The anti-hunting campaigner Jordi Casamitjana discusses “terrier work”, the cruel use of dogs to hunt animals underground, an integral part of foxhunting in the British Isles.
It was one of the most intimidating situations I have ever been in.
The year was 2005, and the location was somewhere in Devon, southwest of England. I can’t remember the exact site, but it was in between fields in the middle of the countryside. One colleague and I were using the zooms of our video cameras as if they were binoculars, trying to locate the pack of hounds “on cry” we could hear (in the vernacular of foxhunting, this means vocalising when in pursuit of a scent — which in foxhounds this sounds like crying rather than barking).
Then, from the distance, we heard another familiar sound. The sound of quadbikes, the favourite vehicle of terrier men. The sound got closer, and then we saw them. Not one, but four quadbikes ridden by several rough men were approaching our location. They had spotted us already, so there was no point to hide. What was initially a semi-covert operation characteristic of the hunt monitoring group I was helping out that day, quickly became an overt operation — and with that, our risk of personal injury suddenly rose.
In 2005, the Hunting Act 2004 was enacted in England and Wales, and its section 1 states, “a person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog, unless his hunting is exempt.” Yes, that was the famous law that banned hunting (which in British English means pursuing wild mammals with dogs who have been trained to follow their scent, as opposed to using shotguns or rifles to kill wildlife, which is called “shooting”), at least in theory (as the hunts found many loopholes to exploit). I had just been employed by the League Against Cruel Sports as their hunting campaigner (the first time around, as later on, in 2016, I was employed by them again, which led to the litigation I am most known for) so I had joined some hunt monitoring groups (who investigated hunts to see if they were obeying the new law) to watch the situation from the ground.
The immense majority of hunts (in Britain and Ireland, a “hunt” is also a noun that means an officially registered hunting club which traditionally hunts in a particular territory assigned to it, e.g. the South Dorset Hunt or the North Herefordshire Hunt) decided to circumvent the law and continue to hunt foxes pretending to do something else, as they correctly thought that the authorities would believe them more than the hunt saboteurs trying to stop them. However, hunt monitors, as opposed to hunt saboteurs, were not trying to stop them on the ground but were trying to gather evidence to prosecute them (and that was part of my job at the League), so they were even more unwelcomed. If a hunt spotted any hunt monitor, the Hunt Master would call “the heavies” to intimidate them away, often with violence. And terriermen, the men whose job in a traditional hunt was to use terriers to flush foxes out of cover after they had been hiding underground from the pursuing pack of hounds, were now the “heavies” of the hunt.
This is what happened that day. We had been spotted, the hunt called the terriermen, and they rode their quadbikes to intercept us. When they got to our position, the violent harassment began. Some targeted my colleague (an experienced monitor who knew how to deal with this sort of thing), while others targeted the “new guy”, who happened to be me. When they heard me speak to my colleague they identified my foreign accent, so they decided to focus their intimidation on xenophobic remarks.
One quadbike stopped just a couple of feet in front of me, the other just behind me, the other on my right, and on my left, there was a tall bush. I was completely boxed in. However, I did not make eye contact, I did not react to their harassment, I did not speak to them, and I carried on recording the pack of hounds, which I now could see in the distance. They kept insulting me and trying to block my camera’s view. My colleague received similar treatment, but we both were close enough to be able to attempt to help each other if the situation would escalate. Because of the lack of interaction and reaction, the terriermen got eventually tired and left — probably satisfied that they had prevented us from recording the hunt successfully.
Most people from outside the British Isles have never heard of terrier men, and the job they do for the hunts: terrier work. For hunt monitors and hunt sabs, they are often the stuff of nightmares.
Let me tell you a bit more about them.
The Scary Terriermen
Conveniently for a hunt that may be accused of illegal activities perpetrated by its terriermen (who since the Hunting Act was enacted the hunts euphemistically call them “countrymen”), terriermen are not officially “members” of the hunt as such, but just freelancers who are contracted on a day-by-day basis by hunts to perform certain tasks during the hunting day or the day before. In particular, these four tasks are the most common:
- Using specially trained terrier dogs, to dig/flush out foxes that have “gone to ground” (which means hiding instead of fleeing) during the hunting, so the hounds can continue pursuing them.
- Using rocks or soil, to block up fox dens and badger set holes (“stopping up”) the day before the hunting (or in the morning of the same day but before the hunt begins) to prevent foxes from going to ground.
- After digging them out, to kill foxes who refuse to leave their hiding place, if the hunt decided not to chase them anymore and search for others.
