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Tue 20 October 2020
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Claire Hamlett reports on a worrying rise in fox hunts breaking the law as they enjoy being exempt from Coronavirus restrictions

Hunting and shooting may be exempt from the Government’s ‘rule of six’ COVID-19 restriction which came into force on 14 September, but the law against the hunting and killing of wildlife with dogs still applies.

Yet, in recent weeks at least two hunts have been caught in breach of that law by hunt saboteurs, known as ‘sabs’.

On 1 October, the Manchester Hunt Saboteurs witnessed the York and Ainsty South Hunt retrieving the body of a fox cub killed by hounds moments before. Mark Poskitt, the hunt’s ‘whipper in’, whose job is to help keep the hounds together and focused on the targeted species, was filmed picking up the limp cub and stuffed it inside a bin bag.

An hour later, the saboteurs filmed another cub being killed and the hunters again attempting to hide the body. But one hunter, David Elliot, dropped the body when he fell from his horse, enabling saboteurs to retrieve the body later. All of this was caught on film (warning: potentially distressing content).

The saboteurs have given the dead fox to a vet for a post-mortem examination and for storage in case it is needed as evidence by the police, to whom a report of the incident has been made.

“We are hopeful that North Yorkshire Police will investigate this thoroughly,” said Alec (not his real name) from the Manchester Hunt Saboteurs. “But we are not holding our breaths for a conviction as the current legislation makes it too hard to prosecute effectively.”

A North Yorkshire Police spokesman said: “We take these offences very seriously and will do everything in our power to bring offenders to justice.”


Illegal Cubbing

Hunting fox cubs, known as ‘cubbing’, is practised in the Autumn, in advance of the real fox hunting season, as a way to train young hounds to hunt.

The League Against Cruel Sports describes the practise as “a dirty secret of the hunting world”. As cubbing is illegal, hunters will claim that they are trail hunting and it is difficult to prove that a hunt has intentionally hunted and killed a cub.

In the case of the incident on 1 October, Alec thinks that the behaviour of the hunters shows that they knew they had committed an offence.

“If they were acting within the law why were they holding up around the field in a classic cubbing formation?” he posed, referring to the way that hunters surround a patch of land and try to flush out foxes with the hounds. “And why were they so desperate to get rid of the evidence?”

In order to protect wildlife, the saboteurs will follow and monitor hunts and attempt to intervene if they believe that a wild animal is at risk of being caught by the hounds. Their methods of intervening include cracking whips, as hounds are trained to stop at the sound, mimicking the hunting horn which is used by the hunters to call the hounds off an animal or a scent, or covering animal scents with citronella so the hounds lose the trail.

“These methods rely on the fox making a break for it and us being quick enough to intervene,” Alec told Byline Times. “Unfortunately, on 1 October the hounds managed to find a fox hiding in the sugar beet and killed it before we had a chance to react.”


Not Just Fox Hunting

It is not just foxes that have been potentially illegally killed by hunters in the weeks since the new COVID-19 restrictions came into force.

On the same day as the two foxes were killed, the Devon and Somerset Staghounds were filmed chasing an injured stag which they later killed across Exmoor. On 25 September the Norfolk/Suffolk Hunt Saboteurs filmed hunting group the Dunston Harriers seemingly allowing their hounds to chase and kill a hare inside a fenced paddock.

While hunting hares with dogs, like hunting foxes, is illegal, deer hunting has some exemptions under the Hunting Act, allowing hunters to use dogs to chase deer for “research and observation” or to flush out injured deer who then should be killed “as soon as possible”.

In the Exmoor case, it is not clear that the stag was in fact injured. “If it was injured,” Mike Nicholas, of the League Against Cruel Sports, which filmed the stag being chased, pointed out, “why wouldn’t you just shoot it there and then?” Instead, the hunt appears to have forced the stag to keep running by cracking a whip over his head while noisy spectators watched.

For saboteurs, who have been abiding by COVID-19 restrictions, “we always wear masks anyway which the hunts having been moaning at us about for years,” joked Lee Moon, the press officer of the Hunt Saboteurs Association. “But now suddenly masks are more popular.”

It seems perverse that hunters are so readily taking advantage of their exemption from the rule of six and apparently taking no special precautions to stay safe while out.

“Hunts are just carrying on as normal,” said Moon. “If they were going to take any meaningful precautions they would just stay at home… We wouldn’t expect drug dealers to obey COVID guidelines, so I don’t know why we would expect fox hunters to.”

Neither the York and Ainsty South Hunt nor the UK’s pro-hunting lobby, the Countryside Alliance, could be reached for comment.


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