Fox hunting is the use of dogs under human control to locate, chase and kill foxes. The hunters can be on horseback or on foot. The dogs are specialist scent hounds trained to detect and follow the scent of the red fox. A typical fox hound pack contains 30-40 dogs and they are generally accompanied by dozens of hunters who take on various roles.
Despite it being the 21st century, the people involved in a fox hunt are still known as masters and servants. The hunt masters are the bosses or organisers. They are financially and legally responsible for the hunt and the role of hunt master carries significant prestige. Most hunts have several masters though not all masters are present at every hunt meet.
The hunt servants are the paid hunt staff and include the huntsman who controls the hounds with vocalisations and horn calls and is in charge of hunting on the day. Whipper-in(s) who keep the hounds from going astray - using the crack of a whip. They also help to block fox escape routes and point out any fleeing fox to the huntsman.
Terriermen who block up fox earth and badger setts before the hunt to prevent foxes running underground. During the hunt, they follow the huntsman and hounds on quad bikes with terriers in a box. If the hounds chase a fox underground, the terriermen put a terrier down after the fox to either: locate and trap it while they dig it out to release in front of the hounds or, keep it to be used as a 'bagged fox' - for a day when foxes may not be found, they have one to release or possibly, shoot it.
Hunts also attract other supporters who pay to take part on the day. Anywhere from a dozen to over 100 horse riders may pay to accompany a mounted fox hunt and these riders are collectively known as ‘the field’. They play no part in controlling the hounds, although they do assist with blocking fox escape routes, pointing out fleeing foxes to the huntsman and making noise to try and disorientate a fleeing fox. People also pay to follow the hunt on foot or in their car, though these numbers are usually small. They too try to prevent foxes from escaping the pursuing hounds.
Most fox hunts meet two to four times a week from early autumn until mid spring. Numerous foxes can be chased during one hunt meet, and individual foxes can be chased multiple times in one day. According to the hunters themselves: ‘the length of the chase may vary considerably, from a few minutes to well over an hour or even longer, but the average is some 15 to 20 minutes. The distance covered may be anything up to six or seven miles, in a circular or twisting line.
No animal has evolved to cope with being chased by 40 dogs accompanied by dozens of people – many on horseback – shouting and horn blowing, all trying to prevent the animal’s escape. This is not natural. The chased fox suffers extreme stress which it is not biologically equipped to cope with. But more than that hunts actually prevent fleeing foxes from performing their natural coping behaviour.
Foxes naturally escape predators by going underground, but hunt terriermen block up these escape routes forcing an unnaturally long chase. If a fit fox does succeed in escaping underground, terriers are sent down after them to trap the fox while terriermen dig it out. The government commissioned Burns Report, published in 2000, concluded that the inability to escape dogs underground causes the fox ‘extreme fear’ and is a ‘serious compromise of its welfare.’ Foxes forced to face terriers underground can also suffer injuries to the face, head, and neck, as, of course, can the terriers, who are often left with untreated injuries and will be shot when they are no longer of use.
Foxes that are caught by the pack of hounds above ground suffer a violent death. Autopsies have revealed that they are not killed quickly as is often claimed but endure numerous bites and tears to their flanks and hindquarters - causing enormous suffering before death. Further suffering is caused during hunts in the spring. Many fox hunts operate in March, April and even early May when female foxes are likely to have cubs in an underground den. If she is hunted while out finding food, her young cubs die as they are reliant on her for food and warmth
Fox hunts use other dirty tricks to ensure they get the ‘thrill of a kill’ every time they meet. Pre and post ban, there have been multiple exposes of hunts building and maintaining artificial fox earths (manmade structures designed to mimic fox earths and provide breeding space and shelter) and providing supplementary food to encourage foxes to stay in the area. This widespread practice was even acknowledged by hunters in submissions to the Burns Inquiry. The Inquiry’s response undermines hunters’ claims of ‘fox control’: As the Burn's inquiry noted: ‘…it is hard to reconcile any use of artificial earths by the hunts with the argument that foxes are a pest and that their numbers need to be controlled through hunting…the active use of artificial earths, with a view to hunting, is inconsistent with the stated objective of controlling fox numbers.’
Hunts sometimes even resort to using ‘bagged foxes’ to ensure they get a kill. The hunt terriermen trap foxes or buy them from gamekeepers and hold them captive until hunt day then release one in front of the hounds. In May 2015, a League Against Cruel Sports investigation discovered 16 fox cubs being held captive next to a fox hunt’s kennels. In 2012, an employee of the Fitzwilliam Hunt was convicted under the Animal Welfare Act for holding a pregnant vixen captive in cruel conditions. During the height of the campaign for a ban on hunting, both the Sinnington and Cottesmore hunts were caught keeping fox cubs captive for hunting.
