The Tide Is TurningAgainst Hunting
Claire Hamlett considers the impact of the vote by National Trust members on the future of the hunting lobby
National Trust members have voted more than two-to-one to ban trail hunting on the charity’s land – totalling 250,000 hectares and 780 miles of coastline.
Trail hunting involves laying a scent trail for hounds to follow, an activity invented after the Hunting Act 2004 made it illegal to hunt animals with dogs.
The news was greeted with cheers, applause and tears by anti-hunt campaigners, who had gathered last weekend outside the Harrogate Convention Centre where the charity’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) was taking place.
The vote came just two weeks after leading huntsman Mark Hankinson was found guilty of encouraging illegal fox hunting on a series of leaked webinars held by the Hunting Office in August 2020.
Although the vote is non-binding, with a final decision to be taken by the Board of Trustees, the moment was significant for both hunting’s critics and supporters. More than 76,000 National Trust members voted for the ban on trail hunting on National Trust land, compared to just over 38,000 against.
This is in contrast to a vote to ban trail hunting taken in 2017, which was narrowly defeated by 299 votes, with discretionary votes (proxy votes left to the proxy’s discretion) cast by the board.
In total, 61,671 of the National Trust’s six million members voted on the 2017 resolution. The jump in numbers in last week’s vote reflects the increased public attention on the conduct of the hunting community and doubts about its lawfulness.
“Since the webinars were exposed the smokescreen of trail hunting is no longer believable,” said Lee Moon, spokesperson for the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA).
The impact of the Trustees’ final decision will be even more far-reaching, whichever way it goes.
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A Long Time Coming
The campaign to get trail hunting banned from National Trust land – led by groups including the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) and Keep the Ban – gathered momentum last year when the HSA exposed the webinars from Hankinson and other hunt members.
The webinars discussed how to create a “smokescreen” for illegal fox hunting by visibly laying a trail to “portray to the people watching that you’re going about legitimate business.”
The Hankinson conviction on 15 October at Westminster Magistrates Court provided anti-hunt campaigners with a tipping point against trail hunting.
“Mark Hankinson – Britain’s leading fox hunter – wasn’t just found guilty,” said the HSA in a statement at the time. “He and the whole hunting world had the book thrown at them.”
The repercussions spread beyond the conviction. The National Wildlife Crime Unit suspended former Police Chief Inspector Phil Davies, a representative of pro-hunt campaign group the Countryside Alliance, for comments he made in the leaked webinars which were cited by the judge in Hankinson’s court case. The membership of the Countryside Alliance to the Wildlife Crime Unit is now under review.
The National Trust, Forestry England, the Lake District National Park Authority, United Utilities, and Natural Resources Wales responded to the webinars by suspending trail hunting licenses on their land pending the outcome of the police investigation into the webinars.
With Hankinson now convicted, landowners such as the National Trust are considering what action to take next.
Some landowners have opted for outright bans, including Peterborough City Council and the billionaire owner of clothing retailer H&M. The latter’s estate covers 19,000 acres across Wiltshire, Berkshire and Hampshire.
The reputation of trail hunting was further damaged when two pet cats were killed by hunt hounds in separate events in December 2020 and July 2021. More recently, video footage (warning: distressing content) emerged of a hound being shot in the head at the kennels of the Duke of Beaufort’s Hunt in Gloucestershire.
The Hunting Community Pushes Back
Those in favour of hunting are now clinging to the hope that the National Trust’s Trustees will still come out in support of them.
“Today’s vote involved a tiny proportion of the Trust’s membership and is absolutely no mandate for prohibition of a legal activity which has been carried out on National Trust land for generations,” said Polly Portwin, Director of the Alliance’s Campaign For Hunting. This is in spite of how in 2017 the hunting lobby got its way based on a smaller number of votes.
“The vote is non-binding and the National Trust board of trustees has stated that they are satisfied hunts have been complying with the licence requirements,” said The Hunting Office in a statement. “Although less than 2% of Trust members engaged with the vote, this result is disappointing considering hunts have had access to Trust land for many years.”
However, if the Trustees fail to honour the results of the vote, campaigners believe the consequences for the National Trust would be dire.
“They’ll lose all credibility if they don’t listen to their membership on such an important issue,” said Moon. “Continuing to allow hunting will cost the National Trust membership and money, so the only reason the Trustees would allow it to continue is for their own personal beliefs. Hunting will never be in the National Trust’s best interests.”
However, Moon stressed that the HSA is confident the Trustees will honour the vote.
The National Trust is one of the UK’s biggest landowners, with 250,000 hectares and 780 miles of coastline in its name. As a result, banning trail hunting will deny hunters access to a vast area of land over which to conduct their activities. If the other landowners that have suspended licenses also decide on a ban, this would deprive hunts of a further 847,000 hectares of land across England and Wales.
For anti-hunt campaigners, the battle won’t end there.
A map compiled by LACS shows the large number of councils that still allow trail hunting on their land. The Ministry of Defence has recently issued 11 licenses for the 2021/2022 hunting season. But after Hankinson’s guilty verdict and the overwhelming support for a ban from National Trust members, landowners will find it increasingly difficult to justify their continued approval of hunting to a public that has seen through the smokescreen.