- Often using physical violence, to intimidate hunt monitors and hunt sabs to prevent them gathering evidence of the hunt’s activities.
Since hunting became illegal, the hunts have been denying they are hiring terrier men for these purposes, but they continue to show up like before. When that happens, the hunt may claim they are just there to open and close some gates or lay artificial trails for the hounds to follow during Trail Hunting (the false alibi the hunting fraternity invented since the ban was enacted in which the hunt pretend the hounds are following an artificial scent laid by a person). Alternatively, they may say they have not called them and they just turned up to do jobs someone else’s may have contracted them to do. None of these would fool hunt monitors or hunt sabs, but unfortunately, many police officers (and even some judges) may have fallen for such lies.
It’s easy to identify a terrierman just by sight (there may be terrierwomen as well, but they are rare). They usually move about on quad bikes, contrary to the rest of the people involved in a hunt. The hunt staff, (consisting of the Hunts Masters in charge of the hunt, the Huntsmen in charge of the hounds, and the Whipper-ins assisting the huntsmen) and “the field” (the riders who pay for a “ticket” that allows them to follow the hunt staff and their hounds) are normally on a horse, while the hunt supporters (people who just watch the hunt from a distance and do not join the pursuit) are normally in cars (often 4×4 vehicles). Terriermen use quadbikes, so they can get to many locations faster, and through the fields, while carrying their dogs, the terriers, in boxes attached to the front or the back of the quadbike.
If you see them after dismounting, they may carry a spade, or hold a terrier, which is a clear giveaway. They also dress casually in country working clothes, as a farmer may dress (wellington boots are commonly used, and a typical country flat cap is often worn), contrary to how hunts staff and “the field” would dress: very smartly (each hunt will have an official uniform they have to wear). Traditionally, members of the Royal family, the aristocracy, the upper class or the middle class were the ones who became Hunt Masters and formed “the field”, while members of the lower classes would become the terriermen, or work in the kennels.
Finally, since the Hunting Act was enacted, another identifier of terriermen is that they often cover their faces (often with balaclavas), and do not have number plates on their quadbikes (or are conveniently covered with mud), so when they engage in illegal activities it is difficult to obtain evidence that incriminates them. Ah, and I forgot one important detail: they are sometimes armed with firearms (a shotgun or a handgun, which in the hunting vernacular is called “humane killer”).
So, if you walk through the British countryside and are approached by a suspicious-looking man wearing a balaclava on a quadbike that has a box on the front or the back, and who roughly asks you (often with a very thick local accent) what are you doing there, the chances are that you may be about to face an aggressive terrierman — I know, so much for England being a green and pleasant land.
What is Terrier Work?
Terrier work is the umbrella term to describe what terrier men do, which is train terriers to go underground to locate, flush, or fight other animals that hide there, and to kill the animals the dogs find (normally foxes, but could also be mink, badgers, rats, etc.). It can be seen as a “profession” (if the terriermen are paid and do that for a living — often under the excuse of “pest control”), a hobby (if terriermen do it because they like it, and like to brag with other terriermen about which of their dogs are better at it — in this regard, it’s very close to the traditional bloodsport of badger baiting, now banned), a wildlife crime (if it is done unlawfully or without permission of the landowner), or a traditional part of foxhunting (if it is done to facilitate a hunt to chase foxes with hounds).
The dogs normally used for terrier work are generally small dogs that can get through a network of tunnels (called “tubes”) that wildlife dig for their homes. The most common breeds used are terrier types, in particular Jack Russell’s, Wire Haired Terriers, Lakeland, Bedlington, and Plummer breeds. Dogs which are put to work underground are traditionally called “earth dogs” (while the dogs used to hunt above ground are called “running dogs”).
Once it is known that a fox is hiding in a hole on the ground called an “earth” (either because someone saw the fox going in or hounds that were chasing it are “marking the earth” indicating the fox is there) the terriermen are called to do their terrier work. They would then arrive in quadbikes and assess the situation (they may have a conversation with hunt staff or the landowner if they are around, to find out what they know and what “their assignment” is).
If the hunt wants to continue chasing the fox, the terriermen will be instructed to flush the fox out unhurt (this is called “bolting”). The huntsman will take the pack of hounds to a safe distance, and will instruct the hounds to wait until he orders them to chase the flushed fox (which will now be illegal, by the way). The terriermem will then try to block all entrances to the den but two, will then take a terrier from the quadbike box, and will put the terrier in one hole hoping this will make the fox flee from the other.
