Four cold faces, we stood perched over a farm gateway chatting and sharing out cups of coffee from a flask, one cold autumn morning. You could be mistaken for thinking this was a gathering of friends, but before this day we had never met. It was an illegal fox hunt and, as part of my role in investigating wildlife crime, I’d gone along to gather information. There was no need for an elaborate cover story, my worn out wellington boots and polite demeanour were enough for me to be accepted on the hunt.
The clock in a nearby churchyard had just chimed noon and the hounds had gone into cry, letting out an excited bark to signal that they were onto an animal’s scent. Out of the woodland in front of us ran a fox, pursued by around two dozen baying hounds. “There it goes, can you see it?” the hunt follower next to me asked, whilst frantically waving his cap in the air to let others know the fox had been sighted. “Soon the hounds will catch the little shit.”
Having never before stood among hunt supporters as a part of the crowd, I was surprised at how much they were letting on. I later learned that the hunt has an artificial earth in the wood from whence the fox came. In the weeks and months leading up to the meet, someone had been responsible for putting down food at the entrance to the crude construct, designed to keep foxes in an area by mimicking a den. Unbeknown to the hungry fox chowing down on some free chicken, it would later be bolted before hunting hounds to be chased and killed for ‘sport’.
It’s easy to dismiss fox hunting as a ragtag bunch, having a jolly on horseback, whilst cantering across the countryside. But the amount of organisation which goes into each and every hunt is enough to put even the most ardent event manager to shame. It’s no coincidence that a cohort of riders, accompanied by a pack of trained hounds and terriermen, tasked with digging out any beleaguered fox which has taken refuge underground, just so happen to be in the same place at the same time.
When we think of organised wildlife crime, it tends to conjure up images of huge piles of elephant ivory being torched in Africa or exotic animal skins seized by some cunning border force agent in between busting up cabals smuggling cocaine. It says something uncomfortable about the British psyche that we’re always quick to tell other countries to protect wildlife from illegal persecution, whilst wildlife crime continues largely unchallenged in our otherwise green and pleasant backyard. But the approach to wildlife crime could be about to see a step change.
By the time you are reading this the police will have used serious crime powers to charge the head honcho of hunting for his alleged role in intentionally encouraging or assisting others to commit an offence of illegal hunting. It follows an online gathering of the upper echelons of the hunting world in August, where a discussion had taken place surrounding the use of trail-laying on fox hunts as a “smokescreen…to portray to people watching that you’re going about your legitimate business”.
The fact that the authorities are treating illegal fox hunting as serious and organised crime shows that the times are changing and reflects an increasing appetite, when tackling domestic wildlife crime, to not shy away from the complexities of it. If only we could have reached this point sooner, although there’s no denying that the implications are significant. When compared to the sophisticated persecution of birds of prey in the British uplands, which produces considerable financial gain for every grouse ‘saved’ for the gun from the talons of the hen harrier, or even hare coursing, in truth fox hunting is only the tip of the iceberg. But as Bob Dylan once said, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.