When the Conservative Party made its pre-election pledge to provide a free vote on the repeal of the 2004 Hunting Act it was received by the hunting community with a sense that justice was about to be done. However, the election’s outcome has meant that what happens now over the hunting issue is slightly less clear and the chance of imminent change unlikely.

Hunting isn’t a priority for the coalition Government at the moment, and rightly so when you consider the other problems it has to sort out, but where does that leave hunting people as they move towards the start of their seventh season under the ban? The proposal of a new Hunting Regulatory Authority (HRA), as reported in Shooting Times (News, 14 July), might go some way to explaining how the campaign is moving forward.

The new Government is without doubt more sympathetic to fieldsports. Nevertheless, for the past three years, the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) and hunting associations have been working to create a new regulatory authority for the sport. “We were first advised by senior members of the Conservative Party that it would be a great help in achieving repeal if we were to have an independent regulatory authority such as the proposed Hunting Regulatory Authority,” explained MFHA chairman Stephen Lambert.

“It’s come about in order to satisfy the people in Parliament who are sitting on the fence or who perhaps oppose hunting on grounds of animal welfare, that repealing the Act won’t simply take us back to the status quo before the ban,” he commented.

The objectives of the non-statutory Hunting Regulatory Authority are published overleaf, but Mr Lambert was keen to express that the HRA wouldn’t have “rules”, as such, but it would have principles. “The aims of the HRA are that it will help to achieve repeal of the Hunting Act by ensuring effective and independent regulation of hunting; that it will satisfy people who have complaints; that it will administer justice fairly where rules have been breached; and finally, and most importantly, it will promote good practice,” he said.

It is clear that some people and organisations want hunting to be more transparent and it seems that this new authority goes some way towards showing that the hunting community wishes to be seen to be making efforts of “compromise”.

“Most hunting people accept that repeal is necessary,” continued Mr Lambert. “They know we have to work with Parliamentarians to achieve repeal. The HRA is part of the bargaining process, and part of this is being seen to be independently regulated rather than simply self-regulated.”

Heading the HRA will be Lord Donoughue, whose name is synonymous with animal welfare, thanks to the excellent work he has done to initiate improvements in horse racing and greyhound racing. He is a staunch defender of the right to hunt, though is not a foxhunter himself. “His name on the paper says everything,” declared the MFHA. His purpose is to give confidence to the “don’t knows” and to provide reassurance that there will be a proper structure to hunting.

“Hunting, when conducted according to proper practices, is welfare-friendly and the right way to manage wildlife, but if people do things that are wrong, we now have an independent system of bringing them to justice,” Mr Lambert said.

“Over many generations, hunting has suffered from the fact that most people simply do not know how it is conducted or the principles on which it is carried out. Most people know little about wildlife management, how animals are equipped to survive in the wild and why hunting is effective because it takes out the weak and involves the use of natural instincts.

“Our greatest challenge is to encourage a larger number of people to understand the principles of hunting as a form of wildlife management. The relationship between hunting and the media has improved beyond all imagination in the past 10 years. The Countryside Alliance and its head of media Tim Bonner have done a huge amount to achieve this, but we still must keep moving forward. Part of my responsibility is, first, to achieve repeal, and second, to ensure proper education on all fronts — for masters on how to run their country and handle their staff, to hunt staff on technical aspects of hound welfare and conduct in the field, and so on.”

Not just about freedom

So much of the hunting debate has relied upon improving the public’s perception of the sport — from winning the intellectual argument about the infringement upon people’s civil liberties by preventing them from hunting, to the fact that some hunts have adopted a different livery since the ban — that the welfare issue at times seemed less important. When we marched in London it was more about fighting for our freedom to hunt than championing hunting as an effective wildlife management method. It’s undeniable that hunting has seen an irreversible change over the past few years, which is not solely down to the ban. The demographics of Britain have changed dramatically: there are more roads, which have become busier, and urban sprawl has imposed on some areas to the point where they are practically unhuntable. Is now the time to go about a complete overhaul not just of how hunting is conducted but where it is conducted?

“We have to revisit the geography of hunting. The MFHA encourages hunts to apply a five-point criteria test of whether they have enough huntable country, sufficient foxes (postrepeal), adequate finance, good leadership and practical facilities (kennels and staff accommodation),” said Mr Lambert. “There are areas that concern me, particularly in the south east, the West Country and some parts of Yorkshire, where packs fail on one or more of the five points. Where this is the case, the MFHA needs to put in a team of highly respected hunting people and gather the facts for review.

Recommendations would then be made to me and we would then talk to the hunts concerned to achieve a solution. I feel strongly that we have to make progress and achieve satisfactory conclusions in this area.”

Could this be something the HRA gets involved with? “Yes, it could, but I hope the hunts and the MFHA will be ahead of the game on this. The perfect system would be for hunts to work out how they could amalgamate, share kennels, question boundaries and so on,” Mr Lambert concluded.

The need to present a better image

The MFHA is a membership association with rules and codes of conduct by which its members agree to abide. Most hunt supporters believe repeal is necessary, but some do not and the MFHA will need to continue to try to convince them, at grass roots, that all these measures are important. The proposed new HRA will ensure that everyone involved is accountable and that the sport has the best possible “public face”. Latest figures suggest that there are a fraction more MPs in favour of repeal than against. Hopefully, this palliative offering will convince more to vote in favour when the time comes.