Catherine Austen talks to the Countryside Alliance chairman about where hunting lies in the political landscape and what can be done to secure its future
“We need to be clear about this: it can’t be ‘business as usual’,” says Nick Herbert, the new chairman of the Countryside Alliance. “We can’t spend the next five years waiting for the next hiatus. We have to use this time profitably, and that is about getting on to the front foot in terms of the promotion of our country sports. You can’t do that unless you are sure the sports are in shape to promote properly.”
Nick, a former minister of state for policing and criminal justice who stepped down as a Conservative MP at the last general election, does not mince his words when asked what hope there is that the Hunting Act 2004 could be altered in hunting’s favour, or even repealed.
“The Conservative Party’s manifesto was clear — there would be no changes to the Hunting Act,” he replies firmly. “For us this is a double-edged sword; it means there will be no measures introduced by the government to change the Hunting Act in a way that [hunting people] would like to see, but it also means that there will be no government measures to tighten up the act. We have to see the upside of that as well as the downside.
“It became clear at the last election that [repeal] really wasn’t on anyone’s political agenda any longer — far from it; the real danger was a tightening up of the Hunting Act that would actually make hunting impossible.
“One of the things I started communicating urgently when I took over the chair of the Alliance in October was the danger I thought we faced then, which was that the Labour Party was saying it would remove the exemptions on the Hunting Act and tighten it up in a way that I think would have made going out with a pack of hounds and trail-hunting impossible. And I’m not sure everybody fully understood the grave danger we faced.
“While for many of us the [Countryside Alliance’s] long-term objective would still be to deal with an act we thought was capricious and not evidence-based, we have to recognise that there is no political appetite for that legislation. A short-term objective is to ensure the Hunting Act is not further amended in a way that would stop hunting altogether. I would not underestimate the work the Alliance did to ensure that, to this point, has been the case.”
‘It’s still in my blood’
Nick has a very clear understanding of the issues surrounding the Hunting Act and what led to its formation. Not only was he director of political affairs for the British Field Sports Society from 1990-1996 and played a large part in the foundation of the Countryside Movement, which became the Countryside Alliance, he also hunted hounds (the Newmarket Beagles) for 14 seasons.
“Giving up the hounds was the saddest day of my life,” he says. “It’s still in my blood and I could acquire the bug again very quickly.”
It is this direct knowledge of the nitty gritty of hunting, alongside his obvious political experience, that gives weight to his appointment to the Alliance chairmanship.
He says: “It is core to the mission of the Alliance to promote and defend hunting. What I have set out is an agenda for country sports as a whole, that is the way in which we approach the promotion and defence of these sports over the next decade relies on the three ‘S’s — science, standards and social licence.
“We have to demonstrate the science and evidence that lies behind the case for these sports; the environmental and economic credentials that they bring.
“We have to uphold the highest standards across our sports, and be ready to lift these standards where necessary and ensure they are adhered to. That is important because of the third ‘S’, social licence. That we understand we have to hunt with public consent, and we can’t just conduct our activities in spite of our links with our communities and the public. We need to ensure people accept that what we are doing is proper, and properly conducted.
“The hunting world needs to ensure it is regulating and conducting itself properly, and in turn the job of the Alliance is to ensure there is a strong political representation and strong promotion of hunting. I think we will be in a better position to do that when we can demonstrate hunting is properly conducted, and the same argument applies for shooting.”
His message is unequivocal. The five years of this parliamentary term are crucial to hunting’s future, and it is up to hunting people to ensure we do not jeopardise that.
A background in hunting
Nick, 56, grew up hunting with the Essex Foxhounds and the Cambridgeshire Harriers. While reading law and then land economy at Cambridge, he hunted the Trinity Foot Beagles.
On leaving university he worked for the Conservative Research Department on the environmental and then agricultural desks — “a job of extraordinary interest for a young person because you are working with ministers”.
He spent six years at the British Field Sports Society as director of political affairs, and founded and hunted the Newmarket Beagles.
“The hounds were too big,” he explains. “They were almost harrier-sized at the shoulder. When you are young and fierce and can run like a stag, you think that’s tremendous. When you are in your 30s, it is less fun. So after 14 seasons I realised it was time to give up.”
He joined Business for Sterling in 1998 as chief executive, where he led the “no” campaign against joining the Euro, and then founded the think tank Reform in 2001. From 2005-2019 he was MP for Arundel and South Downs.
Ref Horse & Hound; 20 February 2020