BIRMINGHAM, England—Fox hunting has been a British rural tradition for five centuries—but for the last 12 years, the huntsman’s adversary hasn’t been a furry fox, but a fuzzy law.
Fox hunting is a hot election issue, with the incumbent Conservative Party—widely expected to hold on to power—promising a vote in Parliament that could overturn the current ban.
Traditional hunts that once chased foxes over hedgerows and fences now follow fake trails, but if hunters happen to flush out a real fox, as sometimes happens, they run the gauntlet of muddy legislation.
For example, two dogs, not three, can be used to deliberately flush out a fox toward a waiting shotgun in some situations. If a fox is caught up in a fake trail hunt by a pack of dogs, then the prosecution has to prove intent on the part of the hunters.
The Hunting Act of 2004 was born of a push to outlaw traditional hunting with dog packs altogether over accusations of animal cruelty, but was watered down after years of wrangling in lawmaking chambers.
Animal welfare campaigners say the ban is not properly enforced, with hunts taking advantage of legal loopholes.
Tony Blair, whose Labour government oversaw the act, wrote in his memoirs that he regretted the fudged legislation and was taken aback by the passions on both sides.
Many in the hunting community say it was never about animal welfare—which they argue is little helped by the law—but class war on countryside “toffs.” For many, fox hunting is synonymous with stuffy countryside aristocracy in riding finery.
Beyond the most affluent of hunts, that cliché is simply wrong, says Catherine Austen, hunting editor of Horse & Hounds magazine.
She said some forms of hunting, such as rabbit beagling, can be done on foot for 5 pounds ($6.50). “It is without a doubt the most egalitarian thing I have ever taken part in.”
She said that hunting is a social event for the communities it takes place in, pulling in dukes and farmers alike, knitting communities together like a school or church event can. “It is part of the fabric of the countryside and has been for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
The number of fox hunting groups (around 180) hasn’t dropped since the ban.
Austen said they are very normal, law-abiding people who are determined to keep the traditions going in the face of a law that they regard as illiberal and confusing.
The League Against Cruel Sports, like other animal rights groups, say trail hunting is being used as a cover to break the law, which is not being enforced properly. They point to polling data that says 80 percent of the public is opposed to fox hunting.
There have been 431 convictions under the 2004 Hunting Act. The vast majority of convictions have been against individuals, say hunt supporters, noting that by 2015 only nine members of traditional organized hunts had been convicted.
Polly Portwin, hunting spokesperson for the Countryside Alliance and former hunt master, said that the biggest problem is the pressure the ban puts on hunt leaders involved in legitimate activity.
“Every time they take the hounds out of the kennels, they are looking over their shoulder,” she said.
The 2004 Hunting Act controls the hunting of wild mammals with dogs. Exemptions are complex and numerous. It allows the use of two dogs to flush out mammals for the protection of livestock, game birds, wild birds, timber, property, and biodiversity, or for meat.