The National Trust will no longer issue licences for trail hunting on its land, the charity’s board of trustees has announced.
The move comes after a senior huntsman was convicted of telling people to use the sport as a “smokescreen” for illegal fox hunting, and a vote by National Trust members to halt it on the charity’s land.
The activity, in which a scent is laid for hounds and the hunt to follow, has been suspended on trust land since November 2020 following a police investigation into webinars by huntspeople discussing the practice.
Mark Hankinson, director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA), was in October found guilty at Westminster Magistrates’ Court of intentionally encouraging huntsmen to use legal trail hunting as “a sham and a fiction” for the unlawful chasing and killing of animals during the webinars.
The huntsman’s illicit advice was exposed after saboteurs leaked footage to police and the media of the online discussions.
Following the conviction, National Trust members at the charity’s annual general meeting voted by 76,816 to 38,184 in favour of banning trail hunting on its land.
Those who proposed the motion on the ban stated “overwhelming evidence leads to the conclusion that ‘trail hunting’ is a cover for hunting with dogs”.
Hunting wild mammals with dogs was banned in England and Wales by the Hunting Act of 2004.
Trail hunting replicates a traditional hunt without a fox actually being chased, injured or killed, and although there is always a danger that hounds will accidentally come across the scent of a fox, they should then be stopped to avoid this becoming a criminal offence.
Following the National Trust’s AGM in 2017, when a previous bid to ban trail hunting was narrowly voted down, the charity introduced a dedicated management team to oversee the licensing process and monitored activity against the terms of the new licences.
The trust said it had seen both compliant and legitimate activity since then, but also multiple reported breaches.
Harry Bowell, National Trust director of land and nature, said: “The board of trustees has carefully considered this issue.
“Its decision to issue no further licences for trail hunting is based on a wide range of considerations.
“These include – but are not limited to – a loss of trust and confidence in the MFHA, which governs trail hunting, the vote by National Trust members at our recent AGM, the considerable resources needed to facilitate trail hunting, and the reputational risk of this activity continuing on our land.”
The National Trust, an organisation with nearly six million members, looks after hundreds of thousands of acres of countryside across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The move to ban trail hunting applies to land in England and Wales. No hunting is allowed on Northern Irish trust land.
When the National Trust suspended licences a year ago, there was just one trail hunting licence. The previous year, 2019/20, there had been 14 licences, and eight the year before that.
Last week, Welsh Government nature agency Natural Resources Wales, which looks after swathes of countryside and forests, banned trail hunting on its land.
The League Against Cruel Sports has cautiously welcomed the move from the National Trust, but said it did not go as far as a full and explicit ban for which members voted.
Chris Luffingham, director of campaigns at the league, said: “Their members’ voices could not have been louder, sending a clear message to the board of trustees that enough is enough and trail hunting should be banned on trust land.
“The board has recognised the strength of feeling in its membership and the public in general, who are more aware than ever that so-called trail hunting is used as an excuse – a smokescreen – for illegal hunting.
“However, the recent Hankinson verdict has shown that the hunting community cannot be trusted from the top down, and not having a definitive ban could lead to foxes being chased and killed by hunts.”
The League said it would continue to lobby other major landowners such as Forestry England, the Church of England, United Utilities, Crown Estates, national parks authorities, local councils and the Ministry of Defence to follow the lead of the National Trust and NRW.
In a statement, a spokesperson from the Hunting Office, responsible for the administration of hunting nationally, said the decision was “hugely disappointing”.
“The board’s decision to prevent a lawful and legitimate activity comes as a result of an engineered campaign by opponents of trail hunting to bully landowners into stopping a lawful activity carried out by the rural community.
“Hunts have had access to National Trust land for generations and the decision goes completely against the core mantra of the National Trust ‘for everyone, for ever’.”
We hope that we can maintain an open dialogue with the trust and have further consultation following the review which we are currently conducting.”
Tim Bonner, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance said: “The National Trust’s decision breaks a fundamental principle.
“The charity claims to be ‘for everyone, for ever’, but by prohibiting a legal activity it has decided it is actually just for those who its board approves of.
“The inability of trustees to differentiate between the legal use of hounds and the governance of hunting is extremely regrettable and breaks the basic principle of access to National Trust land for legitimate activities.”