Fox hunting in the UK: facts, history and the law

Here we look at fox hunting facts, including history of the controversial rural pursuit and fox hunting laws in the UK

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What is fox hunting?

The fox hunting season traditionally runs from 1 November to March and is a rural pursuit which involves tracking, chasing and, if caught, the killing of a fox

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Traditionally, you could identify members of a hunting party by the number of buttons on their coat – five buttons for a huntsman, four buttons for a master and three buttons for a hunt member.  Since the Hunting Act in England and Wales, only ‘Masters’ and ‘Hunt Servants’ tend to wear red coats or the hunt livery while out hunting. ‘Gentleman subscribers’ may wear black coats.

Research by David McDonald at Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit suggests that the average duration of a hunt – from when a fox is spotted to when it is killed by the hunters – is 17 minutes.

Curious Fox cub

Is fox hunting illegal in the UK?

In 2004, Labour MPs voted by a majority of 356 to 166 to ban the hunting of mammals with dogs (the Hunting Act) in England and Wales. The Act came into effect in 2005. Fox hunting was banned in Scotland in 2002. Shooting foxes as pests remains lawful.

The Burns Inquiry, set up in 1999 to assess the impact of fox hunting and the consequences of a ban, identified that between 6,000 and 8,000 full-time jobs depend on hunting in the UK.

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Red fox cub running (Vulpes vulpes), Ashdown Forest, Sussex, England/Credit: Getty

What is the history of fox hunting?

The use of scent hounds to track prey dates back 2000-3000BC and originated in Assyria and ancient Egypt. The first use of packs specifically bred to hunt foxes was in the late 1600s in England. It developed into its more recognisable modern form during the late 18th century.

The pursuit of animals across the countryside by hunters on horseback was instrumental in the development of sports such as steeplechasing and point-to-point racing.

Opinion: Why the hunting ban should not be lifted

Should the hunting ban be lifted? Michael Stephenson, Director of Campaigns for the League Against Cruel Sports, says no. 

Where is fox hunting legal?

Countries that permit the hunting of foxes using packs of dogs include the US, Australia, Ireland and Canada.

What is drag hunting?

Drag hunting has replaced fox hunting in some areas. It involves hunting down a person with a scented rag who has left a trail for the hounds to follow.

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The riders and hounds of the Cheshire Forest Hunt set off on a drag hunt through the Cheshire countryside/Credit: Getty

Opinion: Why the hunting ban should be lifted

Should the hunting ban be lifted? Tim Bonner, Director of Campaigns at the Countryside Alliance, says yes. 

How many foxes are there in the UK?

The Mammal Society published a study in 2004 that estimated the total rural fox population to be 225,000 adult foxes before the breeding season.

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It is estimated that 400,000 foxes die each year in Britain – on roads, shot or through natural causes (Burns Report). Before the Hunting Act, registered hunting packs were estimated to kill between 21,000 and 25,000 foxes a year (Burns Report).