Although a UK act of parliament was passed 15 years ago making hunting with dogs illegal, there are so many loopholes available to dedicated huntsmen that they are able to carry on with their activities, with the number of dogs limited to two, as if no such law had been passed.

The Devon and Somerset Staghounds meet two or three times a week to chase and kill wild deer, mainly on Exmoor. The hunt crosses mainly private land, with the assumption being that landowners approve of the hunt’s activities. Indeed, hunt members are usually drawn from among the wealthy landowners and farmers themselves and sometimes project themselves as “custodians of the English countryside.”

The end of a recent hunt – October 1 – was captured on camera by the League Against Cruel Sports, which campaigns vigorously for the Hunting Act to be more robustly enforced.

Emma Judd, Deputy Director of Policy, Campaigns and Communications for the League, told European Daily News that the standard line of the hunts that carry on with their ‘sport’ is the need for animal ‘management.’

“Stag hunting was banned when the Hunting Act came into force 15 years ago, but hunts use exemptions to the law to avoid being prosecuted, for example claiming they’re only pursuing sick or injured animals to kill them when in reality they’ve pursued those same animals for many miles before they stop, exhausted, and are shot.

“As our footage shows, the poor stag was chased to exhaustion, whipped and forced to jump across a road in a bid to escape the horses. This isn’t ‘sport’, it’s animal cruelty.

“The Hunting Act needs to be strengthened to remove these loopholes, and properly protect wild animals from being chased and killed just for entertainment, and the League will continue to lobby the government of the day until this aim is achieved.”

It remains legal to hunt with just two dogs and kill deer as part of animal management, and this ‘management’ purpose is often used to justify the cruelty involved.

If the Hunting Act was strengthened to remove all exemptions then the barriers to prosecuting this behaviour would be removed and animals would be protected from cruelty. The ruling Conservative Party has always pledged to repeal the Hunting Act and return the UK to a nation of hunters. However, following a successful campaign by the League, the Party in its last manifesto instead pledged to make no changes to the Hunting Act – a significant step forward and one that gives the League renewed determination to see the Act strengthened, the League says.

The League says it will always report illegal activity to the police. It is for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to then determine whether there is a case to answer. However, there were fewer than 500 prosecutions under the Act from 2005 to 2018, and over that period there has been a steady annual decline.

The opposition Labour Party has committed to strengthening the Hunting Act should it return to government.

When The Times newspaper passed on video footage of the October 1 hunt to the Countryside Alliance, the pro-hunting organisation offered the unlikely explanation that the hunt had found an injured stag that “required immediate euthanasia.”

A video was shot by two undercover observers, at a safe distance from hunt supporters, three hours into the chase, showing the horsemen cracking whips at the animal to make it try to keep moving and so extend their own pleasure. Later, supporters shouted and encircled the animal, which was exhausted and distressed, before a marksman killed it.

The Countryside Alliance told The Times: “The Devon and Somerset Staghounds have managed the deer of Exmoor for over 100 years, resulting in the healthiest population of red deer in the country.” The Devon and Somerset Staghounds declined to comment.

Tellingly, organised deer and fox hunts fall outside coronavirus restrictions, which limit sports activities to 30 participants. At the recent meeting of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, about 40 riders were present and so many supporters that 80 vehicles were counted.

It is not unusual for traffic on rural roads to be blocked either by supporters, known as followers, or mounted huntsmen.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has declared himself to have been an enthusiastic hunter when younger, saying he “loved” hunting with dogs, in part because of the “semi-sexual relation with the horse” and the “military-style pleasure” of moving as a unit.

According to the Independent newspaper, the future prime minister argued that the imposition of the hunting ban was “not about cruelty, but “a Marxian attack” by the then Labour government on the upper class.

PHOTO: A still from the video shot by undercover investigators for the League Against Cruel Sports