I appreciate that this issue is highly emotive, and I share the concerns raised for the welfare of our wildlife. As I am sure you are aware, fox hunting is banned under the Hunting Act 2004, and for an offence to be committed the behaviour in question must violate the Act’s provisions. At the 2019 General Election, I was elected on a manifesto which committed to making no changes to this Act. I would like to assure you that those found guilty under the Act are subject to the full force of the law.
Since the introduction of the Hunting Act 2004 many hunts have turned to trail hunting as an alternative to live quarry hunting. This involves a pack of hounds following an artificially laid, animal-based scent. It closely mimics the hunting that took place before the ban but does not involve a hunt for a live fox, and therefore is not banned. For an offence to be committed it is necessary to prove that a wild animal is being hunted intentionally. If proven, this can lead to a prosecution and an unlimited fine. Between 2013 and 2019, a total of 471 individuals were prosecuted under the Hunting Act and 227 individuals were found guilty.
Of course, anyone who believes that an offence has taken place during a hunt, including during a trail hunt, should report the matter to the police.
However, I recognise it is possible that dogs used for trail hunting may on occasion pick up and follow the scent of live foxes during a trail hunt. If that occurs, it is the responsibility of the huntsman and women and other members of hunt staff to control their hounds and, if necessary, stop the hounds as soon as they are made aware that the hounds are no longer following the trail that has been laid. Not doing so could be deemed an offence. Any evidence should be provided to the police, and it is for them to make a recommendation to the Crown Prosecution Service. If anybody is breaking the law on this sort of activity, I fully welcome prosecutions being brought. There are no plans to change the law on trail hunting across England and Wales.
It is also up to each Local Authority to decide whether trail hunting can take place on public land within its jurisdiction. Likewise, it is up to an individual public body to decide what activity takes place on its land. I know, for example, Nottinghamshire County Council banned trail hunting on its land in 2019 and Forestry England can suspend events or stop them completely if illegal activity takes place. There are no plans to change the law on trail hunting across England and Wales.
Moreover, trail and drag hunting on the Defence estate remain legal activities provided they are carried out within the provisions of the Hunting Act 2004. A range of people and activities are allowed access to the MOD estate subject to prior controls. You might be interested to know in 2020-21, the Defence Infrastructure Organisation granted 18 licenses for trail hunting, down from 26 in 2019-20.
I am also aware of this particular case and the awful circumstances of Mini's death and my thoughts go out to her owner. I have seen the Government response to the Mini's Law campaign e-petition, and I am assured that the police can take action where dogs are out of control and dangerous to other animals. As the response sets out, the Hunting Act makes it an offence to hunt a wild mammal with dogs except where it is carried out in accordance with the exemptions in the Act. I am pleased that those found guilty under the Act are subject to the full force of the law. Of course, anyone who believes that an offence has taken place, including during a trail hunt, should report the matter to the police.
Furthermore, I appreciate the distress that can be caused by any animal being shot dead, and I am aware of some cases where bolt guns have been used to put down foxhounds. In the specific case mentioned, I understand that the organisation Keep The Ban called on the National Trust to ban trail hunting on its land. I am aware that at the Annual General Meeting in October 2021, members of the National Trust voted to ban trail hunting on its land. I am also assured that my ministerial colleagues are committed to ensuring that all animals, whether they are wildlife, domestic animals or racing animals, are put down in a humane way.
Finally, regarding the use of captive bolt stunning, I am aware that different rules apply depending on the type of bolt and also the type of animal, and that the user must follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using any device. I understand that penetrative captive bolt devices can be used for stunning all species, but the device must be applied in the proper position, and the user must check the bolt has retracted to its full extent after each shot. I know that cattle or any bovine animal must not be shot in the back of the head.
When stunning sheep and goats with horns using penetrative captive bolts, these animals can be shot in the back in the head, but the shot must be aimed just behind the base of the horns and aim towards the mouth. I understand that an animal must be bled or killed within 15 seconds of shooting it.
Non-penetrative captive bolts can only be used for simple stunning on cattle, sheep, goats, and deer (ruminants) under ten kilograms. These devices must be applied in the proper position.