The History of Hunting

Fox hunting has been occurring in different guises for hundreds of years. Indeed, the practice of using dogs with a keen sense of smell to track prey can be traced back to ancient Egypt and many Greek and Roman influenced countries. However, it is believed that the custom for a fox to be tracked, chased and often killed by trained hunting hounds (generally known as ‘scent hounds’) and followed by the Master of the Foxhounds and his team on foot and horseback, originated from a Norfolk farmer’s attempt to catch a fox using farm dogs in 1534.

Whilst foxes were widely regarded as pests by farmers and other landowners who hunted them as a form of pest control for many years, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that fox hunting developed into its most modern incarnation as a result of the decline in the UK’s deer population.

The decline in the deer population and subsequently the sport of deer hunting, known in the UK as Deer Stalking, was in part, a consequence of the Inclosure Acts passed between 1750 –1860, particularly the Inclosure (Consolidation) Act of 1801, which was passed to clarify previous acts of inclosure. These acts meant that open fields and the common land where many deer chose to breed were fenced off into separate, smaller fields to cope with the increase in the demand for farmland. 

The birth of the Industrial Revolution saw the introduction of new roads, railways and canals that further reduced the amount of rural land in the United Kingdom. Conversely, this improvement in transport links also made fox hunting readily accessible to those living in towns and cities who aspired to the life of the country gentleman. For those hunters who had previously tracked deer, which required large areas of open land, foxes and hares became the prey of choice in the seventeenth century with packs of hounds being trained specifically to hunt. England’s oldest fox hunt, which is still running today, is the Bilsdale Hunt in Yorkshire, established by George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham in 1668.

Fox hunting continued to grow in popularity throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and in 1753, 18-year-old Hugo Meynell, often referred to as the father of modern fox hunting, began to hunt to a system, whilst breeding hunting dogs for their speed and stamina as well as their keen scent at Quorndon Hall, his estate in North Leicestershire. The speed of his pack not only allowed hunters to experience “La Chasse” (the thrill of the chase) but also extended the hunt, allowing it to start later in the morning. This was popular with the young gentlemen of the social circle, amongst whom late nights were “de rigueur”. Fox hunting continued to grow in popularity throughout the nineteenth century, largely due to the inroads made by the Railways which provided rural access to the masses.

Despite the banning of fox hunting with hounds in Germany and most other European countries from 1934 onwards, fox hunting in Great Britain remained popular well into the twentieth century. Indeed, foxes were hunted to near extinction (as Wolves and Wild Boar had been previously) in England and were actually imported from Germany, Holland and Sweden.

Today, fox hunting in the UK is probably better known for the controversial views of those who champion the sport and those that oppose it. The debate between hunters and anti-hunting campaigners, who believe the sport to be cruel and unnecessary, eventually led to a Government inquiry in December 1999 into hunting with dogs, named the Burns Inquiry after the retired civil servant Lord Burns who chaired it.

Whilst the Burns Inquiry report noted that hunting with dogs "seriously compromises" the welfare of the foxes, it did not categorically state whether or not hunting should be permanently banned in the UK. As a result, the Government introduced an ‘options bill', so that each House of Parliament could decide on whether hunting with hounds should be banned or subject to license or self-regulation. Whilst The House of Commons voted to ban the sport, in contrast, the House of Lords voted for self-regulation. The Government supported The House of Commons and the resulting Hunting Act 2004 was passed in November 2004, outlawing hunting with dogs in England and Wales from 18 February 2005. The Scottish Parliament had already banned fox hunting in Scotland in 2002, and in Northern Ireland it is still legal.

The controversy surrounding hunting doesn’t, however, end there. Conversely, despite the ban, hunts claim to have seen an increase in membership and the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) currently represents 176 active foxhound packs in England and Wales and 10 in Scotland. Many anti-hunting campaigners have complained that countless hunts have flouted the ban and continue to hunt with hounds illegally, a claim supported by over 340 successful prosecutions under the Hunting Law to date.

Whatever you feel about hunting with hounds, there is no doubt that this emotive subject has had a substantial effect on popular culture. The ban has now been in place for 10 years, has stood the test of time and, whilst not perfect, is a foundation for a more comprehensive act. It has not had an adverse effect on the rural economy and many hunts have successfully converted to drag hunting. The ban has not seen an increase in foxes thus showing wildlife management has not been affected.  

We support the humane sport of drag hunting that exists today and we urge you not to turn back the clocks. We sincerely hope you will uphold the ban.