Two years ago, we stood outside the Gillingham and Shaftesbury Show, wearing surgical masks and dressed in biohazard suits. Shortly afterwards, the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale Hunt swept in, with their horses and hounds, ready to display in the arena and allow children to interact physically with the hounds. Our point was obvious: hounds spread disease – don’t let them near your children. When we posted about it on Facebook later, the pros were outraged: how dare we say they carry disease? Of course they don’t, they said.
Well, actually, they do. During this present crisis, farmers are terrified of contamination from dog walkers. “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE” reads a recent post on Facebook, “raise awareness of this…. Farmers are absolutely begging people to stay off their land and the bridleways and footpaths that cross their farming land. With the closure of the beaches and the National Park, farmers are very suddenly seeing a big increase of people exercising their dogs on their farm land and the paths that cross it.” It’s not just disease they are worried about – they are also worried that the dogs will frighten livestock. Hunts, of course, always cross farmland, (sometimes without the permission of the owner), and with them come thirty hounds, a large number of horses and riders, and that peculiarly ghoulish and unsavoury group – the hunt followers. And not one of them observes any bio-security measures whatsoever.
The hunts, like most of us, have been shut down because of Covid-19, but unlike most of us, they must not be allowed to begin again afterwards. It is possible that they are one of the potential “Wuhans of the UK.” The threat of disease comes (for the most part) from the hounds. The “wet market” in Wuhan was the start of the outbreak: insanitary conditions, the dead mixed with the living and no care whatsoever about the animals involved. There are some disturbing correlations between Wuhan and the hunts. Hounds are kept in close quarters, with very little (or no) veterinary treatment. Hounds are not treated and brought back to health if they are sick – they are shot. In 2016, a large number of hounds belonging to the criminal Kimblewick Hunt caught bTB because of the conditions in the kennels. (And they blame the badgers for bTB!). There is no routine inspection of kennels. The hunts do some sort of self-assessment now and again, but no one actually visits to find out if they are behaving responsibly. Hounds are fed on raw meat – something boarding kennels are prohibited from doing because of the heath risk. The hunt collects farm animals that have died in the field and they feed the meat raw to the hounds. This is “fallen stock” from farms and the cause of death is usually unknown. No one bothers to find out why the animal died so when hounds eat the raw dead bodies, they are eating whatever disease the animal died of too. Hounds regularly catch kennel cough – caused, in fact, by one of the dreaded coronaviruses. Hounds carry neospora, mange, tape worms and round worms. The list goes on. Everywhere the hounds go, these diseases go with them.
Towards the end of the 2020 season, a Dorset hunt confined all their hounds to kennels. It can only be presumed that these hounds had a contagious disease – and very likely, it was a respiratory one. What was it? If a tiger in the Bronx can catch Covid, can a hound?
There are about 300 hunts in this country and they take 30 hounds out up to four times a week, in hunting season. A hunt can cover as much as fifteen square miles in one day, if not more. Hounds can run for at least thirty miles. This means that up to 36 000 hounds per week could be running all over the countryside , spreading disease from farm to farm, along bridle ways and on roads. Even if the hounds are healthy, they could easily tread in something, eat something or carry something on their coats that could cause disease.
The reason why we are in lockdown at the moment is because we have to stop the spread of disease by reducing contact with each other. It would be unthinkable (especially now) to allow someone else to drink out of your water bottle, but hounds drink from farm troughs all the time. They also urinate in streams. Dog owners clean up after their dogs, but hounds’ faeces just stay where the hound leaves them, often in the middle of a livestock field. So when a pack of thirty hounds are tearing after a wild animal across multiple farms – or even if they really are following a ‘trail’ – they are taking an enormous and, most significantly, an unnecessary risk.
