Voters take to streets over fox hunts

British Prime Minister Theresa May has vowed to give Parliament a free vote to bring back fox hunting, which brought thousands onto the streets in protest.
Beauty therapist Katrina Lawes and photographer Olly Dall protesting against fox hunting at a march in London last Monday. Prime Minister Theresa May has vowed to give Parliament a free vote to bring back the outlawed blood sport, which was banned in
Beauty therapist Katrina Lawes and photographer Olly Dall protesting against fox hunting at a march in London last Monday. Prime Minister Theresa May has vowed to give Parliament a free vote to bring back the outlawed blood sport, which was banned in 2004, should her Conservative government win a majority at the polls.ST PHOTO: TAN DAWN WEI

Brexit, social care and security may dominate the agenda at this week's general election in Britain, but a marginal and no less divisive issue has impassioned voters and brought thousands onto the streets in protest - fox-hunting.

Prime Minister Theresa May has vowed to give Parliament a free vote to bring back this outlawed blood sport should her Conservative government win a majority at the polls.

Horrified animal rights campaigners are bent on stopping her, declaring their ballots for the main opposition Labour Party, which banned this controversial tradition in 2004 under the Tony Blair administration.

"It shouldn't be part of our society in 2017. It's unnecessary, it's unethical, it's inhumane, it's barbaric," said beauty therapist Katrina Lawes, 26, who showed up last Monday with a fox mask and protest sign for a march through London's West End to the Prime Minister's official residence in Downing Street.

The issue is emotional, highly charged and deeply polarising. The hunting community and animal rights activists have often come to physical blows; there have even been deaths as saboteurs attempted to thwart the hunts.

In 2010, for instance, an activist was acquitted of manslaughter after the blades of the gyrocopter aircraft he used sliced through the head of a hunt supporter.

Some have framed this confrontation as a class war, arguing that fox-hunting is the exclusive domain of the rich and privileged, who saddle up in their traditional hunting coats, riding through the countryside with a pack of hounds seeking some fox blood for fun.

This British tradition dates back to the 16th century in England and is still entrenched in rural Britain, despite the ban. Scotland outlawed it in 2002, although it is still legal in Northern Ireland.

Last year's Boxing Day hunts - a traditional annual affair - had at least 250,000 participants, said the Countryside Alliance, a lobby group with 100,000 members, which promotes and protects rural life.

Under the Hunting Act 2004, it is illegal to hunt wild mammals - including foxes, hares, deer and mink - with dogs. But drag hunts, where hounds follow an artificial trail with no quarry, are allowed.

But campaigners say traditional hunts still go on, and foxes continue to get killed. The Masters of Foxhounds Association lists 328 registered foxhound packs - a trained breed of fox-hunting dogs that number between 20 and 30 couples in a pack - in England and Wales.

Hunt advocates argue that the tradition is necessary for wildlife management and pest control. And using dogs to manage wild animals is more ethical than alternatives such as shooting and snaring.

But polls have consistently showed that the majority in the country are against hunting. A survey by pollster ORB done last week showed 64 per cent of the 2,095 people polled across Britain want the ban kept, and only 11 per cent were pro-hunting.

Retired teacher Sue Howe, 61, was at the protest march. "It's medieval, cruel, barbaric. Tradition is no excuse for anything that causes suffering, so people have to speak out when animals can't speak on their own behalf."

Since the law was passed, fewer than 400 people have been convicted, based on statistics between 2005 and 2014 from the Ministry of Justice. Of these, only 24 were involved with registered drag hunts. The rest were prosecuted for poaching or other casual hunting activities.

Hunt saboteurs are gearing up for a bigger battle should the law be repealed. The Hunt Saboteurs Association has been clashing with hunters since 1963, after the group made it its mandate to disrupt hunts.

Activists, or Sabs as they are known, use tactics such as sounding horns to misdirect hounds, laying false trails and covering scents.

"I think it will get a lot nastier and it will get a lot more dangerous for everybody," said engineer John Wright, 48, who goes around north Wales thwarting hunts.

"Passions will get a lot higher if it becomes legal again."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 04, 2017, with the headline 'Voters take to streets over fox hunts'. Print Edition | Subscribe