Frequently Asked Questions

TopHow long have people been hunting foxes in Britain?

Close up of the face of a young lamb
Fox hounds; © M. Hart

For thousands of years foxes have been hunted for their fur and also, surprisingly, for food. In the middle ages, foxes were dug out or bolted from their dens, or driven out of woods, and then either coursed with long-legged dogs or caught in nets. The aim was not sport but to reduce fox numbers. Originally hare and deer were the favoured quarry of sport hunters, but from about 1660 (after the restoration of Charles II) specialised packs of hounds were bred to hunt foxes. However, this was a very slow sport: the hounds met at dawn and slowly followed the scent trail of the fox back to where it lay up. The hunting day was relatively short, and finished once the hounds could no longer follow the foxes' overnight scent trails.

TopHow, where and when did foxhunting begin?

The modern form of foxhunting, where people actively pursued foxes with a pack of hounds, was a relatively modern invention, dating back to the second half of 1700s. The new, faster form of foxhunting was associated with one of its early advocates, Hugo Meynell, Master of the Quorn. Since they were not reliant on following overnight scent trails, packs met later in the day (traditionally 11.00) and hunted for the rest of the day and searched through covers to flush out foxes to be hunted. This caused a great deal of disturbance and so the hunts required bigger countries. It also required a lot more foxes, especially after hunts extended the season. In the 18th century the season was relatively short, from 25 December to 15 March. The main season was then extended to start on 1 November, with cub hunting from July/August, and the season often did not end until April or, for some hunts, May. There was great pressure on Masters to ensure an adequate supply of foxes, and this was achieved both by importing thousands of foxes from Europe and by stealing foxes from neighbouring hunts.

TopWhat was the aim of the Hunting Act 2004?

In June 2000, Lord Burns' inquiry into hunting with dogs in England and Wales concluded that hunting "seriously compromises the welfare of the fox". The aim of the Hunting Act 2004 was to end this cruel method of killing foxes. It was not intended to stop people using other methods of killing foxes, or to reduce the number of foxes killed. Press reports that state that the Act "has not saved the life of a single fox" fail to understand the basis of the Act, which is simply a welfare measure.

TopHas the hunting ban had an impact on fox numbers?

A farm in the countryside. Prominent in the picture is the blue sky with clouds

No: Lord Burns' inquiry into hunting with dogs in England and Wales concluded that "hunting by registered packs makes only a minor contribution to the management of the fox population". A study on the impact of the hunting ban during the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic showed that there was no change in fox numbers even though hunting was stopped for nearly a year. A study in upland areas of Wales during the winter of 2003/2004 showed that hunting by gun packs did not reduce fox numbers. In fact the trend was for fox numbers to go up slightly because more foxes than were killed moved in to fill the empty territories. So it is hardly surprising that the ban on hunting, which came into effect on 18 February 2005, has had no effect.

TopAre foxes causing more livestock losses following the hunting ban?

No: although such claims frequently appear in the press, the number of foxes has not changed after the ban on hunting, and there is no evidence that foxes are causing any more livestock losses.

TopDoes the Hunting Act 2004 stop me killing foxes?

No: it is perfectly legal to kill foxes, although there are a few restrictions on the ways you can do this. It is, for instance, illegal to lay poisons for foxes, and of course it is illegal to hunt them with packs of hounds.

TopHas the hunting ban led to an increase in cruelty to foxes?

This claim is widely reported in the press and by pro-hunting lobby groups, but there is no scientific evidence to support such a claim.

TopIs it still legal to dig out foxes with terriers?

The Hunting Act 2004 permits the use of no more than one terrier below ground at any one time "for the purpose of preventing or reducing serious damage to game birds or wild birds which a person is keeping or preserving for the purpose of their being shot". The Act also stipulates conditions about permission and the welfare of both the dog and the fox. This is sometimes referred to as "the gamekeeper's exemption", although the Act does not specify that the exemption only applies to gamekeepers.

TopIs it still legal for foxhunts to block badger setts?

No: the exemption for foxhunts to block badger setts was repealed by the Hunting Act 2004.

TopDo foxes have any natural predators?

Yes: in Britain, cubs are killed by golden eagles and badgers, and elsewhere by several other predators. In Europe and America adult foxes are occasionally killed by wolves, coyotes, bears, and various other predators. However, the number killed is generally low and, other than coyotes, is not believed to have an impact on fox numbers.

TopDid wolves regulate the number of foxes in Britain?

A wolf in the forest
Grey wolf

It is a myth that wolves regulated fox numbers and that, with the loss of wolves, fox numbers increased. The best data on the impact of wolves on foxes comes from Isle Royale, a large island in Lake Superior, where wolf and fox numbers have been monitored for fifty years. Wolves do not reduce fox numbers, and in fact foxes benefit from scavenging on wolf kills. Wolves disappeared from England many centuries ago, but fox numbers remained low, so much so that large numbers had to be brought over from Europe in the 1800s to ensure an adequate supply of foxes for hunting. So there is no truth in the story that wolves regulated fox numbers in Britain and that, in the absence of wolves, they need to be killed to reduce numbers.

TopSurely foxhunting simply replaces natural predation by wolves?

There are a number of misconceptions here. Although wolves occasionally kill foxes, wolf predation played no role in regulating fox numbers. Also, when wolves do kill foxes, it tends to be a chance encounter, so there is no long pursuit, as in hunting with hounds. When wolves kill foxes it is over quickly; the aim of foxhunting is to ensure a long chase, and the longer the better.

TopIs there a close season for foxes in Britain?

No: many countries either ban the killing of foxes when they are breeding (a welfare provision, to prevent orphaned cubs being left to starve), or require that the cubs have to be killed before the adults. Strangely, for a country that prides itself on its animal welfare standards, there are no such provisions for foxes in Britain.

TopWhy do people hang dead foxes on fences?

This is a throwback to Victorian times, when gamekeepers hung the animals they killed on a gibbet to show their employers how well they were doing their job. It is also sometimes done to show neighbours how they treat any fox that appears on their land.

TopDoes foxhunting continue outside Britain?

Yes: in the 2007-2008 hunting season there were 41 packs of foxhounds in Ireland, and many of the 53 packs of harriers in Ireland also hunt foxes. Elsewhere in Europe one Czech, three Italian and one Portuguese packs of hounds hunt foxes. There are 164 packs of foxhounds in the USA and Canada; these hunt both red and grey foxes, as well as coyotes, bobcats and other species. In Australia most of the 21 packs of hounds hunt foxes.