You might say that it is far-fetched to suggest that the hunts are as dangerous as the wet markets of Wuhan. But let us compare the level of risk with the level of need. The stallholders in Wuhan were trying to make a living in pretty dire circumstances. They have wet markets, because they don’t have access to refrigeration. They were taking a risk and in hindsight, it was a mind-blowingly stupid thing to do. But, at the time, no one knew that; or at least, no one was wise enough to point it out. The hunts, on the other hand, are not hunting because they are desperate to feed their families; they are hunting for recreation. They call it a “sport” and say it is “trail hunting”. Hunting is totally unnecessary – and there is no justification whatsoever to take a risk with the health of others for something we don’t actually need – and many (85% of us) don’t want.
Let us also look at the behaviour of the hunts over the years and the justification for saying that they cannot be trusted to behave responsibly. In February 2019, an outbreak of equine flu shut down horse racing for a number of weeks. However, many hunts continued to go out on their horses, disregarding the risk of contagion. They were heavily criticised for it, but they took no notice whatsoever. Hunts trespass regularly on private land, often interacting (sometimes fatally) with other animals and domestic pets. On 18/12/19, the hounds from the Warwickshire Hunt rampaged through people’s gardens and on 10/1/20 these same hounds terrified primary school children in their playground; on Christmas Eve, hounds from the Bramham Hunt killed a kitten; on 20/12/19, Quorn hounds chased a fox across a burial site and jumped over an open grave in front of mourners; on 4/1/20, the Grove and Rutherford Hunt trespassed on a railway line; on 23/1/20 the South Shropshire Hunt trespassed on a wildlife reserve; on 6/1/20 hounds from Meynell & South Staffordshire Hunt rampaged through a housing estate in Derbyshire; on 20/1/20, the Four Burrows hounds trespassed through an animal sanctuary. The Surrey Union Hunt trespassed three times last season – on 6/10/119, 31/1/20 and 4/2/20 onto a smallholding and a horse sanctuary. All of these incidents were reported to the police and, worryingly, these are just the tip of the iceberg. When the hunts are in pursuit of a fox, they care nothing for barriers of any sort. They just want to get that fox and see it torn apart.
Sometimes, the hunts take liberties that are almost unbelievable. On Boxing Day, the Middleton Hunt took their hounds to two care homes in Malton, and allowed the vulnerable residents to interact with them. The hounds jumped all over the elderly, very likely licking their faces. Complaints to the hunt were ignored and now Social Services and Environmental Health are now involved. The hunt thinks this is acceptable; most people do not. (They do this as a publicity stunt, of course. They are so keen on presenting the smiling, hat-raising image to the public that risking a few elderly residents is well worth it)
Most people know a great deal more about contagion than we did two years ago and we know how dangerous it can be and how hard it is to control. Covid-19 is a disease that has come from animals – and more specifically abuse of animals. It seems to have taken the world by surprise, shutting us down almost completely. Scientists say that this might be the first of many outbreaks and the fact is, we really, really don’t know what else is in store for us. Everything must change to avoid this happening again. But the hunts have never adapted to changing times; it’s one of the things they pride themselves on. They are behaving now in the same way as they behaved a hundred and fifty years ago.
When the huntsman from the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale hunt left the Gillingham and Shaftesbury show in his (untaxed) hound truck, he flipped us the bird to show us his usual contempt. We caught it on camera. It made a good picture, especially when placed side-by-side with a photo of the same huntsman raising his hat politely at the crowds inside the show. In retrospect, it was a significant moment. Here we were, drawing attention to the bio-security risk posed to the countryside by the hunts and there they were laughing at us. They showed one face to the public and quite another to us. But we were right – hunts can (and do) spread contagion and disease and they risk all of us every single time they take a pack of hounds across public and private land. The world has changed completely in the last couple of months. Animal abuse and contagion – the hunts are responsible for both and the only solution is a total and FINAL ban.
PLEASE SIGN AND SHARE THIS PETITION. WE ARE ASKING DEFRA TO PREVENT THE HUNTS FROM STARTING AGAIN.