If, on the other hand, the huntsman does not want to continue chasing the fox (perhaps is already late) but wants the hounds to have the dead body, the huntsman will instruct the terriermen to dig out the fox, kill the fox, and give the body to him so he can throw it to the hounds as a “reward” for their chase (while sounding a distinctive call with his hunting horn). To do that, the terriermen will normally block all exits of the den but one, put the terrier in that one carrying an electronic locator that emits a signal that can be detected by a device the terrierman carries, and when the signal of the terrier stops moving forward (either because the terrier is barking at the fox or both animals are fighting), the terrierman would dig up with a spade on that spot, retrieve the terrier, and kill the fox (either with the spade itself or with a gun). Sometimes, the fox may be dragged out still alive and thrown into the pack of hounds to be ripped apart.
On occasions, the terriermen want to capture the foxes unhurt, perhaps because want to transport them to other locations where the hunts are waiting, or to move them to other areas where the hunts had been repeatedly unsuccessful in finding any fox. In that case, terriers are used to “bolt” the foxes driving them out from their hiding spots into nets covering the entrance of earth. Foxes that bolt into nets are sometimes used as bait for young terriers (which is known as “ragging”).
If the wild mammal chased (the “quarry”) is a badger rather than a fox (which would make that terrier work automatically illegal as badgers are protected in the UK under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992), there would not normally be a hunt around, and the terrier men may shoot the badger right there, make it fight with the dog in an improvise badger baiting event, or take the badger somewhere else where a more organised badger baiting event may take place (all of this is illegal, by the way).
Needless to say that, apart from being very cruel to wildlife, terrier work is very cruel to dogs too, as they are forced into situations where they can easily be injured or killed. They may be fatally attacked by the foxes and badgers that are trying to defend themselves, but they can also die of suffocation if the tunnels collapse when the terrier men are digging out.
Because putting a dog underground into a den where another mammal (a fox) is hiding puts “predatory pressure” on the mammal, this act constitutes an act of hunting itself, as the Hunting Act 2004 defines hunting as when “a person engages or participates in the pursuit of a wild mammal” with “one or more dogs”. This pursuit does not necessarily have to lead to the dog running after the fox who is fleeing, as the act of the dog going “after” the fox already causes stress to the hidden animal who knows is being hunted. However, although terrier work may include hunting, this does not necessarily mean that it is always unlawful, as the Hunting Act has some exemptions that cover it.
The Legality of Terrier Work
Unfortunately, terrier work has not been banned in any of the countries of the British Isles — mostly because it has been protected by the shooting industry, which is a powerful lobby. Terriermen in the UK have even a National Working Terrier Federation to lobby for their activities. Among its goals, its website lists “to unify the working terrier clubs under one umbrella organisation and provide a single reference point and centre of excellence on matters relating to terrier work,” and “to protect both the working terrier and its owner from all forms of harmful legislation.”
If you ask the Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) what terrier work is, this is what they had on their website in 2015 (when I was researching for my report Trail of Lies that contains this quote): “Terrier work plays an important role in fox control, especially on livestock farms and where game shooting takes place. It is the only legal method of controlling foxes underground. If a fox is run to ground, digging may only take place with the expressed permission of the landowner or farmer. It can only be carried out by those licensed by the appropriate governing body. Normally the terrierman will be accompanied by only one assistant. Due to the possible use of a humane killer (licensed firearm) and to avoid unnecessary noise and disturbance, participation is limited to the terrierman and his assistant with sometimes the presence of the relevant farmer or gamekeeper.”
This is, of course, their sanitised version of events, but this shows one important thing about terrier men: it is not illegal to be a terrier man whose job is to use dogs to go after mammals underground. Their work may become illegal if they do not follow the rules of how they are allowed to hunt some mammals underground, or if they do it for the wrong reason (such as to flush a fox out of cover so a pack of hounds can continue pursuing it). The Hunting Act 2004 has one exemption that allows terrier work to continue legally. Schedule 1 titled “Exempt Hunting” has a section titled “Use of dogs below ground to protect birds from shooting”.
This is what it says:
2. (1). The use of a dog below ground in the course of stalking or flushing out is in accordance with this paragraph if the conditions in this paragraph are satisfied.
(2) The first condition is that the stalking or flushing out is undertaken for the purpose of preventing or reducing serious damage to game birds or wild birds (within the meaning of section 27 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (c. 69)) which a person is keeping or preserving for the purpose of their being shot.
