I appreciate that this issue is highly emotive and I share your concern for the welfare of our wildlife. The Hunting Act 2004 makes it an offence to hunt a wild mammal with dogs except where it is carried out in accordance with the exemptions in the Act. I know that those found guilty under the Act are subject to the full force of the law. The investigation and prosecution of all criminal offences, including consideration of whether an actual offence has been committed, is a matter for the police and Crown Prosecution Service, who have comprehensive powers to take action under criminal law. I was elected in 2019 on a manifesto which committed to not amending this Act.
Since the introduction of the Hunting Act 2004, many hunts have turned to trail hunting as an alternative to live quarry hunting. This involves a pack of hounds following an artificially laid, animal-based scent. It closely mimics the hunting that took place before the ban, but does not involve a hunt for a live fox, and therefore is not banned. For an offence to be committed it is necessary to prove that a wild animal is being hunted intentionally. If proven, this can lead to a prosecution and an unlimited fine. Between 2013 and 2019, a total of 471 individuals were prosecuted under the Hunting Act and 227 individuals were found guilty.
I recognise it is possible that dogs used for trail hunting may on occasion pick up and follow the scent of live foxes during a trail hunt. If that occurs, it is the responsibility of the huntsmen and women and other members of hunt staff to control their hounds and, if necessary, stop the hounds as soon as they are made aware that the hounds are no longer following the trail that has been laid.
While I am not aware of any plans to change the law on trail hunting, I know that failure to prevent dogs from chasing or killing a fox may be taken as intent to break the law. Anyone who believes that an offence has taken place should report the matter to the police, as the police deal with complaints of illegal hunting. I understand that decisions on the arrest and prosecution of those taking part in illegal hunting activities are matters for the police and prosecuting authorities. They will, among other things, need to take into account any failure on behalf of the huntsman to prevent the dogs from chasing or killing a fox. If anybody is breaking the law on this sort of activity, I fully welcome prosecutions being brought.
As I am sure you can appreciate, issuing a licence or giving permission for trail hunting is an operational matter for the landowner, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does not play a central role in this. It is up to each Local Authority to decide whether trail hunting can take place on public land within its jurisdiction. Likewise, it is up to an individual public body to decide what activity takes place on its land. I know, for example, Nottinghamshire County Council banned trail hunting on its land in 2019 and Forestry England can suspend events or stop them completely if illegal activity takes place. There are no plans to change the law on trail hunting across England and Wales.
Trail and drag hunting on the Defence estate remain legal activities provided they are carried out within the provisions of the Hunting Act 2004. A range of people and activities are allowed access to the MOD estate subject to prior controls. You might be interested to know in 2020-21, the Defence Infrastructure Organisation granted 18 licenses for trail hunting, down from 26 in 2019-20.
I am aware that at the Annual General Meeting in October 2021, members of the National Trust voted to ban trail hunting on its land. Of course, anyone who believes that an offence has taken place during a hunt, including during a trail hunt, should report the matter to the police.