By Harry Mottram: For as long as anyone can remember there have been fox hunting meetings on Boxing Day across villages and towns across the country. In 2004 the field sport or blood sport – depending on your opinion – was drastically curtailed by the Hunting Act under Tony Blair’s Labour administration. The introduction of the legislation was surrounded in controversy – with some Tory MPs supporting the bill with others against it along with the Countryside Alliance movement – but with a large majority Labour was able to pass the legislation. And it is true that public opinion then and now supported the changes with many wanting a complete ban – well that could now happen.

In an interview in The Times today, (February 19, 2024) the Labour Party’s Steve Reed, the shadow environment secretary, said the party would close “loopholes” in the existing ban that allow some types of hunting to go on, to cut down on situations where hunts unintentionally kill pets and livestock and where abuses take place. He said that a new Labour administration – if it wins the next election – would alter the 2004 Hunting Act, to ban trail and drag hunting (there’s a slight difference) – which would clearly affect the hunt in Axbridge. Whether it would end traditional meets such as the one on Boxing Day in the town is uncertain.

He is reported to have said in the article: “People have seen the images of packs of hounds getting into private back gardens, killing cats, ripping flocks apart. There’s not a majority in any part of the country that wants to see that continue. The hunting ban was passed under the last Labour government and it has been maintained under this Conservative government. So that seems fairly settled to me. But there are loopholes in it, drag hunting, for instance, that allow hunting to continue, and foxes – and indeed domestic cats and other mammals – are still getting killed as a result of those loopholes and we will close those loopholes.”

Under the Conservative Government of Boris Johnson there was a proposal to have a free vote in parliament on whether to roll back the 2004 law – but in the end it didn’t happen. Which perhaps is a reflection on the make-up of the House of Commons and the way it has changed with fewer so-called gentlemen farmers or knights of the shires – but more urban based professional politicians.

The 2004 bill allowed drag hunting and trail hunting and the hunting of foxes with dogs – but only to flush out a fox which has then to be shot – although with various conditions with the main one being only two dogs are used to ‘flush out’ the fox. Those who strongly opposed the hunting of foxes with dogs pointed out that a pack of hounds chasing after the scent of a fox is impossible to keep under control – and there have been a number of cases since the law came into effect of livestock, cats, pet dogs and other pets as well as other wild mammals being killed by the excited hounds. By their breeding fox hounds and hunting dogs in general are natural hunters – so it is not surprising.

In Axbridge in recent times the hunt has been a local harriers hunt group whose hounds followed a scent laid down across fields and bridleways on land agreed by the owners for the hunt to use. The Square filled with horses and hounds does have a visual appeal – a scene from a bygone age perhaps which is why it has been part of the Axbridge Pageant – and one undeniably enjoyed by many people as the meet gathers.

The hunt (and all hunts) insist the pack is kept under control at all times, and they are maintaining a tradition that is both popular and social – as for many equestrians the hunt is a time to meet up with friends. It’s also a time to test the skills of the riders who enjoy what is essentially an organised hack.

The Countryside Alliance are aware of the danger to traditional hunts and have begun lobbying ahead of the expected election this year and have launched a petition which supporters can sign on their website.

In national surveys the majority of people think fox hunting and some other blood sports should be banned completely. It’s barbaric, sends all the wrong messages about rural life and perpetuates the ‘us and them’ and ‘town v country’ negative social stereotypes. Defenders will point to the attacks foxes carry out on farm geese, ducks and hens – and the horrors of such attacks have on the owners. Whatever happens hardened opinions are unlikely to change.

Of course, it all depends whether Labour can win the election this year and more to the point if they stick to the plan outlined by Steve Reed to change the 2004 Hunting Act, as cynics will point to the Labour Party down playing or dropping some of their policies as the election nears.

The question remains could the hunt survive the changes planned? Since 2004 the number of hunts has declined and there have been prosecutions of hunts that have broken the law. It seems possible in that case that this Boxing Day in 2024 could be the last meeting in Axbridge Square – bringing joy to many – especially those who demonstrated their opposition to the hunt in 2023 – but anger from hunting fans who see another rural tradition disappearing.

Personally I see it as a generational and social evolution change – just as bull bating in the town was once popular and the cock fighting a past time so hunting seems eventually destined for the history books. Is it for the better? Well perhaps we should ask the fox.

Details of the current law can be seen at

Axbridge News is edited by Harry Mottram and is published for the interest of himself and fellow residents.

Harry is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc