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Using dogs to hunt small mammals—most notably foxes, who are often considered “pests”—has been an unfortunate part of British society for hundreds of years. As red-coated hunters on horseback follow, trained dogs with a keen sense of smell chase the scent of a fox through the countryside until they catch and kill their prey. A law banning the blood sport, known as the Hunting Act, came into force in February of 2005, making it illegal to hunt foxes, hares, minks, and deer with hounds in England and Wales. (A similar ban had been passed in Scotland in 2002.)

But many—many—hunters refuse to give up on this cruel activity and have sought loopholes and other means to continue. One such solution was their creation of a sort of hybrid pastime called “trail hunting,” in which the dogs and hunters ostensibly only follow a scent (often fox urine) laid by a hunt enthusiast, and no prey animal is killed. At least that’s how it works in theory. Dogs don’t often follow the rules, however, and they frequently come upon foxes and chase and kill them. When this happens, the hunt organizers inevitably call it “an accident.”

Foxes suffer horrible deaths when they are caught by the dogs.

Working to keep the hunters honest—and animals alive—are campaigners who go into the countryside armed with video cameras to closely monitor and even disrupt the hunts, something they’ve been doing since long before the Hunting Act. It’s a form of direct action known as hunt sabotage, and the activists engaged in it are known as hunt saboteurs (or simply hunt sabs). The hunt sabs also sometimes use horns to confuse the dogs and Citronella spray to prevent them from getting onto the scent of the animals.

I recently spoke with Alfie Moon of the Hunt Saboteurs Association (HSA), one of the most active groups in the UK, about his work as a hunt sab.

Can you give us a little information on your background? How long have you been an activist and how did you get started?

I have been an activist for as long as I can remember. My mum and sisters were anti-apartheid campaigners. I remember putting ‘Don’t Buy Apartheid’ stickers on apples in supermarkets when I was a kid! By the time I was in my teens, I was heavily into CND [campaign for nuclear disarmament] and anti-racist stuff.

Do you remember the first time you went out hunt sabbing? What was your experience like?

I started sabbing when I was about 17 after running into a hunt on a country lane when I was out on my bike. I must have known that hunting existed, but it wasn’t high on my list of priorities until I met the arrogant bastards for the first time. I wasn’t part of any organised group, but I continued to disrupt hunts—probably to no real effect—every time I came across them. In 1996 I was introduced to the Croydon sab group. I was quickly shown how to effectively disrupt a hunt. The group was very welcoming, and I am still friends with many of them after all this time. I have sabbed almost every weekend since then.

What impact does hunt sabbing have on hunting? Is it a successful model of activism?

Hunt sabotage is very effective. In the days before the Hunting Act, hunts would kill four to six foxes every time they went out un-sabbed. If sabs were present, kills were rare. Since the Act, sabbed hunts have to be extremely cautious and many are now genuinely trail hunting when sabs are present. Hunt sabotage helped to keep hunting in the news, and undoubtedly contributed to the legislation.

Are there any special skills or physical abilities required to be a hunt saboteur?

Sabs close in on hunters and hounds. Photo courtesy of the Hunt Saboteurs Association.

There are many desirable skills for a hunt saboteur. Understanding how the hunt operates is crucial to disrupting it. It helps if you can run like the wind, navigate, and give clear, concise radio messages, and being able to blow a hunting horn correctly is a massive bonus. Not every sab will have all of the necessary skills, but effective teamwork overcomes that problem.

What’s a hunting horn?

The hunting horn is a small musical instrument used by the Huntsman to give instructions to the hounds. Different tunes have different meanings. Sabs learn to play the horn, usually blowing the ‘come back’ when hounds are chasing something. Sabs also use homemade whips to make a noise that tells the hounds they are doing the wrong thing when they are after live quarry. [Here’s a quick demonstration of the hunting horn.]

Besides the hunting horn, what are some of the tools and equipment hunt sabs use?

The key pieces of equipment for hunt sabs are a video camera, phone, GPS, OS [ordnance survey] map, gizmo [a loudspeaker playing a recording of hounds barking excitedly as the follow a scent], and Citronella spray.

What do you do with the video you record of the hunts?

The video cameras are mainly a deterrent, both against illegal hunting and hunt violence. They don’t always work! Unfortunately, the Hunting Act is so badly worded that the level of proof required for a conviction is incredibly high. Sabs will review video footage of the day and decide if it is worth passing to the authorities, but the police and CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] usually claim there is insufficient evidence for a prosecution. Most of the more damning sab video therefore ends up on social media, where, I suspect, we are predominantly preaching to the converted!

What is your best advice for activists who would like to participate in hunt sabs?

My advice to anyone who wants to become a sab is to get in touch with their local group, get out there, and see how it goes. Sabbing isn’t for everyone, but until you try it, you can’t know.

What keeps you going after all your years of activism?

What keeps me going after more than 30 years of activism is this quote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

 

Note: There is an HSA branch in the United States, where plenty of hunting activity is ripe for disruption. Click here for information.

You will find more information about hunt sabbing and many other forms of activism in the new, expanded edition of Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism, to be published in November.

 

 

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