FEB 18 will be a key date in the history of rural Britain – the introduction of the hunting ban will end nearly 400 years of some of the most closely held and prized country pursuits.
Nearly 12,000 individuals could lose their livelihoods and more than 250 hunts across England and Wales face an uncertain future.
But the earlier sabre-rattling of pro-hunt activists and the prediction of running battles with police, have given way to forecasts of a measured response that is more conciliation than confrontation, and more concession than conflict.
Since the ban date was announced the hunts have ditched talk of a campaign of civil disobedience and instead devised a strategy that will allow the hunts to make the best of a much-reduced hand.
Under the discreet direction of the Countryside Alliance and the Council of Hunting Associations most hunts will have amended their constitutions removing all references to illegal hunting, instead adopting legal hunting activities.
They have renegotiated arrangements the hunts hold with farmers, seeking permission to use land for legal hunting activities.
Many hunts plan to meet as normal on Feb 19 and the alliance is expecting over 300,000 people to turn out in support.
Some plan to go with the intention of partaking in a legal activity while some may use their new constitutions as a cover to continue hunting foxes.
The hunts have also made use of relationships developed with the police during the years of conflict between hunt supporters and hunt saboteurs. Many hunt masters have held briefings with senior police officials to discuss their intentions after the ban.
Chief inspector of Dorset police Nik Maton, who is also Dorset’s hunt liaison officer said: “We have a good relationship with our hunts. They have amended their constitution stating their intention to follow the artificial line and we have no reason to believe they won’t, following the undertakings they have made to us.”
But he admitted there would be instances that might warrant further investigation.
“In cases where ‘unintentional’ hunting happens we have urged the hunts to inform us of the incident straight away, before anti-hunt supporters have the opportunity to make other suggestions,” he said.
However, hunts should not interpret this as an opportunity to risk breaking the law.
“The police have made clear that they will enforce the new legislation,” a Home Office statement on hunting said.
“It should be remembered that this is a cruelty against animals offence and we expect police authorities to prioritise it as such,” the statement added.
Given that the Hunting Act prioritises “the prevention of harm to all people involved” and confers only “powers to arrest, not a duty” police forces have been instructed to consider their existing priorities when deciding how best to enforce the ban.
Furthermore the Home Office is not making any extra resources available, meaning police forces will be heavily dependent on members of the public and anti-hunting groups to report suspected illegal activities.
These groups are free to collect information that can later be passed to the police provided it doesn’t involve using covert techniques. But they also need to avoid doing so by trespassing – an arrestable offence.
“As long as a video, for instance, is of sufficient quality we could consider it as evidence, we may also carry out our own surveillance,” said Nigel Yeo, assistant chief constable of Sussex police and head of public order issues for the association of chief police officers.
“There are a number of ways to bring a successful prosecution without needing to catch somebody in the act, for instance an eye witness statement is very strong evidence,” he said.
Offences under the Hunting Act, while not recorded on the police national computer, are subject to a 5000 fine and possible forfeiture of property. Individuals will also have to declare these offences on formal documents such as firearms applications. Such offences are not imprisonable but if harm is caused to wild animals as a result of illegal hunting, perpetrators could face a custodial sentence.
Those who fail to pay a fine imposed under the Hunting Act, also risk imprisonment.