Crowds of supporters have turned out for the annual Boxing Day hunts across the UK, as Labour vowed to strengthen legislation banning hunting with hounds.
Organisers said hundreds of thousands of people were involved in either taking part or lining the streets in support of the controversial activity, adding defiantly: “We’re here to stay.”
The turnout demonstrated that “the future of hunting is secure”, the Countryside Alliance’s head of hunting, Polly Portwin, said.
The group said one of the largest turnouts was at the Avon Vale Hunt in Wiltshire, while the Bicester with Whaddon Chase Hunt in Winslow also enjoyed good support.
Ivan Lawrence, of the latter hunt, said: “We were pleased to see so many people come out and show their support for the hounds, with people from all walks of life coming out to enjoy this very traditional day.”
Ahead of the hunts, shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman said an incoming Labour government would review penalties under the Hunting Act 2004 to ensure it is an effective deterrent.
It would include a consultation on the introduction of custodial sentences, bringing it in line with the penalties for other wildlife crimes.
Ms Hayman said they would also consider measures to prevent the exploitation of “loopholes” in the legislation, which covers England and Wales.
It could include the introduction of a new “recklessness” clause to prevent trail or drag hunts being used as cover for the illegal hunting of wild mammals.
Ms Hayman said they would also look at removing an exemption for the use of dogs underground to protect game birds as it risks fights between hounds and wild animals.
“Labour’s 2004 Hunting Act was a key milestone in banning this cruel blood sport, but since then new practices have developed to exploit loopholes in the legislation,” she said.
“While Theresa May proposed scrapping the Hunting Act all together, Labour is today calling time on those who defy the law by announcing several measures that would clampdown on illegal hunting.
“Labour is the true party of animal welfare. These new proposals form part of the next chapter in striving to ensure our laws and regulations on animal welfare are up to date and fit for purpose.”
Grove and Rufford Hunt chairman Nick Alexander criticised Labour’s plans, saying there is more to prioritise in the world than beefing up hunting legislation.
He spoke as the hunt returned to Bawtry, near Doncaster in South Yorkshire, a year after it was refused permission to meet in the centre of the town following the convictions of three people for hunting offences.
Of Labour’s plans he said: “It’s not welcome. It just seems a bit bizarre that there’s lots of other things going on in the world at this time and, if that’s the priority, then someone needs to have a word.”
Standing among the crowds, he added: “Look at all this. This is the real truth of the matter. Hunting is very much part of England – old England and modern England. And we’re here to stay.”
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokeswoman said: “The Hunting Act 2004 makes it an offence to hunt a wild mammal with dogs and completely bans hare coursing.
“However, the Act also sets out tightly-drawn exemptions under which dogs may be used to hunt wild mammals, but these are subject to very strict conditions.
“Those found guilty under the Act are also subject to harsh penalties, including the possibility of an unlimited fine.
“We are also increasing maximum sentences for those who commit the most heinous acts of animal cruelty tenfold, to five years in jail.”
The Cambridgeshire-based Fitzwilliam (Milton) Hunt was also due to take place on Wednesday, after a High Court judge barred opponents of foxhunting from trespassing on land used by the hunt.
Last month, Mr Justice Freedman granted injunctions against a number of named people plus “persons unknown” after hunt operators complained about trespass and made allegations of intimidation and harassment.
Opponents disputed their complaints and allegations and the judge said claims and counter-claims could be fully analysed at a trial, adding that the injunctions might be lifted following any trial.
Labour’s promise came as a poll commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports found only one in six (16%) rural residents believe hunting with dogs reflects countryside values.
The polling by Survation found that over nine out of 10 (91%) rural residents think that observing nature reflects countryside values.
The poll found only 4% said they ever participate in hunting, compared to 63% who observe wildlife at least once a month, 59% who take part in walking or hiking at least once a month, 39% who participate in running, cycling or horse riding at least once a month and 52% who visit pubs at least once a month.
Chris Luffingham, director of campaigns at the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “Hunting is claimed by a minority to be a cornerstone of country life, yet it is revealing that people living in the countryside get far more enjoyment from watching wildlife rather than killing it.
“Modern day countryside values are based around respect for nature, not the abuse of nature for entertainment.
“This polling confirms that we are a nation of animal lovers and that hunting needs to be consigned to history.”
– The polling took place in early December 2018 with a sample size of 1,072 people aged over 18 living in rural areas in England and Wales.