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Anti-hunting zoologist Jordi Casamitjana discusses the recent case of UK huntsmen being caught shooting their unwanted hounds in their heads.

It’s a mad world indeed.

On 8th October 2021, ITV viewers in the UK watched something they thought did not happen anymore. The recording of huntsmen deliberately shooting their hounds dead. The Hunt Investigation Team, supported by the anti-hunting group Keep the Ban, had provided these videos to ITV News exclusively.

The footage was secretly recorded between April and September at the kennels of the Duke of Beaufort’s Hunt, in Badminton, Gloucestershire. This is one of the hundreds of UK registered foxhounds’ packs that traditionally chase and kill foxes followed by riding hunters, who direct them using horns. However, since the ban of hunting with dogs, they now claim to do something different called “trail hunting” (which is not really what it seems). The recordings clearly show several instances of huntsmen putting a gun to the head of hounds and killing them, hounds appearing to be unwell or drugged and being carried onto the grass by the hunt staff before being shot, and a hound being shot twice three minutes apart.

When I watched it, I felt a profound sadness. As an undercover investigator, I have witnessed many acts of cruelty perpetrated by people. Some legal, some illegal. Some against wild animals, some against domestic animals. But having grown up with dogs with whom I established very strong bonds, seeing the hounds friendly faces trustingly looking at their executers just before the trigger was pulled, broke my heart. I felt that to mend it, I had to write about such a betrayal.

Shooting Dogs is a Common Practice by Hunts

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This is not news to me. The ITV piece claimed it was the first time that footage of a hunt shooting its hounds has been shown publicly. It was not. Every few decades, there is a similar exposé showing how hunts shoot the hounds they no longer want, for any reason. It has been happening for centuries.

My dear friend Joe Hashman, founder of Hounds Off, obtained similar footage in 1996 at the kennels of the Cheshire Foxhounds when he was an investigator. He witnessed two hounds shot by the hunt kennelman on 30th October. The bodies of both hounds were dumped in a metal bin. It made it to the papers too. He recently told me how he managed to get it:

“I’d spent three days hidden in the undergrowth around the perimeter of the kennels. Remember, this was 1996; remote cameras were beyond the scope of equipment I had available to work with, so it was down to me to be in the right place at the right time with a handheld camcorder at the ready. It was late in October, the end of Cubhunting and the Opening Meet was fast approaching. In the absence of insider information, I’d figured that this was likely to be when the hunt would be getting rid of hounds which didn’t meet their needs. The hound I filmed being led out the back of the kennels, manoeuvred into position, shot and then dumped, was actually the second that evening. The first was killed minutes earlier, but so close that I didn’t dare risk blowing my cover to get the camera shot. So, when the next hound was killed I kind of threw caution to the wind. I stood up from my nest in the bracken and used thin trunks of silver birch trees to hide behind. I was in total focus mode, knowing that this could be my one and only chance to meet the brief I’d been hired by the League Against Cruel Sports to complete. I was always aware that what was happening in my camera lens would be happening regardless of if I was there filming or not. My job was to capture these horrors so that they were no longer a secret or hidden from view.”

On Boxing Day 1997 the BBC2 series ‘Under the Sun’ featured the Shropshire-based Ludlow Foxhounds. The program included footage of a three-year-old foxhound shot in the head and dumped into an incinerator. His crime? He was no longer required by the hunt.

On 14th July 2015, the Mirror newspaper published an article titled “EXCLUSIVE: Thousands of healthy foxhounds – including pups – are clubbed to death or shot if they’re ‘unsuitable’”. In it, Lynn Sawyer, former huntswoman turned anti-hunt campaigner, revealed it was seen as “normal” to shoot and incinerate dogs once they were no longer “productive”.

I was also quoted stating: “We know with certainty that thousands of hounds are killed every year. They are always breeding more hounds, trying to get the perfect cross. So, as there is a constant number, we know the old ones are killed. More are bred than are actually needed so many are killed soon after they are born. Others are killed after the first trial when the hounds are assessed by the huntsmen. If they are not good enough, they are put down.

As part of my anti-hunting work — and with my scientist hat on — I did some research on this issue based on all the data that had been published. There had been several estimations of the numbers of dogs involved, so I wanted to look at the issue independently and calculate my own figures.

I estimated that the number of foxhounds killed unnecessarily every year by the hunts in the UK is at least 3,000, which is likely to be around 5,000, and it could easily be as high as 8,000. My estimations suggest the following spread: 1,000 to 2,000 killed soon after being born because of over-breeding, 2,000 to 3,000 killed for not performing as expected, and 2,000 to 3,000 Killed for deemed too old. Since the Hunting Act 2004 was enacted (and therefore since the hunts have been claiming they do trail hunting instead of traditional hunting), I estimate that as much as 100,000 healthy hounds may have been unnecessarily killed by the hunting fraternity.

The Lie of Trail Hunting

I have been an anti-hunting person for decades now. Ever since I got my job as the hunting campaigner of the League Against Cruel Sports in 2004 — the very year the Hunting Act was passed —I have been very aware of the damage the UK hunting fraternity has been causing not only to British wildlife but to society in general. I knew that as the violent mafia-like thugs they are (unashamedly masqueraded of respectable countryside defenders), the hunters — and the shooters as well — have been rampaging in impunity the fields in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland for centuries, spreading terror and death along their paths.

After decades of campaigning, in 2005 the ban on hunting wild mammals with dogs was enacted, but very few in the anti-hunting movement thought that would be the end of it. Indeed, the hunters, after constant tantrums that dragged the legislative process for years, regrouped and came up with a series of strategies to bypass the will of Parliament. They found ways to exploit the numerous exemptions that the Hunting Act 2004 provided them, and they created “trail hunting”, a sophisticated false alibi to cover illegal hunting, disguised as a supposedly new legitimate sport where hounds no longer follow mammals, but artificial scents laid by people instead.

Very soon we realized that this “defiance” was not sporadic. They all were involved in #trailhuntlies in one degree or another. Report after report of hunt monitors and hunt saboteurs all over the country showed that genuine trail hunting did not exist, and the hunts were still chasing and killing mammals and then claiming that it did not happen, or it was an accident. Most, if not all, of the over 300 registered hunts seemed engaged in this conspiracy to commit crimes. Perhaps the most widespread wildlife crime spree perpetrated in the British countryside in the last 15 years, mostly ignored by the authorities — as in classic organized crime fashion.

The Criminality of Hunting

When in 2012 I moved to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) I continued carrying out my anti-hunting work, this time leading the Wildlife Crime Enforcement Team trying to prosecute illegal hunters. We were successful in securing convictions, but the crimes were so widespread that most of them got away with it unpunished.

In the end, in 2015, I collected all the intelligence I could gather and I wrote the 200-page report “Trail of Lies”. It exposed the false alibi of trail hunting, and I provided evidence to suggest that illegal hunting undertaken by registered hunts could be classed as some sort of atypical ‘organized crime’ with elements of gang culture and corporate crime. In 2016, I gave a lecture talking about this at Winchester University, titled “the criminality of hunting”.

Fast-forward to 2020, and a brilliant investigation by the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA) managed to obtain the recordings of a webinar run by the Hunting Office where it seems that top hunting officials advised hunts about how to avoid being caught hunting illegally. The police investigated, charged Mark Hankinson, the director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA), the Crime Prosecution Service prosecuted him, and on 15th October 2021, he was found guilty of encouraging and assisting people to evade the ban on foxhunting.

The conspiracy nature at the dome of the hunting fraternity’s structure was now obvious for everyone to see. Major landowners like the National Trust could now think twice about licensing trail hunting and exempt hunting in their land — and finally, believe where many people had been telling them for years.

The Violence of Hunts Against Dogs.

