Is time running out for hunting in the UK after a damaging year?

By any measure, hunting has had a terrible year. The conviction of a leading huntsman, for giving a masterclass to those that run hunts on how to break the Hunting Act and trail hunt illegally, has weakened the sport while fuelling the anti-hunt movement.

The reverberations are rippling through the countryside and even though Mark Hankinson is appealing his conviction, the damage is already done.

Hunts have been banned from using land belonging to some of the nation's largest landowners, including the National Trust and Natural Resources Wales. National Trust members have clearly shifted their view on the sport. In 2017, they were evenly split on whether to ban it (they didn’t) but this year voted by two to one in favour of a ban. It would seem that hunting isn’t just running out of land its losing friends too.

The police suspended their relationship with the Countryside Alliance at top level meetings related to hunting, councils have refused permission for hunts to use their land, while filming - both covert and overt - has revealed images that have shocked the public.  

Mark Hankinson was convicted for giving a masterclass on how to break the Hunting Act - he has now had his conviction overturned Credit: ITV News

Given all of the above, Boxing Day hunts - taking place on the 27th this year as hunts aren't normally held on a Sunday - should still bring out the crowds. The events will act as a public relations opportunity for a beleaguered sport. 

Hunting opponents sense a wounded foe and just as hounds chase a fox, they are moving in for the kill. The League Against Cruel Sports said: “The past year has seen the smokescreen that has shrouded hunting lifted, not just for animal welfare campaigners like the League, but also the general public.

"Crucially this year we've been hearing that bodies such as landowners and the police have "lost confidence" in organisations such as the Countryside Alliance and the Hunting Office... and that's hugely indicative of how every single person involved in hunting is now viewed - with suspicion.”

Members of the Grove and Rufford Hunt take part in a traditional Boxing Day hunt in 2019.

As for 2022, there’s little sign the League will let up.

"Only when we can be sure wildlife is safe from these people will we stop. Our work next year will see us holding debates up and down the country and continuing to urge landowners to pull the plug on allowing trail hunting on their land,” it said.

There are many in hunting who fear their time is fast running out. 2021 may have hastened the sport’s proximity to the end, but a wounded hunt can recover. The question is whether it will - or if this year proves to be fatal in time.

 The Hunt Saboteurs Association told ITV News : “One of our recent web posts described 2021 as the Annus Horribilus for hunting and its hard to think of a better description.

"Since the leaked webinars were released in November 2020 the hunting community have lurched from one self inflicted disaster to another” “Even with the spotlight on them hunters don't appear to have the capacity to behave themselves and we'll continue to highlight this in 2022.

"Thanks to the hard work and tenacity of hunt sabs we'll keep exposing the hunters cruel and illegal acts so that the public understand they've been the victims of a 15 year smokescreen to hide illegal hunting.

"We'll also continue to target the remaining landowners, particularly the Ministry of Defence, who continue to allow hunting on their land.“

ITV News has approached the Countryside Alliance and Hunting Office for a comment.