Dog owners who pit their animals in fights with foxes and badgers are increasingly boasting about the practice on social media.
An investigation uncovered more than 1,400 images of dogs whose owners boast they have been used in illegal fights pitted against the wild animals.
The images, mostly found on Facebook, show the dogs – mainly terriers – covered in blood with, wounds, scratches and scars to their faces.
The dog owners unleash their pets in badger setts or foxholes for sport.
The League Against Cruel Sports, the anti-fox hunting group, gathered the images after being contacted by members of the public on its Crimewatch phone line.
It said calls to its phone line reporting ‘underground hunting’ had doubled in the last year.
The group claims that some of the dog owners are involved as ‘terrier men’ for fox hunters – specialists who are used by hunts to help dig out the fox when it goes to ground.
And not all those involved are men – at least one woman – is from Northern Ireland.
The report states: ‘Whilst terrier work itself is not a new phenomenon, this research has revealed the increasing popularity of social media to boast about it and share photographic images.’
Mark Randell, Director of Operations at the League Against Cruel Sports, said ‘As a dog lover and someone who grew up in the countryside, I’m shocked whenever I see the horrific injuries inflicted on these poor dogs. Terriers will dig and chase, we know that, but they are being forced into pitch battles with foxes and badgers by their owners.
‘There’s a cruelty here that is despicable. These people are exploiting the brave and loyal nature of these dogs for their own purpose or gruesome entertainment. I believe people will be shocked to know about this shabby dark side behind the glossy red coats of the fox hunts.’
Fox hunters call in terrier men during a fox hunt when the fox has escaped into a hole or badger sett.
Typical breeds used are Jack Russells, Lakeland, Bedlington, Plummer and Fell terriers – smaller than the the ‘running dogs’ used in fox hunting.
The League alleges the terrier men then send their dogs into the tunnel wearing an electronic locator collar.
Once the dog is suspected to have found its quarry, the terrier man digs down to where the dog is and catches the fox.
These encounters can lead to protracted fights, sometimes to the death. The terrier men are also known to practise underground hunting as a cruel ‘sport’ in its own right.
The comments on social media show that the dog owners take pride in the length of time their dogs are in the fight, or the number of injuries they sustain.
Underground hunting is illegal in England and Wales under the Hunting Act 2004. An exception is when it is carried out to protect game birds which will later be shot – but the person must carry with them written permission and intend to shoot the fox as soon as possible after it has been flushed from under the ground.
A similar exemption applies in Scotland.
Mr Randell said: ‘We’re calling for a full ban on underground hunting.
‘Whether it is carried out as part of a fox hunt or by groups of lads out for a bit of ‘fun’, this is a countryside tradition which should bring shame and embarrassment on all those concerned.
‘If you ask people in this country if they are opposed to dog fighting, then virtually 100% will say yes.
‘This is no different. Pitching one animal against another is inhumane and something that belongs to the past, not the present, whatever the so-called justification.’
Investigators working for the League Against Cruel Sports viewed thousands of images between September 2014 and August 2015.
From these, 1,400 images of interest were identified and 212 suspects prioritised.
Of these, 46 intelligence reports have been forward to the RSPCA and police for potential enforcement action and some investigations are currently ongoing.
The League has made 57 complaints to social media platforms in relation to posted material and this has resulted in 48 pages being removed. It should be noted that this action is only undertaken when nothing of evidential value is found and it usually results in users creating new accounts.
In July this year three ‘terrier men’ from Wiltshire were convicted of animal cruelty after they were caught with a fox in a bag.
The League Against Cruel Sports is calling for ‘underground hunting’ to be specifically banned.
Henry Smith, Conservative MP for Crawley and Co-Chair of the All-Party Group on Animal Welfare said: ‘Animal lovers will be shocked to hear about this mistreatment of dogs, which is an utter betrayal of the loyalty and courage of these animals.
‘There is no justification for sending one animal down a hole to fight with another – dog fighting is banned in this country and this is no different.
‘I’m supporting the League Against Cruel Sports’ call for a complete ban on this practice, whether it be done in connection with fox hunting or simply as some unpleasant recreational hobby. It is appalling that this still goes on.’
Alan Hill, 56, James Smith, 22, and 21-year-old Jack Hudd, a soldier based in Wiltshire were linked by their Facebook posts to the Ross Harriers Hunt, a local hunting group -– although the links to Foxhunting were denied by the Countryside Alliance who acted as spokesmen for the Ross Harriers Hunt.
The three were fined £165 each for the hunting offence, while Hill was fined the same amount for having the fox in a bag. All three were also ordered to pay £500 towards prosecution costs.