The Facts About Fox Hunting

Foxhunt facts leaflet

"The problem for both Irish and British hunting people is that their sport, no matter how traditional or how highly eulogised by its supporters, is a minority sport with the damning spectre of cruelty hanging over it.

"This is the key issue. Is hunting cruel? The answer, of course, is that it is. How can such cruelty be justified? The answer is that it cannot."

Nicholas O'Hare, hunting columnist, "The Irish Field" (1992)

Hunting in Ireland

Like the illegal activities of dogfighting, badger baiting and cockfighting, the only purpose served by foxhunting is to provide entertainment to a small minority of humans. It provides no measurable benefit to the environment and is ineffectual as a form of fox control. Arguments based on environmental benefit and fox control are sometimes used to try and give this blood sport a veneer of respectability but close scrutiny shows this to be very much flawed.

There are 39 foxhunting packs registered with hunt governing body, the Masters of Foxhounds Association. No licence is needed by this body to hunt foxes since they are not a protected animal.

The Hunt

The hunters meet two or three times per week (varies for different hunts) during the foxhunting "season" which falls between November and April. Starting at about 11am they move off to the first area of covert (pronounced cover). Local landowners and sympathetic farmers will have previously kept the hunt informed of the whereabouts of foxes, and several suitable areas in the locality will have been identified.

The dogs are sent into an area to scent out a fox and force it to break cover. With the fox in the open, the chase begins and can continue for an hour or more. This part of the hunt provides the "field" (i.e. the riders) with the excitement they crave as they hurdle fences, ditches and walls in pursuit of the fox.

The fox will go anywhere to escape the hounds. He will try to go to earth down a fox- hole, drain or badger sett but these escapes are likely to have been blocked the night before by hunt supporters. The fox will run among sheep and other livestock, the hounds following in pursuit, resulting in the livestock being scattered and put under stress.

If he cannot escape, the fox is chased to exhaustion at which point he will be caught and savaged to death by the hounds. Foxhounds are bred for stamina, not speed, otherwise the fox would be caught too soon and spoil the hunters' fun.

Often a fox will succeed in finding an unblocked refuge. The hunt has several options; they can leave the fox if they are confident of finding others, they can dig him out with shovels, or they can send for the terrierman, who will either send down a terrier to bolt the fox, allowing the chase to continue, or they will dig the fox out later when the "field" has gone.

Give a fox a bad name...

How often do you hear people say that foxes are "vermin which must be controlled"? This is certainly a phrase that fox hunters will use freely in an attempt to justify their activities so let us consider this claim a little more closely. Based on the facts - and not hearsay - foxes can not be accurately termed vermin.

All the scientific evidence shows that the fox is not a significant pest. It is not officially classed as vermin - the term vermin does not appear in the 1976 Wildlife Act). The truth is that foxes can be a valuable asset to farmers by, for example, keeping down the numbers of rabbits, voles and rats which can cause damage to crops and forestry.

So from where does the myth of foxes being a pest come?

Much of the case against foxes stems from the finding of lamb carcasses at fox dens. It is assumed that these were live lambs killed by the fox. Reliable and independent research has shown that these carcasses result from the fox scavenging on dead lambs - lambs which have died from exposure for example - and that the numbers killed by foxes are low and insignificant.

Of course, the hunters themselves are keen to support the impression that foxes are a serious pest to farmers because this allows them to claim that their activities are beneficial tot he farmers.

In reality the damage caused by the hunts is likely to be a much greater risk to the livestock than the foxes.

Foxes are not a threat - The evidence

Here is a summary of a few of the many research studies carried out on foxes:

The lamb carcasses at fox dens are mainly carrion, i.e. a lamb already dead when taken by the fox.
Notes from the Mammal Society, No. 50, 1985, pp 291-296.

A study of lambing in upland areas showed that lamb losses were unaffected by the presence of foxes.
Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food report, 1985.

On the Scottish island of Mull, there are not foxes yet lamb production is no better than in comparable areas where there are foxes.
Journal of Applied Ecology, 1984, pp 843-868.

The Cruelty

Eviscerated fox Fox hunting is arguably the most sadistically cruel of all the legal blood "sports". The purpose of fox hunting is to chase the fox to exhaustion for an hour or more before the animal is literally torn to pieces by the hounds. This long and protracted suffering is an essential and desired part of the sport in the eyes of the hunters. If the control of foxes were the aim, faster dogs could be used or the foxes could be shot be skilled marksmen.

The dogs have to be blooded during the cub-hunting season (also euphemistically termed autumn hunting) and the terrier man is never far away should the fox find refuge down a drain or fox hole. All animal welfare organisations throughout the world condemn fox hunting.

Farmers and Hunting

If the foxhunters' claim that they are controlling a serious pest had any substance, you would imagine that farmers would welcome the hunt onto their lands.

Yet each Autumn you will see large numbers of farmers going to the trouble and expense of placing notices in the local press banning the hunt from their lands with "lands preserved" notices. They have found that the hunts do more damage than good, in many cases scattering livestock. In a typical case recently, a farmer claimed damages for ewes that had aborted after a hunt had come onto his land and scattered them. His claim was dismissed, one of the grounds for the dismissal being that he had not made it sufficiently clear that he did not want the hunt on his land. (see Troubled by the Hunt for advice on how to keep foxhunts off your land)

With increasing concerns over the possible spread of disease, farmers are becoming more reluctant to allow free passage for hunts over their land.

The Alternative

Fox hunters claim that what they really enjoy is not the kill, but working with hounds and riding across open country. If this is so, then a real alternative is drag hunting, where a scent (often containing aniseed) is laid for the hounds and riders to follow. Not only can drag hunting provide an exhilarating test for hounds and riders, it can also avoid serious damage to crops and livestock.

Die-hard foxhunters ridicule drag hunting - "it's not really hunting" is a typical claim. Of course there is one difference - there is no kill in drag hunting.

Indeed several hunts exclusively practice drag hunting in Ireland. By eliminating the unacceptable cruelty of foxhunting, they can ensure the long term viability of the genuine sporting aspects of "hunting" with hounds and secure the continuing employment of those whose livelihoods would, it is said by hunts supporters, be jeopardised by the abolition of foxhunting.

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