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The Hunting Act 2004 is a very simple Act of Parliament. Its simplicity is its strength, which is bad news for the hunting community, because it is harder to circumvent. But there are occasional grey areas.

What constitutes a criminal offence?

The first section of the Act makes it absolutely clear what constitutes a criminal offence. There’s no mention of cruelty. It says: “A person commits an offence if he hunts a wild animal with a dog, unless his hunting is exempt.”

“Hunting” is not defined, which may be a problem for police. If a pet dog is loose in a park and races after a squirrel, the dog is hunting but the owner might not be. If the owner encourages the dog to hunt, telling it what to do, then the owner is also “hunting”.

What if the owner, knowing his dog will hunt, lets it off the lead but sits quietly on a park bench while it decimates the squirrel population? There’s no answer in this Act and the courts will have to fill in the grey areas.

Of more practical importance is the hunting of “drag” — not draghunting, but using hounds to follow the overnight trail of the fox, deer or other wild animal to its den. Can this be seen as “hunting” given that the hunted animal is often unaware of hounds following it and takes no evasive action of any kind?

This kind of hunting was important years ago in foxhunting and remains vital today in the sport of mink hunting.

What kind of hunting is exempt?

The Act sets out the forms of hunting that remain legal. They are:

Stalking a wild animal or flushing it out of cover, as long as the stalking or flushing is done to prevent or reduce damage by the (quarry) animal to livestock, game and wild birds, food for livestock, crops, growing timber, fisheries or the biological diversity of an area, or to obtain meat for human and/or animal consumption, or to take part in a field trial.

This stalking and flushing has to take place on land belonging to the person carrying it out, or by the landowner’s permission. It cannot involve more than two dogs. There is some argument whether this means two dogs per person or two dogs overall; personally I think it means only two dogs in total. Once the animal has been stalked or flushed it must be shot as soon as reasonably possible.

Dogs can be used below ground (to flush out foxes) for stalking and shooting to protect wild or game birds or to help prevent or reduce serious damage to game or wild birds. There is no exemption for terrier work to protect your own livestock.

The person doing the stalking and flushing must have with him written evidence to show the land belongs to him or that he has the permission of the landowner. Only one dog can be put to ground at any time. There are further rules about the dog’s welfare, and the quarry must be shot as soon as is reasonably possible.

Rats, rabbits, hares and birds: when it comes to hunting with dogs, some mammals are given greater “rights” than others. Rat hunting is exempt so long as it takes place on your own land or with the landowner’s permission. Ditto for rabbit hunting. As for hares, you are allowed to retrieve them if they have already been shot. You can continue to hunt any quarry species if you plan to use a falcon.

Escaped animals: you’re allowed to hunt an animal that has escaped, as long as it was not released for the purpose of hunting. It must be shot immediately. There are exemptions for hunting an injured animal, but with no more than two dogs. No terrier work is permitted. There are exemptions for research and observation using no more than two dogs.

Can farmers or landowners be held responsible for offences?

It is an offence for any person to knowingly permit his land to be used or entered for hunting wild animals with dogs. So if you ask a farmer for permission to hunt over his land, he is committing an offence if he agrees.

If a farmer permits draghunting or hunting of the “clean boot” and, once on his land, the hunter, without the farmer’s knowledge, decides to hunt prohibited quarry, the farmer cannot be held responsible — unless it can be proved that he knew what the hunter intended to do.

Can a dog owner be held responsible for committing an offence?

It is an offence to allow a dog belonging to you to be used to hunt wild animals. Again, “hunting” is not defined.

What defences can be used?

A person charged with a hunting offence can argue that he reasonably believed the hunting he did was an exempt form. But remember: ignorance of the law is no excuse.

This defence will also allow rabbit hunters whose dogs inadvertently chase a hare to plead “not guilty”.

What this section emphatically does not do is to enable those hunting to say they did not believe they were doing anything unlawful if they caused their dog to hunt a wild mammal other than under the exceptional circumstances outlined above.

What are the penalties if found guilty?
A fine of up to £5,000. It carries no sentence of imprisonment, but if you fail to pay a fine of £5,000 you must theoretically serve six months in jail. On conviction, the court can order forfeiture of any dog or hunting article that was used in the commission of the offence or was in your possession at the time.

What can the police do?

If you are suspected of hunting, or of preparing to hunt, a policeman can arrest you without a warrant. A police officer can search you, your car or your animal, and can seize and detain any vehicle, animal or other thing. He can enter any building, except a dwelling, to do that.

Where does hare coursing fit in?

It is a separate offence to participate in, attend, or facilitate a “hare coursing event” or to permit one on your land. This does not cover hare coursing by one dog at a time “for the pot”, but only because that is already illegal.

  • Clive Rees MH is a master and huntsman of mink hounds, a master of Bloodhounds and a criminal defence lawyer who defends hunting cases across the UK.
  • This news feature was first published in Horse & Hound (2 December, ’04)


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