Labour’s 2004 Hunting Act has led to over 460 people being found guilty of hunting mammals with dogs since its introduction into British law. Yet “legal loopholes” and inaction from prosecutors displays a need to toughen the Act’s provisions further. Shadow Environment Secretary, Sue Hayman, last month proposed custodial sentences for those found guilty of breaking the Act. However, existing failures of law enforcement services to track down suspected offenders, and the continued popularity of “trail hunting”, highlight how perhaps the laws surrounding fox hunting are what need to be strengthened – not the punishments.

What exactly did the 2004 Act entail?

The 2004 Hunting Act, introduced under Tony Blair’s Labour government, came into legal force on 18th February 2005. This Act banned the hunting of mammals, including foxes, using dogs in England and Wales. However, the Act failed to outlaw many other forms of fox-hunting, including trail hunting. Additionally, the Act was criticised for failing to adequately punish offenders. The maximum penalty for breaking the Act is a fine of any value, determined by individual judges. No proposals for custodial sentences for fox hunters were outlined in this Act.

Legal loopholes and apathy

Given the Act’s limited provisions and punishment, calls to toughen it come as no surprise. Many hunting groups have continued to meet for “trail hunting”. This is where dogs follow an animal-based scent, and usually takes place where foxes are. The League Against Cruel Sports has condemned this. They argued that “accidents” where live animals can be chased and hunted can easily occur. According to the League, over half of those prosecuted under the 2004 Act claimed to be trail hunting. This makes trail hunting one of the most popular legal loopholes for fox hunting, and a potential cover-up for continued illegal hunting.

Another major problem with the 2004 Act has been with its enforcement. Police and prosecutors have been unwilling to enforce the Act’s provisions. This is a particular problem in the South West, where fox hunting remains popular. Local groups of Hunt Monitors in Devon and Cornwall have criticised the Crown Prosecution Service and local police, who have not have continuously failed to take action of their reports on illegal hunts. These groups also claim that police do not contact suspected hunters that they report. If law enforcement authorities are failing to take action against suspected offenders, how much difference would custodial sentences make?

The unpopularity of repeal

Theresa May included a pledge to allow free vote to repeal the 2004 Act in her 2017 General Election Manifesto. May herself voted against the Act and has admitted to being a supporter of fox hunting with dogs. Yet a poll prior to the election found that only 50% of Conservative members supported the hunting ban. Labour supporters also remain strongly against fox hunting with dogs, with nearly 180,000 signing a petition against it. May shelved plans for a free vote in January 2018, telling the BBC that this was due to a lack of public support. Given the strong public backlash against fox hunting, Labour’s current proposal of custodial sentences would fit with the public mood.

Tougher sentences or tougher laws?

Discussion around fox hunting legislation typically reaches its peak around Boxing Day. Over 250,000 people nationwide are estimated to partake in, or support, Boxing Day hunting meets every year. Labour began discussing toughening the 2004 Act in November, with Hayman blaming austerity for hunting convictions falling to historic lows. “Sweeping government cuts to police forces and the lack of resource for the National Wildlife Crime Unit are having a clear impact on investigating and convicting those responsible for wildlife crimes”, she stated.

However, the legal loophole of trail hunting appears to be a greater problem with the 2004 Act than a lack of convictions. One example of this was on Boxing Day 2017. Despite four foxes being killed on “trail hunts” in Cheshire at that time, Cheshire Police took no action. Chris Matheson, MP for Chester, then called for the Act to be tougher on trail hunting. Outlawing trail hunting could be a valuable step towards strengthening the 2004 Act. This continues to result in the death of foxes for sport, whether intentional or not, and also serves as an excuse for those accused of illegal hunting.

No punishment without legislation

Martin Sims, Investigations Director of the League Against Cruel Sports, criticised the Crown Prosecution Service for dropping hunting cases. He also argued that trail hunting was a legal loophole that, needed to be closed by strengthening the 2004 Act.

With local authorities and the CPS failing to take action against suspected offenders of the Act, and the continued hunting of live foxes under trail hunting, introducing custodial sentences for offenders would likely make little difference. If offenders are rarely taken to court under the Act’s existing provisions, it is surely better to focus on legislating widely to discover more potential offenders. More offenders would likely be found and punished if the provisions of the 2004 Act were strengthened. This could include compelling local authorities to investigate cases of illegal hunting where evidence was presented, such as in Cheshire. Furthermore, outlawing trail hunting would also remove this defence for illegal hunters and ensure that this “legal loophole” is closed.

If Labour wants to be the real party of animal welfare, it should focus on strengthening the Act it fought so hard to introduce in 2004, to ensure that its provisions cannot be exploited.

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