After the evidence I have seen over the years, I believe that these are the most common acts of cruelty inflicted on hounds by members of registered hunts:

  1. killing dogs soon after birth if too many were born.
  2. Mistreating dogs with violence to discipline and train them.
  3. killing dogs after trying them for hunting if they did not perform well enough.
  4. Mistreating dogs with violence if they riot, chase the wrong animals, or do not chase or attack the quarry animals.
  5. Putting dogs in dangerous situations that lead to injury and/or death by accidents on roads or railways.
  6. killing healthy dogs if they repeatedly riot, chase the wrong animal, vocalise in the “wrong way”, or perform in an undesirable manner.
  7. killing dogs when they are deemed too old for hunting, well before the end of their natural lifespan.

Although most people would expect that such practices should have ended when the hunting ban was enacted, unfortunately, there have not. Although the number of hunts has declined since the ban, most continued breeding hounds year after year. Even if we believe the lies that hunts are no longer hunting wildlife but are now innocent “trail hunts” that only follow artificial scents for fun, they still exploit hounds and horses as they did, and treat them in the same way they did in the past.

In the 1989 book “The Chase – A Modern Guide to Foxhunting” published by Stanley Paul & Co. Ltd, I found the 10th Duke of Beaufort, known to be an eminence on hunting, quoted as having said the following: “Lord Henry Bentinck … said that the secret of his success was to breed a great many hounds and then to put down a great many. If you can follow his example so much the better for the future of your pack.”

Is the 12th Duke of Beaufort, the current one, still allowing the hunt that bears his name to go out “trail” hunting foxes in his land? What do you think? This is one of the favorite hunts of members of the Royal Family. The very hunt the HIT recently recorded shooting the hounds in the head. It seems that very little has changed.

Hounds Are Dogs, and Dogs Are Our Friends

Shutterstock image 1010731255 by Mary Swift

Huntsmen often complain if people call their hounds dogs. But this is what they are. Foxhounds, staghounds, harriers, beagles, and bassets are just breeds of dogs the hunts exploit for their countryside pastimes.

They don’t want to call them dogs because this allows them to claim that they can treat them differently. Then, they can just claim that hounds cannot be rehomed as dogs can; that hounds cannot become companion animals as dogs can; that hounds cannot be humanely euthanized by a vet as dogs can.

But none of this is true. Hounds are just dogs, and like all dogs, they can be rescued when in need, be successfully rehomed, become loving companion animals, and when they are very old and ill, be humanely euthanized by an injection administered by a competent vet. They can be treated with the same dignity as many of our companion dogs are. They don’t deserve less.

The celebrated comedian Ricky Gervais told ITV News his reaction to the recent footage exposé: “They are killed, usually by a shot to the head, by…someone who loves to chase and kill innocent animals. Both the hound and the fox become the victim of this cruelty. It’s insane, don’t you think?”

He is right. But you know what the saddest part of this story is? All this senseless shooting of dogs is perfectly legal in the UK. It is not an offense under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, or other legislation, to kill an unprotected animal so long as it is done in an “appropriate and humane manner”. And as far as the authorities are concerned, shooting your own dogs, cats, horses, or any other unprotected animals you may “own”, may be an appropriate manner to kill them.

We are miles away from the vegan world many of us dream about. In today’s world, where non-human animals have no rights and are property of humans, those humans can kill them any time they want to. They do not need any reason. They do not need any training. They can dispose of their “property” when they do not want it anymore. As long as they do it quickly, they can kill their dogs….and their cats…and their horses.

My friend Joe Harshman told me how he felt immediately after obtaining the 1996 footage:

“I almost broke down, crying tears of sadness and relief, before getting to a prearranged location where I had to wait. This gave me time to collect myself. I was sad because I love all animals. I was relieved because as far as this mission was concerned it was job done, meaning I could get away from that madness and go home.”

Madness indeed. The madness of a world when one species gives itself rights and denies them to all the others. The madness of one being breeding another as a form of transport, another as a living weapon, and then forcing them to chase a third for sport — while claiming to be the respectable guardian of the land.

The madness of huntsmen that kill everyone in their path.

Even their most trusted friends.

Jordi Casamitjana