Dogs do not naturally kill foxes; they must be trained to do it. This is done in the early autumn when fox hunts go ‘cubbing’- also referred to as 'Autumn Hunting' and now, more commonly as 'Hound Exercise' - all terms refer to the same practice - The new, young hounds are taught to kill using young fox cubs that are dispersing from their parents’ territory. These naïve cubs are easy prey for the hunt as the cubs do not know the escape routes in the unfamiliar areas they are exploring. Hunt members assist the young hounds by surrounding woods where the dogs have detected foxes and shouting, banging their saddle and slapping their thighs so the young foxes will be too scared to flee the woods and the hounds can easily catch them.
Hunting with dogs was banned in England & Wales in 2004 (Scotland in 2002) because of the profound suffering it causes to foxes and other hunted animals, such as stags and hare. The law was not intended to stop foxes being killed, but to stop them being killed in the cruelest of ways – with a prolonged chase and violent death.
Exemptions were included in the law which permit dogs to be used in certain specific circumstances:
Stalking and flushing to guns: Two dogs may be used to flush a fox from cover so it can be shot for the purpose of protecting livestock, game birds or biodiversity. The dogs must be kept under close control and the fox must be shot as soon as it breaks from cover – no further chasing is allowed.
Rescue of an injured mammal: Two dogs may be used to capture a fox if the hunt believes it is injured and the hunting is undertaken to relieve its suffering.
Research and observation: Two dogs are allowed to be used for the purpose of or in connection with the observation or study of a wild mammal.
Flushing to a bird of prey: An unlimited number of dogs can be used to flush a fox from cover to a bird of prey which will catch and kill it.
Recapture of escaped wild mammal: An unlimited number of dogs can be used to capture a fox that has escaped from captivity.
Use of a dog below ground (known as terrier work): One terrier may be used below ground to flush out a fox to be shot for the purpose of protecting game birds being reared for shooting. The terriermen must carry written permission from the landowner.
Fox hunters have long tried to find ways to avoid the law. When the Hunting Act was introduced many hunts quickly took Raptors out with them so they could claim to be using the bird of prey exemption. This cynical subterfuge soon wore thin and few hunts claim to be using this exemption today. Equally, some hunts went out with just two hounds and claimed to be flushing to guns, but this too quickly stopped.
Today, few fox hunts claim to be hunting under one of the Act’s exemptions. Instead, most say they have switched to ‘trail hunting’, where the dogs follow a pre-laid scent trail made using fox urine. Yet investigators from several animal welfare groups regularly monitor hunts for breaches of the law and have not seen a single hunt laying a trail before a meet. Most believe that ‘trail hunting’ is a rouse, a false alibi invented by fox hunters to act as a smokescreen for illegal activity. It is not the same as drag hunting, a legitimate - no kill - sport that has existed for hundreds of years alongside fox hunting.
Drag hunts use hounds trained to follow a non-animal scent, usually, aniseed, laid across fields by a human runner, to provide an exciting ride for those who take part. Drag hunts do not ‘accidentally’ kill foxes like many fox hunts have been filmed doing while out ‘trail hunting’. Drag hunts do not cross major roads and railways with their dogs and horses or trespass in people’s gardens like fox hunts regularly do while ‘trail hunting’. Drag hunts lay their trails in safe, predetermined areas and their dogs follow that trail. If fox hunts were now truly ‘trail hunting’ they would be doing the same.
Many animal protection groups are calling for a ‘recklessness’ clause to be added to the Hunting Act, as currently exists in the Protection of Badgers Act so that hunts which ‘accidentally’ kill foxes while ‘trail hunting’ can be successfully prosecuted.
1. Burns L, Edwards V, Marsh J, Soulsby L, and Winter M. (2000) Report of the Committee of inquiry into hunting with dogs in England and Wales. The Stationery Office, London.
4. Kidnapped for Cruelty - 16 fox cubs found in a barn 'linked to a high-profile hunt, claims charity http://tinyurl.com/q78wawb
5. Peterborough Telegraph (2012) Hunt terrier man fined over fox 'in a barrel' 3rd May http://tinyurl.com/pjx9nlt
6. Sengupta K (1998) Storm over fox cubs reared for the hunt. The Independent, 28th June http://tinyurl.com/nfadzc
7. BBC News (2003) Huntmasters suspended. 28th June http://tinyurl.com/oxnw9gm