All hunts will have a different history, some much more new than others, some having split from bigger hunts and others being an amalgamation of hunts, the Old Surrey and Burstow and West Kent for example. In general, however, hunting in its conventional form of riding on horseback with a pack of hounds chasing live quarry developed in the late 18th century.
Hunting has occurred in different forms for hundreds of years, some being the mere following of a foxes’ trail back to its earth, and dogs being used for tracking prey due to their keen sense of smell has gone on for a very long time, some say it is even traced back to Ancient Egypt. The Romans had packs of dogs and brought quarry like brown hare and deer to hunt. In Norman England deer and boar were hunted exclusively by the Royal family and their guests. There was an incident from 1534 in which a Norfolk farmer attempted to catch a fox using farm dogs – did this inspire more modern-day foxhunting? Foxes have been regarded by some as vermin for many years with farmers and other landowners killing them as a form of pest control and also for their fur.
In the 18th century, the deer population had declined and foxhunting was considered a sport in its own right. The deer population partially declined due to the Inclosure Acts, meaning land was separated off, reducing the amount of open land where many deer choose to meet and mate. Packs of hounds were specifically trained to hunt foxes and hares. The Industrial Revolution changed the geography of the land, making deer hunting harder and foxhunting became more common.
The hunt thought to be the oldest of Britain’s foxhunts is the Bilsdale Hunt in Yorkshire, established by George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham in 1668. In the 1700s, an 18-year-old Hugo Meynell, often called the father of modern foxhunting, began to breed hunting dogs for their speed, stamina and keen scent. These days, the Duke of Beaufort’s Hunt is one of the largest and most recognised hunts.
In the early days, some hunts were called off before a kill and foxes were even imported at times from other parts of Europe (France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden) due to needing more fox numbers. Foxhunting continued to grow in popularity throughout the nineteenth century, particularly because of the ‘Great British Railway’ which provided rural access to the masses. Germany and other European countries banned foxhunting from 1934 onwards, though foxhunting in the United Kingdom remained legal until 2005 (the Hunting Act was written in 2004 and came into force the following spring).
The debate between hunters and anti-hunting campaigners these days eventually led to a Government inquiry in December 1999 into hunting with dogs, named the Burns Inquiry. It noted that hunting with dogs “seriously compromises” the welfare of the foxes, but did not categorically state whether or not hunting should be permanently banned. As a result, the Government introduced an ‘options bill’, so that each House of Parliament could decide on whether the sport should be banned or subject to licensed hunting or self-regulation. The House of Commons voted to ban the sport, the House of Lords voted for self-regulation. Hunting with dogs was banned in Scotland in 2002, England and Wales from 2005 but is still practised in similar forms in a number of other countries, including the US, Ireland and Australia.
Hunting has still had an effect on the UK – for instance the Parliamentary name “Chief Whip”, which is given to the MP whose role it is to keep the Prime Minister informed of any back bench revolts and general party opinions and to ensure party members toe the party line, refers to the role of the “Whipper-in”, who has the responsibility of keeping the hounds in check during a hunt.
The Masters of Foxhounds Association (MFHA) and the Association of Masters of Harriers and Beagles (AMHB) represent various hunts across the country, the MFHA representing around 176 hunts in England and Wales and a further 10 in Scotland. The AMHB represents 22 packs of harriers and 62 packs of beagles in the UK and 4 packs of beagles overseas. The Masters of Draghounds and Bloodhounds Association represents packs which do not chase live quarry, but instead chase a scent across a predetermined route (draghounds) or chase the smell of a human runner (bloodhounds). Not all hunts are registered with these organisations, however, and there are a number of unregistered packs operating around the UK.
This information was gleaned from various sources, The Guardian, Historic UK website, the Masters of Foxhounds Association, the League Against Cruel Sports and the Humanitarian League.