(3) The second condition is that the person doing the stalking or flushing out—
(a)has with him written evidence—
(i) that the land on which the stalking or flushing out takes place belongs to him, or
(ii) that he has been given permission to use that land for the purpose by the occupier or, in the case of unoccupied land, by a person to whom it belongs, and
(b)makes the evidence immediately available for inspection by a constable who asks to see it.
(4) The third condition is that the stalking or flushing out does not involve the use of more than one dog below ground at any one time.
(5) In so far as stalking or flushing out is undertaken with the use of a dog below ground in accordance with this paragraph, paragraph 1 shall have effect as if for the condition in paragraph 1(7) there were substituted the condition that—
(a) reasonable steps are taken for the purpose of ensuring that as soon as possible after being found the wild mammal is flushed out from below ground,
(b) reasonable steps are taken for the purpose of ensuring that as soon as possible after being flushed out from below ground the wild mammal is shot dead by a competent person,
(c) in particular, the dog is brought under sufficiently close control to ensure that it does not prevent or obstruct achievement of the objective in paragraph (b),
(d) reasonable steps are taken for the purpose of preventing injury to the dog, and
(e) the manner in which the dog is used complies with any code of practice which is issued or approved for the purpose of this paragraph by the Secretary of State.
The code of practice referred to in paragraph 2(5)(e) of Schedule 1 of the Act was created by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), which, of course, would not have any objection to the use of dogs to kill the natural predators who interfere with their profits (they are in the business of charging people to shoot wild or farmed birds). Nevertheless, it was approved by the Government for the purpose of the Hunting Act. This is what the code says:
- The terrier’s role must be to locate the wild mammal underground and cause it to ‘bolt’ (leave the earth or den) as soon as possible so that it can be shot by a competent person and humanely dispatched. It should not be intended that a terrier will fight the wild mammal.
- Only terriers that are ‘soft’ (those that habitually stand off and bark at the wild mammal) must be used. Terriers that are ‘hard’ (those that habitually fight) must not be used.
- Care must always be taken to ensure the safety of those involved and to minimise the risk of injury to either the wild mammal or terrier during the bolting process.
- The terrier’s time underground should be kept as short as possible so as to minimise any potential distress to the wild mammal.
- The terrier being used must always be fitted with an electronic locator so that its exact position underground can be tracked.
- Once it is determined that a terrier has become trapped assistance must be given to release it.
In other words, if terrier men follow all these rules (not too difficult for them as they were designed to allow their “profession” to continue), their terrier work is lawful. However, if they don’t (such as, for instance, hunt a badger, use more than two terriers underground at the same time, make the terrier kill the fox, or flush the fox to allow a hunt to hunt illegally) they could be prosecuted if enough evidence is obtained about what they did (which is not easy as they often operate in isolated places where nobody is around).
A similar situation we have in Scotland where the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 also banned hunting but also had exceptions for terrier work. This law has now been replaced by The Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Act 2023, which, although better in many respects, still does not ban terrier work (section 5, titled “Exception: management of foxes and mink below ground”, sets the rules about it) — to the dismay of many anti-hunting campaigners.
Is the Enforcement of the Hunting Act Improving?
In recent months, anti-hunting campaigners have been seeing news they have been waiting for a long time. Terriermen all around England and Wales have been arrested and may be prosecuted.
On 18th January 2023, six men were arrested, and 22 dogs were seized by the police in a series of raids in several counties in England over suspected illegal fox hunting. Inspectors from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and police officers participated in these anti-wildlife-crime operations in Kent, Norfolk, Sussex, and Thames Valley. The men, allegedly terriermen, were all later released after questioning while inquiries continued. RSPCA officers seized 10 dogs near Canterbury and Folkestone in Kent, three near Farringdon in Oxfordshire, and nine near Norfolk, near Wisbech.
Then, a few weeks later, after a video was made public showing people pulling a fox out of a den and then throwing it to fox hounds, three men were arrested in Wiltshire, England, on suspicion of wildlife offences. The men were arrested on 10th February 2023 on suspicion of offences connected to hunting a wild animal with dogs. The Hunt Saboteurs Association, which made the footage public, said the arrested men are members of the Wiltshire-based Avon Vale Hunt. They claim the footage shows Avon Vale whipper-in and three terriermen crouching over a fox earth, with the excited hounds being held back by the hunt master and others. This hunt has now been permanently expelled from the MFHA.
