I appreciate that this issue is highly emotive, and I share the concerns raised for the welfare of our wildlife.
The Hunting Act 2004 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. Those found guilty under the law are subject to its full force. The investigation and prosecution of all criminal offences, including consideration of whether an actual offence has been committed, is a matter for the police and Crown Prosecution Service, who have comprehensive powers to take action under criminal law. The Government made a manifesto commitment not to amend the Hunting Act.
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 so 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.
Anyone who believes that an offence has taken place during a hunt, including during a trail hunt, should report the matter to the police.
I also 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 huntsmen 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.
I know that failure to prevent dogs from chasing or killing a fox may be taken as intent to break the law. Anyone who believes that an offence has taken place should report the matter to the police, as the police deal with complaints of illegal hunting. I understand that decisions on the arrest and prosecution of those taking part in illegal hunting activities are matters for the police and prosecuting authorities. They will, among other things, need to take into account any failure on behalf of the huntsman to prevent the dogs from chasing or killing a fox. If anybody is found to be breaking the law on this sort of activity, I would fully welcome prosecutions being brought.
Furthermore, I understand that issuing a licence or giving permission for trail hunting is an operational matter for the landowner, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does not play a central role in this. It is up to each Local Authority and landowner to decide whether trail hunting can take place on public land within its jurisdiction. Likewise, it is up to an individual public body or private individual to decide what activity takes place on its / their land.
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 the 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. Of course, anyone who believes that an offence has taken place, including during a trail hunt, should report the matter to the police.
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. 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.
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.