On 10 June, the Hunting Office made an announcement, stating that a new representative body, the British Hounds Sports Association (BHSA), will be responsible for the governance of hunts and hunting. A separate regulatory body is being set up, called the Hound Sports Regulatory Authority (HSRA). These new bodies will be ratified on 28th June.
So, what does this mean for hunting? Will hunts be asked to finally toe the line and stop breaking the law? Or are we going to see the same old antics governed under a different name?
Right now, it is unclear whether the Hunting Office will be disbanded, at least in name. But it seems that it will be replaced by the BHSA. This name-change is unsurprising. Because when an organisation or industry suffers serious reputational damage, as fox hunting has, it is going to take damage control measures. And one of the most obvious ways to do that is to rebrand yourself.
The last two years have been a PR disaster for both the Hunting Office and the Master of Fox Hounds Association (MFHA), ever since a series of webinars were leaked in late 2020. The webinars showed Mark Hankinson, director of the MFHA, openly saying that trail hunting was just a smokescreen for illegal hunting. A court later found Hankinson guilty of encouraging others to evade the hunting ban.
Off the back of this, major landowners in the UK – Forestry England, the National Trust, Natural Resources Wales, and the Lake District National Park Authority – have all banned trail hunting on their land.
So, with public trust in hunts hitting an all-time low, and with the biggest landowners turning their backs on hunts too, the hunting industry must be desperate to change the narrative. Andrew Osborne, Chairperson of the MFHA, has himself stated that the restructure "is incredibly important in successfully correcting the perception of hunting".
Choosing the name ‘British Hound Sports Association’ is subtle but significant. The exclusion of the word ‘hunting’, and the inclusion of ‘sports,’ is an attempt to fool the wider public, and the big landowners, that it doesn’t tear apart foxes at all; that it is, in fact, only having some sporting fun, much like your average local football team.
The hunting industry is keen to carry on the façade that it takes the law seriously, that it does only trail hunt. It will, no doubt, continue to gaslight the public, telling us that it does, actually, abide by the Hunting Act because this new regulatory body ensures it.
The first Chairperson of the BHSA will be William Astor, a viscount and member of the House of Lords, and former Master and Chairman of the Old Berkshire Hunt. It’s difficult to imagine a more old-blood fox hunter than this Eton-educated Tory.
In response to the announcement that Astor would be the BHSA chair, Shropshire Hunt Sabs wrote:
"Lord Ass(tor) was a driving force behind a previous attempt to overturn the 2004 Hunting Act using statutory instrument, owns the Isle of Jura (not the distillery) and is David Cameron’s father-in-law.”
Back in December 2020, Hunting Leaks published a leaked email from Astor, illustrating his disdain for anti-hunting campaigners. In the email, he wrote (all spelling and grammar mistakes are courtesy of the viscount himself):
“The antis are a mixture of the far left, extinsion rebellion, and left activists. Their campaign against trail hunting is just the start.”
In the correspondence, Astor appeared terrified that after taking down trail hunting and gamebird shooting, the ’antis’ would then take on the struggle for land reform (heaven forbid).
“While it is sometimes difficult for foreign estates to allow hunting as they hate being put under pressure by anti’s - it’s our first line of defence and if we lose this battle the anti’s will only be further encouraged to move onto their next target.”
Astor is the former director of powerful pro-hunting lobbying group Vote-OK. Vote-OK exists entirely to get pro-hunting people into positions of power. Leaked Hunting Office minutes, dated from April 2020 and published by Hunting Leaks, stated that it was essential for Vote-OK to stay afloat with £18,000 worth of donations, £6,000 of which would come from William Astor.
Quite how the hunting industry thinks it will “improve accountability, transparency and confidence in hunting activities” with the appointment of such a fox hunter is a mystery. Rather than giving the general public any confidence that Hunting Act laws will be adhered to, it is likely to embolden hunts across the country, safe in the knowledge that they really have one of their own regulating them.
Through these structural changes, it seems that hunting’s governing bodies want to have their cake and eat it, too: they are desperate to prove to the big landowners that they can be trusted, while at the same time – through the appointment of Astor – they are also keen to prove to the various hunting associations that they have the hunts’ interests at heart and will protect their ‘tradition’.
The rebrand of hunting’s governing bodies is unlikely to change a thing, and we see it as yet another smokescreen by the hunting industry. In the seventeen years since the Hunting Act came into force, hunts across the country have continued with business as usual, tearing up animals. We have very little optimism that anything will change.
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