In February this year, news broke of an alleged assault by a Surrey Union Hunt member against a member of Guildford Hunt Saboteurs. The assault, which was captured on camera, shows Mrs Lulu Hutley whipping an activist who is pinned against a fence at a hunt in Bramley. Despite this video having been submitted to the authorities, it was announced yesterday that Surrey Police have dropped their investigation, citing “insufficient evidence” as their reason.
The words “insufficient evidence”, or ones similar to them, are heard far too often when it comes to fox hunting. Unfortunately, the evidence seems to be disproportionately insufficient when hunt members assault saboteurs, rather than when the roles are apparently reversed.
It’s no surprise, and not unreasonable, that many people question whether a systemic bias against hunt saboteurs exists within the police community. In certain rural areas where local Conservative authorities are so often propped up by pro-hunting lobbyists, is it possible that a police bias is being used as a weapon to allow illegal hunting to continue?
Of course, it’s not just assaults on hunt saboteurs that seem to go unpunished. Up and down the country activists record and submit footage of foxes being killed by hounds and yet over and over we hear of charges against those responsible being dropped. Due to “insufficient evidence”.
In 2015 Warwickshire Police claimed that there was “not enough evidence” to prosecute members of the Atherstone Hunt. This was despite video footage of 20 of the hunt’s hounds killing a fox. Later evidence submitted included witness statements and the Atherstone Hunt itself admitting to killing the fox. If this is considered “insufficient evidence”, then how do we possibly enforce the hunting ban?
The fact is, for the most part, we don’t. Since the ban came into force in February 2005, there have been 430 successful prosecutions. However, the majority of these have been against poachers, as most police forces are more keen to investigate poaching rather than hunting by organised groups. Chief Executive of pro-hunting group the Countryside Alliance, Tim Bonner, claims that these figures prove that the ban doesn’t work. Going further than that, Mr Bonner calls for the ban to be repealed in order for police to concentrate their time on more urgent matters. Unfortunately there is some truth in the statement that the ban is failing to lead to convictions. This, however, is no reason to consider repealing a ban that between 84% and 90% of the country support.
Across the country, and every week, activist and saboteur groups submit videos to the police of foxes being killed during illegal hunts. The International Fund for Animal Welfare state on their website: “IFAW hasn’t monitored every hunt but we suspect that most of those that we have monitored have indeed broken the law on several occasions. We did not always manage to persuade the police to investigate, even if we believed that there was enough evidence. We have not seen any evidence that supports the hypothesis that most hunts obey the law at all times.”
Despite this constant stream of evidence, there seems to be an inadequately disproportional amount of convictions. Whilst hunt saboteurs are often labelled as extremists for attempting to ensure the law is upheld, the police go unquestioned for failing to clamp down on illegal hunting activities. The question eventually has to be asked; are the police siding with the hunters, or are they simply unable to enforce the law?
The problem with the hunting act is not the law itself, but the loopholes that exist within it. A direct response by pro-hunting groups to the implementing of the hunting ban was the creation of “trail hunting”. This adaption of traditional drag hunting entails placing real fox scents on a series of trails across a certain area. By using real fox scents the hunt groups increase the chances of a fox “accidentally” being caught, whilst simultaneously creating an alibi to shift any blame from the hunt members themselves.
Loopholes such as these make it almost impossible for the police to bring hunt members to justice, and give groups like the Countryside Alliance fuel to call the ban a waste of resources. However, repealing the ban is not the answer; strengthening it is. By amending the law to include a recklessness clause, authorities could create a situation in which “trail hunting” was no longer an acceptable excuse for foxes being killed. In addition, the introduction of custodial sentences to coincide with other wildlife crime legislation is vital.
IFAW explain on their website: “After 10 years in operation any law would benefit from a tightening and improvement, and the Hunting Act is not an exception. Although as a law the Hunting Act may be working, the problem is that it has not been properly enforced, so we believe that amendments that improve enforcement are needed.”
Whatever direction the country takes after the upcoming general election, it’s crucial that we advocate for the hunting ban that the vast majority of us support to be reinforced. It’s time to end the biased pro-hunting narrative that labels hard working activists as thugs and extremists. It’s time to tighten the law on hunting with dogs, and clamp down on illegal hunts by closing easily exploited loopholes. It’s time to stand together as a country and make sure that the hunting act becomes something more than just words on paper. Whatever happens, it’s time to stop pretending that we successfully banned fox hunting in 2005, and start working on actually doing so in 2017.
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