A controversial motion to ban all hunting activity from National Trust land could cause many hunts across the country to collapse, campaigners say.
Anti-hunt activists argue the move, if successful, would help stop illegal hunting by taking away huge swathes of land hunts are able to access – but pro-hunt supporters vigorously deny any illegal activity, and warn it risks the loss of a traditional British country sport.
Members are being urged to cast their votes for or against the proposal before midnight on Friday (October 13), when postal and online voting will close.
The motion will then go before the Trust’s annual general meeting on October 21.
Hunting live animals with hounds has been illegal since the Hunting Act came into force in 2005.
To try to preserve the tradition, hunts were allowed to continue provided they followed scent-based trails instead.
But foxes are still killed by hunts. They claim this is accidental, and say it only happens when a live fox crosses the trail which has been pre-laid for the hounds.
Animal rights campaigners, however, accuse the hunts of deliberately breaking the law. They argue that trails are rarely, if ever, genuinely laid – it is merely a smokescreen allowing them to continue as they always did.
The motion to ban hunts from National Trust land was put forward by former teacher Helen Beynon, from Wigston in Leicestershire.
She told ITV News she only became aware that hunting still took place in January, when a friend invited her to a demonstration against the Atherstone Hunt in Staffordshire at New Year.
Supporters pelted the protesters with horse manure and stones, mocking them by waving what looked like fox tails as they passed.
“If they behaved like that in a public place, I just wondered what they would be like out in the field?” she said.
Since then, she has been out with hunt monitors to three different hunts – and says she has witnessed hounds pursuing a fox.
“My heart was in my throat – I was shouting to the huntsman to try to get him to call them back, but he didn’t seem to do anything,” she said.
I couldn’t believe this was allowed to happen on National Trust land. I’ve just become more and more passionate about it as the months have gone by and I’ve learned more.
I don’t think a charity which claims to be about conservation and protecting wildlife should be allowing dozens of hounds at a time to be let loose over their land, where there’s a risk they could kill animals living there.
– Helen Beynon, campaigner
Polly Portwin, head of the hunting campaign for the Countryside Alliance, dismissed the allegation that trail hunting was a cover for illegal hunting as “simply untrue”.
“There’s no illegal fox hunting intentionally. Hunts go out to trail hunt – they lay a trail in accordance with the Hunting Act 2004, and the intention is to go out and follow that line, and hunt within the law,” she said.
While accidents do happen, she said, huntsmen are very diligent and always try to call hounds back when they’re aware there is a live fox in the area.
Well-meaning hunt monitors and hunt saboteurs can often make this more difficult by mimicking the huntsman’s horn or calls, confusing the hounds.
She said the motion, if voted through, could completely remove the amount of land available for some hunts – particularly those in rural areas of the north of England.
With some packs, you’d question the viability of them if they lost access to the National Trust land. It’s a huge part of some of their countries.
It’s a big community thing as well, a lot of people – particularly in rural areas – would be vastly affected. This threatens to take away something which is very dear to them.
– Polly Portwin, Countryside Alliance
Despite being illegal for 12 years now, hunting with hounds remains a hot political talking point.
A vote to relax the fox-hunting ban in England and Wales was due to be held in 2015, prompting protests. That was shelved when the SNP confirmed it would take part, making defeat almost certain.
And similar protests were held earlier this year, after Theresa May pledged her support for holding a free vote on repealing the ban.
The National Trust, which boasts more than five million members, issued 79 licences to 67 hunts last year.
It has revamped its rules for licensing in response to Mrs Beynon’s motion, and has advised its members to vote in favour of the new licensing terms instead of a ban.
If the motion is rejected, members will have to wait three years before they can propose it again.