Hounds were filmed chasing a fox in the west country last week

National Trust and United Utilities suspend trail-hunting over fears foxes being chased

‘I and millions of others will be pleased to hear this,’ says Chris Packham

Jane Dalton@JournoJane
Thursday 26 November 2020 19:32

The National Trust and another of the UK’s biggest landowners are suspending all trail-hunting on their land, following a decision by Forestry England on Wednesday to do the same.

The decisions, which were greeted with celebrations by animal-lovers, come after police launched an investigation into online meetings held by hunt masters, representing more than half of Britain’s hunts, where they discussed creating “smokescreens”.

The trust said in response to the police investigation that it was "pausing" trail-hunting on its land and would not be issuing any licences for the rest of the season. Trust chiefs say they do not have a date for when the suspension will be reviewed.

Within hours, United Utilities, which owns and manages 56,000 hectares, announced it was suspending trail-hunting on its land until the police probe is complete.

And Natural Resources Wales, which advises the Welsh government on nature, said it was looking into whether it should take any action.

Animal lovers, who have for years lobbied the trust and the water giant over their stance, said they hoped the suspensions became permanent. 

Naturalist Chris Packham described the trust’s decision as “significant and commendable”, and tweeted to the trust: “I and millions of others will be pleased to hear this, and look forward to your review of hunting on your lands." 

Forestry England, which manages the country's 1,500 publicly owned woods, said on Wednesday that it was banning hunts from its land in response to the investigation by police.

Specialist officers say they are working with the Crown Prosecution Service to see whether any criminal offences were committed during the two hunters’ Zoom meetings, which were secretly recorded and later leaked.

In the meetings, dozens of hunters and two retired police officers appeared to share tactics ranging from justifying the presence of terrier men to legally using a bird of prey, which one described as a “terribly good wheeze”.

One admitted the presence of terrier men was "a bit of a marker to everyone".  

The National Trust has long been at the centre of controversy over its decision to allow trail-hunting on its land, culminating in a landmark vote at its 2017 annual general meeting. 

Campaigners for a ban lost the vote after discretionary proxy votes, which were authorised to be used by the board, helped defeat the motion.

A National Trust spokesperson said: “We are aware of videos circulating on social media showing two Hunting Office training webinars earlier this year.

"As a result, we have taken the decision to pause trail-hunting on National Trust land and will not be granting any new licences for the remainder of the season. We do not currently have a date when this will be reviewed."

Until now the trust has officially licensed only one hunt on its land, in Wiltshire, but many others still use its land. Using public rights of way does not require a licence.

Asked by The Independent how it would handle any hunts using its land now,  the spokesperson said: “Trail-hunting will not be taking place on National Trust land for the remainder of the season.”

Since the 2017 vote, some animal welfare supporters have dropped their National Trust membership in protest, but others have stayed on with a view to voting for a ban at the next opportunity.

A spokesperson for Natural Resources Wales said: “We are aware of this situation and are currently looking into it to see what action, if any, we need to take.

“The permissions processes for activities on the NRW-managed estate are designed to ensure that the permit holder behaves legally and complies with the terms of the permission.

“If illegal activity takes place, we will have no hesitation in taking the appropriate steps to deal with the issue, including assisting the police with their investigations.”

The Hunting Act 2004 banned chasing wild mammals with dogs but hunts insist they stay within the law by laying scent trails for hounds to follow. Hunt opponents dispute that trails are laid.

When asked by The Independent whether it, too, would reconsider licensing trail-hunting, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence - another large landowner - said: “The Hunting Act 2004 makes it an offence to hunt a wild mammal with dogs and completely bans hare coursing.Those found guilty under the Act are subject to the full force of the law.”

Chris Luffingham, head of campaigns at the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “This shows just how far the hunting lobby’s mask of respectability has slipped. It really is a positive step from the National Trust, following on from a similar decision by Forestry England yesterday. It shows how seriously both organisations are taking the matter." 

The league says it received more than 300 reports of foxes and other animals being chased by hunts and “regular eye-witness accounts of wildlife being torn apart by hunt hounds" last winter, during the foxhunting season. 

There are 198 fox packs in the UK, according to the league, which is also calling on landowners including the Ministry of Defence, the Church of England and the Duchy of Cornwall to also end trail-hunting on their land.

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