Fox Hunting in Britain

The sport of fox hunting with hounds in Britain, from its beginnings in the 16th century to the Hunting Act 2004…

Fox hunting has been occurring in different guises worldwide for hundreds of years. Indeed the practise of using dogs with a keen sense of smell to track prey has been traced back to ancient Egypt and many Greek and Roman influenced countries. However it is believed that the custom for a fox to be tracked, chased and often killed by trained hunting hounds (generally those with the keenest sense of smell known as ‘scent hounds’) and followed by the Master of the Foxhounds and his team on foot and horseback, originated from a Norfolk farmer’s attempt to catch a fox using farm dogs in 1534.

Whilst foxes were widely regarded as vermin and farmers and other landowners had hunted the animals for many years as a form of pest control (both to curb their attacks on farm animals and for their highly prized fur) it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that fox hunting developed into it’s most modern incarnation and was considered a sport in its own right as a result of the decline in the UK’s deer population.

The decline in the deer population and subsequently the sport of deer hunting, or stalking as it is also known, occurred as a consequence of the Inclosure Acts passed between 1750 –1860, particularly the Inclosure (Consolidation) Act of 1801, which was passed to clarify previous acts of inclosure. These acts meant that open fields and common land where many deer chose to breed were fenced off into separate, smaller fields to cope with the increase in the demand for farm land. The birth of the Industrial Revolution saw the introduction of new roads, railways and canals which further reduced the amount of rural land in the United Kingdom, although conversely this improvement in transport links also made foxhunting more popular and easily accessible for those living in towns and cities who aspired to the life of the country gentleman.

For those hunters who had previously tracked deer, which required large areas of open land, foxes and hares became the prey of choice in the seventeenth century, with packs of hounds being trained specifically to hunt. England’s oldest fox hunt, which is still running today, is the Bilsdale Hunt in Yorkshire, established by George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham in 1668.

King George III returning from Fox Hunting

The sport continued to grow in popularity throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and in 1753 the 18-year-old Hugo Meynell, often called the father of modern foxhunting, began to breed hunting dogs for their speed and stamina as well as their keen scent at Quorndon Hall, his estate in North Leicestershire. The speed of his pack not only allowed for a more exciting and extended hunt, but it also meant that the hunt could begin later in the morning, which made it immensely popular with the young gentleman in his social circle amongst whom late nights were de rigueur.

Foxhunting continued to grow in popularity throughout the nineteenth century, particularly because of the inroads made by the Great British Railway which provided rural access to the masses. Despite the banning of the sport in Germany and other European countries from 1934 onwards, foxhunting in the United Kingdom remained popular well into the twentieth century. Indeed a shortage of foxes in England led to a demand for foxes to be imported from France, Germany, Holland and Sweden.

These days however, foxhunting in the UK is much better known for the controversial views of those who champion the sport and those that oppose it. The debate between hunters and anti-hunting campaigners, who believe the sport to be cruel and unnecessary, eventually led to a Government inquiry in December 1999 into hunting with dogs, named the Burns Inquiry after the retired civil servant Lord Burns who chaired the inquiry.

A painting of Fox Hunting

Whilst the Burns Inquiry report noted that hunting with dogs “seriously compromises” the welfare of the foxes, it did not categorically state whether or not hunting should be permanently banned in the UK. As a result of the report, the Government introduced an ‘options bill’, so that each House of Parliament could decide on whether the sport should be banned or subject to licensed hunting or self-regulation. The House of Commons voted to ban the sport and in contrast the House of Lords voted for self-regulation.

So whilst in many parts of the world such as Australia, Canada, France, India and Russia the sport is still going strong, the resulting Hunting Act 2004, passed in November 2004, saw the outlawing of any hunting with dogs in England and Wales from 18 February 2005 (the Scottish Parliament had already banned foxhunting in Scotland in 2002 and in Northern Ireland the sport is still legal).

The controversy surrounding the sport doesn’t end there though. Conversely, despite the ban, hunts have seen an increase in membership and the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) currently represents 176 active foxhound packs in England and Wales and 10 in Scotland. And whilst the suggested amendment to the Hunting Act 2004 to permit licensed hunting was rejected, despite support from the former Prime Minister Tony Blair and Lord Burns himself, many anti-hunting campaigners have complained that countless hunts have flaunted the ban and illegally continued hunting with hounds, whilst the hunts have maintained that they follow artificially laid trails.

Picture of the hunt master and hounds exiting Powderham Castle for a hunt - Owain DaviesThe hunt master and hounds exiting Powderham Castle – Owain Davies

Whatever your views on the sport (and there are clearly many), its affect on popular culture is undeniable. For instance the Parliamentary name “Chief Whip”, which is given to the MP whose role it is to keep the Prime Minister informed of any back bench revolts and general party opinions and to ensure party members toe the party line refers to the role of the “Whipper-in”, who has the responsibility of keeping the hounds in check during a hunt. The iconic ritual of smearing ceremonial blood on the cheeks of a new member of a clan or society which is depicted in many books and films also has its roots in the sport, whose act of ‘Blooding’ was introduced by King James I in the sixteenth century and involved the Huntsmaster rubbing the blood of the prey onto the cheeks of newly initiated member of the hunt.

Published: 16th June 2015

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