North Yorkshire huntsmen defend drag sport 20 years after fox-hunting ban

Rachel Bullock was invited to a hunt in North Yorkshire to hear one side of a long-running debate on the divisive sport

Huntsmen in North Yorkshire have defended a countryside sport which continues to be the target for protests.

It has been 20 years since the hunting of live mammals with dogs was banned in England and Wales, band despite adaptations being made, the tradition itself remains controversial.

For many, the ban was long overdue, ending what they saw as the last legal bloodsport - relegated to the days of dogfighting or bear-baiting. For others, it was a tragic loss of tradition and control over countryside pest.

Drag hunting replaced it, with huntsmen using scent for hounds to chase instead.

During a drag hunt in North Yorkshire on Wednesday 20 March, the Bedale and Zetland Hunts wanted to get across their side of the long-running debate.

At one time, the hounds would be hunting foxes, but nowadays it is fox urine that is trailed across the countryside.

Often, hunts are still met with protests. The Zetland and Bedale Hunts said this is because myths about their sport have overtaken the truth.

Hounds prepare for the hunt in North Yorkshire. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Gareth Watchman, master huntsman for the Zetland Hunt, said: "Maybe you know the need to come and actually have a look a little bit more and that sort of thing.

"I don't think many people are opposed to the fact of people riding across the countryside and chasing around, which is actually what does happen."

With cases of live foxes having been killed accidentally by hounds, Mr Watchman said encouraging the hounds to chase an animal scent was the best tried-and-tested option.

"[They] did try originally when the ban came in to hunt sort of on aniseed scent, that sort of thing," he explained.

"But they found that actually the hounds were slightly more wild, if you like, on it and therefore it was actually more of a risk of them maybe chasing a live quarry.

"They found that the most sensible way to do it and the most successful way was to actually have an animal scent."

Ross Crawford, master huntsman for Bedale Hunt, said the tradition was much more about the hunt itself.

He said: "It's a family, if you like. It's quizzes in the pub, fundraisers we do for the hunt.

"A lot of the older generation rely on this as the social calendar, and it brings everybody together. It provides jobs open up and down the country.

"I mean, I'm a farrier for the sake of an argument and, you know, 60% of my work will be hunt horses. We've got grooms, we've got kennel staff. It's a wider community than just the trail hunting day itself."

Despite reassurance from organisations like the Zetland and Bedale Hunts, the tradition remains highly controversial with opponents claiming drag hunting is a smokescreen - with live foxes likely to be killed by accident, and huntsmen equally likely to escape any real chance of prosecution.

Huntsmen defended the tradition when questioned about campaigners' concerns. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

John, who did not want his surname to be used, is one of those who believes drag hunting has no place in the countryside.

The North East Hunt Monitors member told ITV Tyne Tees he thought change needed to come from the very top.

"I just don't think they'll change until they're forced to change," he said. "And that'll be a change of government when trail hunting is eventually banned within the next five years, hopefully."

In North Yorkshire, the hunts are hoping transparency can win confidence in a sport with centuries of history behind it.

Mr Watchman continued: "You know, we're open to anybody to come and have a look and see what we do and see how it actually goes ahead."

Mr Crawford said the loss of drag hunting would have a significant pact.

Huntsmen in North Yorkshire said the loss of the tradition would be "devastating". Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

"You know, our hound breeding goes back hundreds and hundreds of years and we you know, it's important to keep that going," he added.

"I mean, the laws that everybody in the community has for the hounds, we need to keep that going.

"The horses, the unemployment, it would be massive. And it would be. Yeah, it would be devastating."

The Hunting Act, which prohibited hunting foxes and wild mammals with dogs, was approved by the UK's parliament in 2003 with 362 MPs in favour and 156 against. The following year it became law.

In 2022, Labour recommitted to closing “loopholes” in the law and warned of improper participation in drag hunting.

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