There had been successful prosecutions of terriermen in the past. In 2007, William Armstrong, terrierman for the Flint and Denbigh Hunt in Wales, was found guilty of illegal hunting. In 2010, Alistair Robinson, a terrierman for the Ullswater Foxhounds, was found guilty at Penrith Magistrate’s court of breaching Section 1 of the Hunting Act. In 2011, the huntsman for the Fernie Hunt, Derek Hopkins, and the hunt’s terrierman Kevin Allen, were found guilty at Leicester Magistrates’ Court.
However, considering terriermen go out with most hunts every time they hunt (two days a week from November to March), arrests and prosecutions are rare. Therefore, something seems to be happening right now. There seems to be a change of attitude of some police forces, and also of the RSPCA (which can run its private criminal prosecutions) that could be making them now more inclined to prosecute terriermen.
All this may be the result of the exposé the Hunt Saboteurs Association did in 2021, in which they managed to record a webinar run by the Hunting Office in August 2020 where top hunting officials advised hunts about how to avoid being caught hunting illegally — by using the cover of trail hunting. Based on this evidence, Mark Hankinson, the director of the MFHA then (who spoke at the webinar), was found guilty at Westminster Magistrate Court of encouraging and assisting people to evade the ban on foxhunting. Although he was later found not guilty on appeal, the damage to the hunting fraternity had been already done. The National Trust, one of the top landowners in England, stopped allowing trail hunts on their land, and the police, perhaps embarrassed for having believed the hunts’ lies for so long, began taking the evidence of hunt monitors and hunt sabs more seriously.
On 18th October 2022, Mark Pearson, the joint Master of the South Dorset Hunt, was found guilty of illegally hunting a fox with dogs. In November 2022, Daniel Cherriman, the huntsman of the South Shropshire Hunt from the West Midlands, pleaded guilty to illegal hunting. On 6th December 2022, Ollie Finnegan, the ex-huntsman of Leicestershire’s Quorn Hunt (one of the most “prestigious” foxhunts in England) pleaded guilty to breaching the Hunting Act 2004. And in 2022, when he appeared at Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court, East Essex Hunt terrierman Paul O’Shea admitted charges of hunting a wild mammal with a dog and causing unnecessary suffering to a protected animal.
I don’t believe that all this is because more hunts may be monitored now or that the level of evidence may have dramatically improved (although drones may be quite helpful now). I think it’s a change in the attitude of some of those the public expects should be prosecuting illegal hunting as part of their job. In any event, I think it’s an improvement in the enforcement of the hunting ban, and this is making some hunts give up (i.e., in March 2023, the Meynell and South Staffordshire Hunt disbanded).
What is the Future of Terrier Work?
Hopefully, all this improvement in enforcement will lead to more terriermen convictions. However, this will never be enough to abolish all terrier work, as it remains a legal activity, and those who practice it could always adhere to the law to carry on doing it — which is bad news for the wildlife and dogs they deal with.
To abolish terrier work we need to make it illegal. Ultimately, when the political landscape has turned favourable to wildlife (the Conservative party currently in power in the UK has been traditionally pro-hunting — although there is a group, the Conservatives Against Fox Hunting, that is against hunting) we should do more than just improve enforcement. We should strengthen the Hunting Act 2004, amending it to remove, among many other things, the exemption of terrier work.
When the Hunting Act 2004 was passed, it was better than the Scottish version passed two years earlier. Now that there is a new improved law that bans hunting in Scotland, the rest of Great Britain should follow suit. It should review the current law, identify its weaknesses, close all its loopholes, and strengthen it to the point that it becomes even better than the new Scottish law.
The Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Act 2023 has made some welcoming steps towards banning trail hunting, but an improved hunting ban in England and Wales should do better than that. Not only completely and explicitly banning trail hunting and avoiding any licensing system (as, unfortunately, Scotland has now), but also eliminating all the exemptions that have been exploited by the hunts. This means the “observation and research” exemption (exploited by stag hunts) but also the terrier work exemption (exploited by foxhunts) — when I was actively working on anti-hunting campaigning I even drafted all the amendments needed to do that.
Terriermen are the dark side of hunting, the thugs of rural Britain, and the bullies of the countryside. They are tough scary violent men — and women — who spread destruction where they go. They are bad news, and in the 21st century, they should no longer exist. Dogs should not be forced to work in any job that harms any other animal. Wildlife should not be persecuted for just trying to survive in an adverse environment humans have created when occupying their homes. Animals should not be set to fight each other under any circumstance. People in the countryside who are protecting wildlife should not be harassed, intimidated, or attacked by those who want to destroy it. You don’t have to be vegan like me to believe that all this is true.
Banning all terrier work in the British Isles is the way to go.