Foxhunting: History

Beginning the hunt: a master of the hunt blewing the horn with his hounds around him
Gathering a hunt. ©IFAW

Modern foxhunting, where a fox was pursued by a hunt formed by men on horsebacks and a pack of foxhounds, developed in the late 18th century in Britain. Earlier forms of foxhunting mainly involved following the fox's trail back to its den, When modern hunting was first developed, woodland cover was less widespread than today and, perhaps as a consequence (see the importance of cover for urban foxes), foxes were less abundant.

In the early days some hunts were called off if it appeared that the fox would get killed. In fact, as more foxes were needed for hunting than were present, large numbers of animals were imported from Europe to be sold at markets in England.

Foxhunting is now illegal in Britain, in Scotland since 2002 and in England and Wales since 2005. It is still legally practiced in Australia, Ireland and North America. In North America foxes were present in the west but were introduced on the east coast for hunting. Similarly in Australia foxes were introduced for hunting and, in both North America and Australia, the introduced animals rapidly spread across the continents.

Question & Answer

TopWhat is foxhunting?

In foxhunting a fox is pursued by a hunt formed by men on horsebacks or on foot and a pack of foxhounds. Harriers, which are slightly smaller than foxhounds, were also used to hunt foxes in Britain.

TopWhat is drag hunting?

In a drag hunt a person uses a cloth dipped with special chemicals to lay a scent before the hunt starts. In this way the dogs (foxhounds, blood hounds or basset hounds) follow the scent of the cloth rather than a fox. People can follow either on horseback or on foot.

TopWhen did foxhunting begin?

Modern foxhunting is not as ancient as some people might think. It was mainly developed by Hugo Meynell, Master of the Quorn Hunt between 1753 and 1800.

TopWhere is foxhunting practiced?

It is still legal to hunt foxes with dogs in Australia, Ireland and North America. In Australia and North America foxes have been introduced for hunting. Foxhunting is illegal in Britain: since 2002 in Scotland and since 2005 in England and Wales.

TopIs it illegal to kill foxes in Britain?

No, it isn't.

Foxes can be killed within the methods permitted by the law. The Hunting Act 2004 only prohibits the use of dogs to kill wild mammals, including foxes.

TopWhat was the aim of the hunting ban?

The Hunting Act 2004 was enacted to prevent some forms of cruelty to foxes, nothing else. Before the Act came into force in February 2005, foxhunts killed foxes in one of two ways: roughly half were chased until they went to ground, after which they were dug out with terriers. This was particularly cruel; the underground battles between terrier and fox could be protracted, with extreme digs lasting many hours or days, and severe injuries were often inflicted on both animals. The rest of the foxes were caught above ground by the hounds. There is a myth that, once caught, the hounds killed the fox by a quick nip to the back of the neck: this is not true. Dogs kill larger prey by repeatedly biting it until the animal is disembowelled or dies from its injuries. A pack of dogs normally tears smaller prey apart. Being torn apart by a pack of hounds was probably fairly quick, although if the fox was caught by just one or two hounds death was generally slower. Also, since the fox was often chased to the point of exhaustion, there was cruelty in the chase itself, particularly as the fox started to tire.

So the Hunting Act 2004 was an animal welfare measure designed to end these practices. There was no intention to stop people killing foxes using more humane methods, or to reduce the number of foxes being killed. Because hunting had no impact on fox numbers, it was also clear that an end to foxhunting would have no significant impact on fox numbers. There have been ill-informed articles in the press saying that the Hunting Act has failed because foxes are not living any longer, or that they are no more healthy. Again, it was never intended or anticipated that the Act would lead to such changes.

References

  • Baker, P.J. & Harris, S. (2006) Does culling reduce fox (Vulpes vulpes) density in commercial forests in Wales? European Journal of Wildlife Research 52, 99-108.
  • Baker, P.J., Harris, S. & Webbon, C.C. (2002) Effect of British hunting ban on fox numbers. Nature 419, 34.
  • Baker, P.J., Harris, S. & Webbon, C.C. (2003) Hunting and fox numbers in the United Kingdom - a reply. Nature 423, 400.
  • Baker, P., Harris, S. & White, P.C.L. (2006) After the hunt - the future for foxes in Britain. International Fund for Animal Welfare, London.

Download After the hunt. (PDF file, 1.7 Mb). Available with permission from IFAW

  • Harris, S. (2007) Fox UK. BBC Wildlife Magazine, Bristol.

Download Fox UK, Part one. (PDF file, 1.8 Mb).
Download Fox UK, Part two. (PDF file, 1.5 Mb).
First published as a free supplement with BBC Wildlife, May 2007.