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The Hunting Act 2004


  • The Hunting Act is designed to prevent one specific activity out of a range of control/management methods.
  • It does not address the issue of improving wild mammal welfare. The alternative legal methods – shooting and snaring – can cause equal or greater suffering over a longer period. New scientific evidence has shown that wounding rates in shot foxes are much higher than those claimed by anti-hunting groups.
  • It is clear that the motivation behind the Act has more to do with preventing the mounted, ‘red coat’ type of hunting with dogs than genuinely addressing the various ways in which wild mammals are killed.
  • The problem is that the term ‘hunting with dogs’ involves a much wider range of actions. The Hunting Act 2004 affects every dog owner in the country.

Defining ‘Hunting’

  • The offence stated in Clause 1 of the Hunting Act is “A person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog, unless his hunting is exempt.”
  • The Act does not define “hunting with dogs”. It is the dog that hunts so it is unclear exactly what the human has to do in order to commit an offence.
  • Other actions, such as “flushing” out of “cover”, are also not defined.
  • Despite claims that the new law is clear, many are unsure about what constitutes an offence. Even DEFRA appears confused as the following sequence of events shows.

    • 24th November 2004 – DEFRA state that ‘chasing away’ a wild mammal with dogs is illegal under the Hunting Act.
    • 26th November 2004 – DEFRA state that ‘chasing away’ is NOT, in fact, hunting and therefore not covered by the Act.
    • 15th December 2004 – DEFRA officials change their minds again, stating that the deliberate use of dogs in chasing unwanted wild mammals from land is, in fact, illegal. However, using a barking dog to scare away animals is NOT illegal.
    • 9th February 2005 – DEFRA officials change their minds yet again, stating that using a barking dog to frighten away a wild mammal is actually illegal under the Hunting Act.
    • 14th February 2005 – DEFRA officials change their minds once again to say that, “The Hunting Act does NOT make it an offence for a dog to chase or otherwise hunt a wild mammal. It makes it an offence for a person to hunt a wild mammal with a dog (unless his hunting is exempt)”

    So what appears to be the offence is not the act of a dog chasing and perhaps catching and killing a wild mammal, but what is in the mind of the person in control of the dog or dogs at the time. It is therefore necessary for any prosecution to show that it was the intention of the person in control of the dog or dogs to chase a wild mammal. However, the word ‘intention’ does not appear anywhere in the Hunting Act.

    What the Hunting Act does and does not do

    • It does not prevent all hunting with dogs, as many people think.
      e.g.(1) - It is legal to chase wild mammals out of cover using dogs as long as only two dogs are used and “reasonable steps” are taken to ensure the animal is shot.
      e.g.(2) - It legal to use a terrier underground to flush out a fox and kill it in order to protect birds to be shot for sport – e.g. pheasants. However, this exemption is not extended to protect farm livestock or rare birds – e.g. avocets.
    • It is illegal to hunt and kill a hare with dogs… but not a rabbit.
    • But it is legal to hunt a hare that has already been shot and wounded.
    • Despite this, it is illegal to use a terrier below ground to flush out a fox that has been shot and wounded. The animal will have to be left to die of its injuries.
    • It is illegal to hunt and kill a mouse with dogs… but not a rat.

    An Act based on Prejudice

    It is now clear that many politicians who voted for the Hunting Act did so on the basis of class prejudice, rather than an intention to improve animal welfare, as can be seen from numerous statements:

    “Now that hunting has been banned, we ought at last to own up to it: the struggle over that Bill was not just about animal welfare and personal freedom, it was class war.”
    Peter Bradley, ex Labour MP. (Sunday Telegraph – 21st November 2004)

    “This has nothing to do with animal welfare – this is for the miners.”
    Dennis Skinner, Labour MP. (Labour Party Conference – September 2004)

    “…the people marching today didn’t march for the miners when thousands of their jobs were taken away by Thatcher.”
    Sir Gerald Kaufman, Labour MP. (Dimbleby Programme - 22nd September 2002)

    It is also the case that some animal welfare groups campaigning against hunting ignored scientific evidence showing a likely increase in animal suffering and based their policies on opinion rather than fact. This resulted in the following staggering quote:

    “There is not absolute proof that wounded foxes suffer...”
    Jackie Ballard , then RSPCA Director General. (Letter - 9th May 2005)

    It should be noted that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, the Lord Chancellor, the Secretary of State for DEFRA and the then Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael did not vote for the Hunting Act. In fact, not a single party leader voted for the Hunting Act.


    Combating rural crime is already a very difficult problem and any law without proper definitions of the offence inevitably proves difficult to police. In the successful appeal of the first hunt official convicted under the Hunting Act, the court stated, “We observe at the outset that the experience of this case has led us to the conclusion that the relevant law is far from simple to interpret or to apply; it seems to us that any given set of facts may be susceptible to differing interpretations. The result is an unhappy state of affairs which leaves all those involved in a position of uncertainty.” Consequently, it is not always easy for people using the numerous exemptions in the Act to know if they are in fact breaking the law. It may be even more difficult for those observing hunts, including the police, to be sure of any breach or if a group of people with dogs are taking part in an illegal hunt, an exempt hunt, flushing, hound trailing, a drag hunt or a hunt simply exercising dogs?

    Every law should start from a position of principle. In targeting one activity on the basis of prejudice, rather than proper scientific evidence, the Hunting Act has proven to be unworkable, unprincipled and detrimental to animal welfare.

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