John Craven: Is lifting the hunting ban a vote winner?

John Craven investigates how one of the countryside's oldest pasttimes has thrived since the hunting ban. 

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It’s Tally Ho time! The hunting season is here again and despite its original purpose – the hunting of foxes using dogs – being banned in England, Wales and Scotland for almost 10 years the sport is more popular than ever. More than 300 hunts across the country are thriving and even harnessing the social media to attract members – many of them young first-timers.

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Typical is the Oakley Hunt on the Bedfordshire borders. “We’ve just started a Facebook page and when we mentioned a pre-season exercise with the hounds, 60 people and their horses came along,” I was told by Caroline Evans, the joint master. “The majority had never ridden with us before but they got the feeling of the hunt and hopefully many will join.” Other hunts report that new media has led to a doubling of interest.

No dire outcome

Many newcomers say the reason they saddle up is to enjoy the thrill of a demanding ride pursuing a drag or a trail instead of a fox and without a bloody ending. This evolution hasn’t led to the death of hunting, the mass destruction of hound packs or the loss of thousands of jobs. Those dire predictions in the run-up to the ban proved unfounded. And anyone tempted to break the law knows keen anti-hunting eyes are watching and there have been some highly publicised convictions.

It’s reckoned that the number of people following the hounds is up by a quarter since the ban – perhaps 50,000 attend the first meet of the season on 1 November – and an Ipsos Mori poll in 2012 showed rural people no keener than urban dwellers to see the law repealed – eight out of 10 wanted it to stay.
With all that in mind it might seem strange to those outside hunting circles that there is a powerful demand among traditionalists for a return to the old days when foxes were wily quarry and passions ran so high that quarter of a million supporters twice marched
on London.

When I spoke to David Cameron on the Countryfile show two years ago, he called the ban “a bizarre piece of legislation” and said it was “just taking the criminal law into an area of activity where it didn’t really belong.” I asked him if there would be a free vote on repealing the ban during the current parliament and he replied: “We’ve said it will happen this parliament, yes.”

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Next election?

Well, it hasn’t happened yet with little sign of it doing so in the few remaining months. But Conservative MPs such as Simon Hart, former chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, are pressing for a repeal pledge in the party’s election manifesto. “Realistically we would need an outright majority of 25 to end the ban,” he told me. “We haven’t lost our nerve, it’s simply that in this Coalition parliament we couldn’t get the numbers.”

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Mr Hart and other pro-hunting campaigners hope to marshal around 15,000 activists to reinvigorate grass-roots support before next May’s general election. They can expect full-on opposition from those equally determined that the law should remain unchanged. The controversy over one of the countryside’s oldest pastimes is set to continue for ever.