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UK anti-hunt activists fight for more than animal rights

March 24, 2023
topic:Hunting & Poaching
tags:#United Kingdom, #hunting, #land rights, #wildlife
located:United Kingdom
by:Aidan Frere-Smith
In England, bridges are being built between wildlife direct action and the right-to-roam campaign.

On 22 February, over 50 anti-hunt activists from 13 different hunt sabotage groups gathered at Dartmoor National Park in southwest England. They were there to disrupt four foxhunts who annually meet around the anniversary of, and in defiance to, the Hunting Act 2004, which banned hunting wild mammals with packs of hounds.

This isn’t the first time anti-hunt activists have been sabotaging this event, but this particular year was significant. 2023 marks the 60th anniversary of the Hunt Saboteurs Association, whose first action was taken against the Dartmoor Hunt in 1963, which was also hosting this year's annual hunt.

The other three attending were the Mid Devon Hunt, South Devon Hunt and Spooners & West Dartmoor Hunt. This action by anti-hunt activists was also carried out in support of the Right To Roam campaign (RTR) following further restrictions imposed on public use of the national park.

Dartmoor is an open-access land, and thus the public has the right to explore and enjoy its landscape without being confined to designated public rights of way, which are often the only permitted routes throughout the countryside due to private land ownership.

However, the national park has been subject to further restrictions following a high court ruling that found that the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 does not permit the right to camp there overnight. The controversial court ruling has been described as "fuelling a wildfire of rage" and is making many "confront the staggering lack of access to nature in England."

Adding insult to this limitation, the millionaire hedge funder who spearheaded the court case, Alexander Darwall, is the owner of the 4000-acre Dartmoor-based Blachford estate, which offers pheasant shooting and deer stalking, and is alleged to be a member of the Dartmoor hunt.

More than just camping

"It’s clear that Darwall and other landowners like him have a particular vision of what our national parks should be for," Anna, one of the organisers of the mass action who is part of Devon County Hunt Saboteurs (DCHS), told FairPlanet.

She believes that rather than protect its flora and fauna, they would rather turn Dartmoor into a playground for "bloodsports junkies."

This meet is not a one-off event, and Anna explains that during the six-month-long hunting season, all four of the fox hunts also separately hunt Dartmoor two or three times a week.

She states that the Lamerton Hunt also occasionally hunt in the area, giving little room for wildlife to take refuge. As Dartmoor is a national park, members of the public witness the reality of fox hunting. "[We] often get messages from distressed walkers who can’t believe this is still happening," said Anna.

For DCHS, however, the actions carried out by fox hunts is nothing new.

"[They] don’t bother with the pretence of trail-laying," said Anna. She explained that the hunts continue to hunt and kill foxes using packs of hounds and are undeterred by the Hunting Act, as the hunts "know the police are not interested in their illegal activities."

When a hunt has been caught doing so, they often claim it was an accident. A recent prosecution of a ‘terrierman’ registered to a Dartmoor-based hunt, however, is testament to their intentions.

But fox hunting is not confined to Dartmoor. DCHS, who also disrupt an additional five foxhunts in the county of Devon, are just one of many hunt sabotage groups operating across the UK and Ireland. According to Bailey’s Hunting Directory, there are over 260 registered hunts in England alone.

"18 years on from the ban, hunt saboteurs are the only people actively intervening to stop a kill," stated Anna. If they don’t, hunts can kill 3-4 foxes in a day, according to an DCHS informant.

Though their efforts are largely successful, not all kills can be prevented. Foxes recently killed by the Stevenstone Hunt and the Eggesford Hunt are examples of what DCHS have experienced, which Anna describes as "devastating."

The bigger picture 

According to Guy Shrubsole, an environmental campaigner and author of Who Owns England, 92 percent of land in England is ‘off limits’ to the general public. And as hunting largely takes place on private property, much of their activity goes unseen and gives the opportunity for criminal activity to thrive.

Landowners who allow hunting on their land can technically be held accountable for facilitating illegal activity, but, as Anna explained, "[they] genuinely believe they can do whatever they like on their land and the law doesn’t apply to them."

Well aware of the hidden reality of hunting, saboteurs have little choice but to trespass in order to intervene. Trespassing in England is in itself considered a civil matter, and is not a criminal offence.

However, saboteurs can be accused of committing aggravated trespass under specific legislation if they are disrupting a lawful activity. To evade this, saboteurs would need to prove the hunts criminal intent, which is difficult due to trail-hunting being used as a "smokescreen."

Often, those who are actively involved in hunting, or are in support of it, focus on trespassing to demonise and create hysteria about hunt saboteurs, as seen in House and Hound.

There is a considerable contradiction in this, as hunts themselves often trespass. In fact, this is such a consistent problem that there is a dedicated campaign and resource to help those that are victim to hunt trespass.

Hunting hounds ‘leaving blood everywhere’ after killing a fox in a local residents garden and a huntsman throwing the dead body of a pet cat over a garden fence after being mauled by hounds are a testament to the reality of hunting.

Building bridges

Though the primary focus of anti-hunt activists is to protect wildlife, hunt sabotage correlates with the campaign for open land access.

Anna argues that wildlife protection plays an important role of responsible stewardship and is "at the heart of so many of the social and ecological problems we face."

She believes it is vital that the public are able to connect with nature, as it is beneficial for both physical and mental health. "Loving the natural world around us," Anna told FairPlanet, "gives us a sense of responsibility to want to protect it."

For her, hunt sabotage is public stewardship in action. 

These opinions are echoed by Nick Hayes in The Book Of Trespass, who also described the general public as natures last line of defence.

Similarly, Guy Shrubsole stated that his book Who Owns England? was to "convey the extreme importance of being very careful and treating these places with utmost respect." Together, they co-founded RTR and have organised mass-trespass events, including the 90th anniversary of the Kinder Scout Trespass and in Dartmoor in response to the recent camping ban.

Many in DCHS have attended these as an act of solidarity.

For Anna, and many other hunt saboteurs, building bridges between these movements is vital; not just so wildlife and nature can be protected, but so it can be enjoyed and appreciated respectfully.

Image by Aidan Frere-Smith.

Article written by:
Aidan Frere-Smith
United Kingdom
Huntsmen, hounds and saboteurs set off from the anniversary meet.
© Aidan Frere-Smith
Huntsmen, hounds and saboteurs set off from the anniversary meet.
The Dartmoor Hunt who hosted this years’ anniversary meet.
© Aidan Frere-Smith
The Dartmoor Hunt who hosted this years’ anniversary meet.
Multiple hunt sabotage groups at the anniversary meet.
© Aidan Frere-Smith
Multiple hunt sabotage groups at the anniversary meet.