The decades-long row over hunting on National Trust land on Exmoor has taken a new twist after a prominent fox hunt was banned by Trust bosses for more than a month for “a significant number of breaches” of its licence.
The Minehead Harriers was told it would not be allowed on the vast National Trust-owned Holnicote Estate in west Somerset in January following repeated complaints that the hunt was illegally hunting.
The hunt’s suspension has lasted more than three weeks, and will continue into March unless the hunt agree to a new ‘code of practice’ for meets is agreed with the Trust.
The row began last month when the National Trust took the unprecedented step of suspending the licence it issued to allow the Minehead Harriers on its land at Holnicote.
The question of whether the National Trust should allow hunts on its land in Somerset became a bitter dispute throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, in what was a precursor to the entire hunting debate and eventual ban.
Since that ban in 2005, hunts claim to be legally trail hunting and the fox hunts and stag hunts that operate on Exmoor can obtain licences to go onto National Trust land.
But this season the National Trust said it had received many complaints and “have ourselves seen” a significant number of breaches of the licence agreement.
The anti-hunt Somerset Saboteurs group claimed those breaches included illegally hunting foxes, among other transgressions.
“Breaches have included, illegal hunting (chasing and killing a fox, digging out on trust land), blocking public roads and riding quads through SSSIs and nature reserves, and refusing to give information on meets when asked by members of the public,” said a spokesman for the sabs’ group.
“We believe the National Trust, locally, is to be congratulated on finally taking action against blatant illegal hunting, something which is often ignored by the police and landowners – be they private, public, charities or trusts – in particular the Forestry Commission and National Trust in other areas have failed to act.
“We will be only too pleased to look out for any breaches that may occur should the Minehead Harriers regain their licence. No one wants to stop a fun day out as long as all animals are protected from cruelty,” he added.
The National Trust confirmed it was not only third-party complaints but their own staff that witnessed breaches of the licence.
A Trust spokeswoman said: “We can confirm that we have suspended the annual licence, which would have run to March, of the Minehead Harriers at Holnicote.
“We have been made aware of, and have ourselves seen a significant number of breaches of the terms of the licence agreement,” she added.
The Harriers and the National Trust met on Thursday, and yesterday gave differing versions of how that meeting went.
“The Masters and Chairman of the Minehead Harriers had a very productive meeting with the National Trust,” said a spokeswoman for the hunt.
“An agreement was reached to lift the suspension of the licence following the hunt resolving to take steps to address the administrative issues that had led to concern. It was made clear by the National Trust that they were highly supportive of the lawful trail hunting that the Harriers engage in as part of the National Trust’s mission to preserve the rural traditions of the South West.
“The hunt promised to take steps to improve communication with the trust and to publish a code of practice to provide guidance to its followers and supporters.
“The National Trust recognised the problems the hunt faces from pressure groups determined to cause trouble for lawful hunting in the area.
“The hunt appreciates the difficult job that the National Trust has to do in preserving and maintaining their land for the benefit of the public.
“The Minehead Harriers look forward to a long and productive association with the National Trust,” she added.
But the National Trust said it was not quite like that, and there was no guarantee the suspension would be lifted.
“We have agreed to lift the suspension, potentially from March 1 for the last month of the season, provided we have evidence that a mutually agreed code of practice has been developed and communicated to the Hunt’s members and followers.
“A number of other conditions we have discussed with the Hunt will also need to be met,” she added.