The start of February is an important moment in the season of many hunts in countries where driven game shooting predominates. Thousands of acres which are off limits or where access is restricted during the shooting season are opened up to the hounds in February and March.
The relationship between hunting and shooting has always been a delicate one with obvious clashes around both access and the status of the fox. Historically in lowland countries the huntsman and the keeper’s attitudes towards the fox were fundamentally different. The huntsman sought a sustainable fox population at a level acceptable to local farmers and land managers; the keeper to minimise predation by eliminating as far as possible foxes in the locality. In most areas the relationship between hunts and shoots meant that a balance just about prevailed and, whilst the hunt never had enough foxes and the keeper always too many, both were able to prosper. The exception is those areas where there is a strong tradition of grouse and wild partridge shooting. Keepers on moors and manors have never been able to live with the fox in any numbers because of the massive damage he does to ground nesting birds and in such areas the fox is a rare species.
Since 2005, of course, the status of the fox has changed. He no longer has the value of a quarry species and, whilst most hunts have continued to manage the habitat in woodland they control, the fox no longer has their protection. There is no reason for the keeper to ‘leave one for the hounds’ and, ironically, all that hunts can now offer in terms of fox control is the use of terriers below ground specifically to protect game birds from predation. This change in attitudes towards the fox has undoubtedly had an impact on its management and population. In one Leicestershire hunt country, which was part of a major population study in the nineties, it is suggested anecdotally that numbers are a fraction of what they were then.
So, in some areas at least, it is clear that more foxes have been killed as a result of the Hunting Act and the anti-hunt movement wriggles like a worm on this particular hook. It raises false arguments suggesting we claimed hunting was just about pest control, when actually we always argued for hunting as part of the proper management of the fox population. It says the point of the Hunting Act was to stop foxes being subjected to the ‘cruelty’ of hunting, but we heard them talking about ‘saving foxes’ and we also heard Lord Burns state there was no evidence that hunting is any less humane than other methods of control. As ex-LACS Director Jim Barrington has pointed out the last thing the anti-hunt movement, or their political friends, want is any proper assessment of the impact of the Hunting Act, because they know it has failed in terms of animal welfare and wildlife management just as clearly as in every other way. The impact of the Hunting Act on the fox, and the other quarry species, is yet another unanswerable argument for repeal.
This article first appeared in Countryman’s Weekly magazine