A new scientific study has shown that a pack of hounds is more effective – and more beneficial in terms of fox welfare – at flushing foxes to guns than a pair. Authors Dr. Jeremy Naylor and Jack Knott explain their findings.

We were approached by the Federation of Welsh Farmers’ Packs (FWFP) in 2012 to help explore their members’ views that farmers across Wales are being unfairly affected by the restrictions to control foxes under the 2004 Hunting Act. As it stands the law in Wales, and England, allows for only a pair of hounds to be used to flush foxes to a waiting line of guns, meanwhile Scottish farmers are legally allowed to use a pack of hounds. It was the Federation’s view that this gave Scottish upland farmers a reasonable means to protect their livestock and that they were being denied this by the prejudicial legislation applied in Wales and England.

Whilst scoping the project it was clear that those on the ground and invovled with wildlife management believed that a pair of hounds was next to useless in trying to flush foxes to guns. However, when writing the study’s methodology, we were adamant that we should prepare for the unexpected. Our priorities were not to answer the questions surrounding the requirement for wildlife management or the politics of hunting, instead they were simply to address the efficiency of the two differing pieces of legislation, that of a pack versus a pair of hounds.

The study was drawn up using scientifically valid methodology such that the findings would provide affirmative conclusions on the efficiency of the different laws in the UK and present the first peer reviewed research on fox hunting before or after the ban. The balanced nature of the study meant the same coverts had to be hunted with both a pack and a pair of hounds. The crossover design meant that for half the coverts the pack drew first and after a set number of days the pair drew the same covert, for the other half of coverts the pair went first followed by the pack. Finally, the order was randomised such that the opportunity for ordering bias was minimised.

Throughout the 2012/2013 hunting season we took recordings from five foxhound packs – Berwickshire, Duke of Buccleuch, Jedforest, Lauderdale and Liddesdale. The key to any research is to collect as much information and data as possible and with the assistance of these packs we managed to take recordings on up to six days a week.

The recordings that we collected included: the time it took the hounds to hunt a covert; the time taken for the first fox to be flushed out of the covert to the waiting line of guns; the time taken for the hounds to start speaking; and finally, the time taken between the hounds speaking and the fox being flushed from the covert. Recordings were taken no matter the weather, and a wet and cold winter meant there were plenty of long,  sodden days on foot. We set out to keep the study’s design both simple to follow and scientifically robust. The premise was certainly kept simple but to make it trustworthy we took into consideration measurements that could have affected the study from day to day. Such variables measured included date, temperature records, the time lag between the repeat studies, ground cover and covert size.

Taking into consideration all the variables, the results were impressively clear cut. The pair of hounds flushed 56% fewer foxes than the pack, meaning the pack flushed nearly twice as many foxes from the same coverts as the pair of hounds. Furthermore, the average time taken to flush the fox for a pack of hounds was 9.37 minutes compared to 21.67 minutes by a pair. In layman’s terms the pack of hounds flushed more foxes and did so faster than the pair of hounds.

The Burns Inquiry (the Government’s own inquiry into hunting) in the early 2000’s considered the duration of “the chase” as one of the key indices that might reflect a compromise to fox welfare during hunting. Within the study we utilised the time from the hounds starting to vocalize to a fox being flushed as an index of active pursuit, otherwise known as the chase. The results were significantly conclusive: a pack of hounds flushed foxes to the guns considerably more rapidly than a pair. If the chase is indeed linked to animal welfare, then the pack of hounds reduces the burden on the fox before it is dispatched in comparison to the pair.

Through a rigorous study lasting a full hunting season, and countless hours of statistical analysis and report writing, we showed that the Scottish legislation is more efficient, and potentially beneficial in terms of welfare, at controlling foxes than the English and Welsh legislation. We have been able to provide scientific observations to confirm what was seemingly obvious to those on the ground. In May 2018 the study was peer reviewed and accepted as a paper in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. The study now stands alone as the only peer reviewed research into the Hunting Act, any future decisions will have to take consideration of our findings.

For those few who spend hours debating the perfect scent conditions for hounds, this study also revealed some interesting statistically significant data. According to our research an increase in wind speed will see fewer foxes being flushed, active pursuit will be increased by more rainfall and decrease in warmer temperatures.

We are entirely indebted to the hunts that allowed us to accompany on their season. Whilst this research was solely focused on the pitfalls of the English and Welsh legislation, the Scottish hunting community welcomed us with open arms. Whilst wishing to steer clear of the politics of hunting – as scientists we wish to see legislation following the evidence, not public opinion or anger – this study has provided a multitude of evidence that will objectively inform the political debate.

To read the full study, visit here.