The UK’s National Trust just voted to ban trail hunting on its protected land.
This decision comes almost a full year after the heritage charity introduced a temporary embargo due to suspected illegal hunting—with artificial trail laying simply providing a “smokescreen” for ongoing criminal activity.
Hunting with dogs has been illegal since a national ban was passed in 2004. Trail hunting, a legal (and ideally ethical) alternative to traditional bloodsports, was adopted around the same time to allow the hunting community to continue its activities in some way.
In theory, this involves the laying of an artificial scent for huntsman and hounds to follow in place of wild and captive foxes. But in practice, artificial trails are rarely laid at all, and animals are still chased and killed. In the likely event that live quarry is hunted (whether by accident or design) the hunt retains deniability thanks to the excuse trail hunting provides.
As one of the biggest landowners in the UK, the National Trust’s ban is significant. It applies to nearly 1000 square miles of land, 780 miles of coast, and hundreds of historic houses, monuments, and villages. For hunts that operate almost exclusively on the trust’s land, such as the fell packs of the Lake District, this could put a complete stop to their operations.
The National Trust bans trail hunting
The National Trust has allowed trail hunting so far under the provision that no pursuit of live quarry takes place. Now, after more than 16 years of activists raising the alarm about illegal hunting, including to the National Trust itself, it appears that action is finally being taken.
In October, the overwhelming majority of National Trust members (78,816 for, 38,184 against, and 18,047 abstentions) chose to continue restricting hunt access to charity land. While the results of this were not binding, trustees recently confirmed that the ban would be upheld due to its members’ concerns over illegal hunting and the potential for reputational harm.
“All in all, it feels like the first in a domino effect of landowners pulling their support for hunting,” says a spokesperson for Norfolk/Suffolk Hunt Saboteurs. “And that’s crucial in the struggle against hunting because land is one of its most crucial resources.”
The Hunt Saboteurs Association (and dozens of local groups such as Norfolk/Suffolk sabs) use nonviolent direct action to intervene in illegal hunting in and around their communities. Some current members have been taking part in anti-hunting demonstrations since well before the ban, and the history of the HSA dates back to its official foundation in 1963.
The HSA and other anti-hunting organizations (including Keep the Ban and the League Against Cruel Sports) continue to lobby those who provide material backing to the hunting community, particularly the major landowners who have yet to follow the National Trust’s example in banning trail hunting.
Natural Resources Wales has already made a similar announcement, and activists are encouraging United Utilities, Forestry England, and others to do the same. Several advocacy and lobbying groups are specifically targeting the Ministry Of Defence, which is one of the few landowners to continually support hunting regardless of controversy and illegal activity.
‘Hunting is systemically criminal’
Bloodsports in general (and fox hunting in particular) are as unpopular today as they have ever been, with around 85 percent of the British public opposed to re-legalization. Despite this, hunts continue to persecute wildlife for sport legally and illegally nationwide, almost entirely unchallenged by the authorities despite traveling across public and private land alike.
So, what prompted this change in attitude from landowners such as the National Trust? In November of last year, leaked video footage showed Mark Hankinson, the director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA), recommending the use of trail laying and other tricks to covertly and illegally fox hunt—exploiting legislative loopholes and technicalities in order to push the limits of plausible deniability.
The MFHA is the governing body for over 170 packs of foxhounds that it still claims “hunt within the law” throughout England, Wales, and Scotland. This virtual event alone (one of a series of instructional webinars) was attended by over 100 senior members of the hunting community, including other hunt masters and former Police Chief Inspector Phil Davies.
Hankinson was subsequently found guilty of encouraging illegal activity and fined, while Davies was suspended from his role in wildlife crime prevention. The judge described trail hunting as “a sham and a fiction,” and highlighted Hankinson’s intent to encourage covert foxhunting as a “clear and common thread” throughout the videos.
The National Trust’s temporary ban notably followed the original leak in 2020, with the permanent ban following Hankinson being charged in October of this year. Norfolk and Suffolk’s spokesperson says that the successful prosecution of the MFHA director “finally provided a legally recognized basis that hunting is systemically criminal, and that it’s not just limited to the actions of individual hunts.”
The problem with trail hunting
The League Against Cruel Sports estimates that less than 0.04 percent of trail hunts witnessed post-ban have been genuine. According to Norfolk/Suffolk Hunt Saboteurs, their group alone has seen real trail hunting just two times, ever, despite monitoring local and national hunts an average of once or twice per week, every single week.
Norfolk and Suffolk’s spokesperson adds that “there is absolutely no doubt in our minds” that the veneer of legal hunting is used simply to sow doubt, should established hunts’ criminal activity ever make it to court—something that has proven effective time and time again.
In fact, it is a testament to Hankinson’s level of self-incrimination that he was prosecuted at all. It has been reported that investigators wanted to charge five additional individuals who also appeared in the leaked webinar, including Conservative politician and British peer Lord Mancroft, but were rebuffed by the Crown Prosecution Service for lack of evidence.
It is remarkably hard for campaigners to successfully prosecute wrongdoers, even when caught on video, and despite nearly 17 years of the ban, violence against wildlife—as well as horses, hounds, local pets, and any activists who speak out or take action against hunting—continues unabated.
Multiple reports indicate significant police bias, which makes addressing crimes in the field even more difficult, despite countless instances of illegal hunting and violence recorded by activists, monitors, hunt sabs, neighbors, and random bystanders. Footage handed in to the police frequently goes missing, and some officers can even be seen out with the hunt.
If the National Trust ban really does signal a domino effect that could finally sink the hunting industry, it will require a further combination of local restrictions and national legislation to fight the community’s remarkable wealth, corruption, and self-interest. In reality, the latest wave of condemnations alone is unlikely to lighten the load of sabs and monitors much at all.
Less than one week after its announcement, National Trust members caught South Shropshire Hunt illegally trespassing and hunting on the charity’s land, with similar reports accusing Cornwall’s Western Hunt of the same. Now these restrictions must be enforced.