable in respect of the recapture or rescue of a wild mammal.


Hunting with dogs has been one of the most controversial issues of recent times. There were essentially three positions represented in the debate: those who wanted hunting to continue in its present form; those who wanted it banned; and those who wanted hunting to continue, but with regulation to mitigate its negative effects.

The principal exponent of keeping hunting in its present form was the Countryside Alliance (CA). In the opposing camp there was the CPHA (Campaigning to Protect Hunted Animals), made up of the Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the League Against Cruel Sports and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

The regulated approach was promoted by the Middle Way Group, a small but vocal cross-party group of MPs. Neither Labour nor the Conservative party has an official position on hunting - all the votes of recent years have been free votes, as hunting is regarded as an issue of conscience. However, most Conservatives have historically voted in support of hunting, while a smaller majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs have voted against it.

Central to the controversy is a tension between the anti-hunt campaigners' protestations of cruelty with the pro-hunters' assertions that hunting is an integral part of rural life. Animal welfare campaigners argue that animals are literally torn apart by dogs, and fervently reject the hunters' claims that animals are killed quickly. This principle argument has, however, spun off countless sub-debates on what level of pest foxes are; what damage is caused by hunts to the countryside; and what freedoms and liberties the individual has. The Countryside Alliance has repeatedly accused the anti-hunt MPs of a form of class warfare.

Fox hunting has also emerged as a symbol of tensions between urban and rural Britain. This culminated in the September 2002 'Liberty and Livelihood' March through London, organised by the Countryside Alliance, when an estimated 400,000 people demonstrated in support of rural concerns, chief among which was keeping fox hunting.

In late 2004, as the prospect of the ban moved closer, some pro-hunting demonstrations increasingly took on a violent element. Sixteen individuals were arrested on September 15th when a demonstration turned violent outside parliament, while inside the House of Commons hunt protesters broke into the chamber but were quickly detained. Later that month carcasses of dead animals were dumped in Brighton outside the Labour party conference. Although the mainstream Countryside Alliance distanced itself from these activities, it published the Hunting Handbook outlining loopholes in the Hunting Act which allow hunts to continue while operating completely inside the law. The League Against Cruel Sports responded by establishing the Hunt Crime Watch programme designed to help provide police with information so that they may easily prosecute those violating the Hunting Act.

In the political arena, some backbenchers and commentators began to question the amount of parliamentary time dedicated to the issue, at the expense of other matters. Anti-hunt campaigners believed that banning hunting was a moral issue upon which there could be no compromise and welcomed the decision of the Commons to vote for an outright ban and ignore 'compromise' proposals.

After the bill came into effect in February 2005, pro-hunt campaigners sought to contest the Hunting Act using two legal challenges: the validity of the 1949 Parliament Act; and on the basis that the ban infringed their human rights. Leading this fight was the Countryside Alliance. In October that year, it was decided unanimously by nine law lords that the 1949 Act had been used by the House of Commons in accordance with the law.

In August 2006, Exmoor Foxhounds huntsman Tony Wright became the first person to be convicted of illegally hunting a fox under the terms of the act. He was fined £500 and ordered to pay £250 costs after a week long trial at Barnstaple magistrates' court.

But questions remain about whether the ban is being, or can be, implemented effectively. Countryside Alliance chief executive Simon Hart stated in May 2008: "Most hunts have been able to carry out a range of hunting activities with only a very few facing vindictive prosecutions. The courts, meanwhile, are struggling to make sense of the legislation and it will be some time yet before they properly define the law, if they ever do."

The election of the Coalition Government in May 2010 reignited the debate, with the RSPCA warning of "a real threat" that the ban on hunting with dogs could be overturned as the new coalition government had promised MPs a free vote on the issue. The RSPCA, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the League Against Cruel Sports issued a joint statement calling on people to contact their MPs asking them to vote to protect the Hunting Act.

The Countryside Alliance by contrast pledged to continue their campaign to have the Hunting Act repealed and were optimistic that the new ministers in Defra and across government departments were not only "sympathetic to our issues" but also had "a real understanding of the countryside, country sports and rural life."

In 2012 Defra confirmed that the Government still intended to give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote, but said there were "many greater priorities facing the Government at the moment" and that a motion on the issue would be put forward "at an appropriate time".


Ministry of Justice figures indicate that between 2005 and 2010, a total of 260 people have been prosecuted under the Hunting Act 2004, and 183 have been found guilty. Six of the 183 convictions involve employees of registered hunts, involving four separate hunts.

Source: Defra - 2011


"We will bring forward a motion on a free vote enabling the House of Commons to express its view on the repeal of the Hunting Act."

The Coalition: Our programme for government.

"We believe that repeal of the Hunting Act would be barbaric and a backward step for a civilised society. Hunting with dogs was consigned to the history books because the majority of the public found it abhorrent. Those calling for repeal of this law are effectively calling for a return to cruelty.

"We will vigorously defend the law with all available resources, the backing of our one million-plus supporters and the vast majority of the public. The public has consistently opposed the cruel and unnecessary chasing and killing of foxes, deer, hare and mink by dogs, and does not want any return to killing for fun."

Joint statement by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the League Against Cruel Sports and the RSPCA - 2012

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