Thank you for contacting me about the Hunting Act 2004.
As things stand, fox hunting is banned under the Hunting Act 2004; for an offence to be committed the behaviour in question must violate the Act’s provisions.
I have made clear in public my own view that fox hunting is abhorrent and that it is right that it is banned by law.
Since the introduction of the Hunting Act 2004 many hunts have turned to trail hunting as an alternative to live quarry hunting. This involves a pack of hounds following an artificially laid, animal-based scent. It closely mimics the hunting that took place before the ban, but should not involve a hunt for a live fox, so is not banned. For an offence to be committed it is necessary to prove that a wild animal is being hunted intentionally.
On the concerns about trail hunting, it is asserted that it is possible that dogs used for trail hunting may on occasion pick up and follow the scent of live foxes during a trail hunt. If that does occur, it is the legal responsibility of the huntsman and women and other members of hunt staff to control their hounds and, if necessary, stop the hounds as soon as they are made aware that the hounds are no longer following the trail that has been laid. Not doing so could be deemed an offence. Any evidence should be provided to the police, and it is for them to make a recommendation to the Crown Prosecution Service. If anybody is breaking the law on this sort of activity, I fully welcome prosecutions being brought.
If any wild animal was hunted intentionally, this can lead to a prosecution and an unlimited fine. Between 2013 and 2019, a total of 471 individuals were prosecuted under the Hunting Act and 227 individuals were found guilty.
Of course, anyone who believes that an offence has taken place during a hunt, including during a trail hunt, should report the matter to the police.
Following the case regarding the webinars to which you refer, I understand that a number of organisations have withdrawn permission for trail hunting on land that they own.
You may be aware that issuing a licence or giving permission for trail hunting is an operational matter for the landowner, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does not play a central role in this. Turning to the use of public land, as I am sure you can appreciate, it is up to each Local Authority to decide whether trail hunting can take place on public land within its jurisdiction. Likewise, it is up to an individual public body to decide what activity takes place on its land. I know, for example, Nottinghamshire County Council banned trail hunting on its land in 2019 and Forestry England can suspend events or stop them completely if illegal activity takes place.
On your point about land owned by the Ministry of Defence, trail and drag hunting on the Defence estate remain legal activities provided they are carried out within the provisions of the Hunting Act 2004. A range of people and activities are allowed access to the MOD estate subject to prior controls. You might be interested to know in 2020-21, the Defence Infrastructure Organisation granted 18 licenses for trail hunting, down from 26 in 2019-20.
I have to report that I am aware of no Government plans to change the law on trail hunting across England and Wales.
While the Conservative 2019 General Election manifesto committed to no further change to the Act, I am sure many MPs would look closely at any proposals that might be placed before a future Parliament for strengthening the law deemed necessary to prevent the hunting of live animals, whether planned or 'accidental'.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
Craig Whittaker MP