Country Ways

From Necessity to Nobility: The History of Fox Hunting in Britain

Fox hunting has been practised in various forms worldwide for hundreds of years. Indeed, the practice of using dogs with a keen sense of smell to track prey has roots tracing back to ancient Egypt and many Greek and Roman-influenced countries.

However, the specific custom of using trained hunting hounds—particularly scent hounds known for their acute olfactory abilities—to track, chase, and often kill a fox, while being followed by the Master of the Foxhounds and his team on foot and horseback, is thought to have originated from a Norfolk farmer’s attempt to catch a fox using farm dogs in 1534.



Historically, foxes were often viewed as pests by farmers and other landowners, who hunted the animals as a form of pest control. This practice was aimed at mitigating the foxes’ predation on livestock and also capitalising on their highly valued fur.

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However, it was not until the eighteenth century that fox hunting evolved into its most recognisable form and began to be appreciated as a sport in its own right, largely due to the decline of the UK’s deer population.

Gogerddan Hunt circa 1860

This decline in deer numbers, and consequently deer hunting or stalking as it is also referred to, stemmed from the enactment of the Inclosure Acts between 1750 and 1860, especially the Inclosure (Consolidation) Act of 1801.

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These laws were intended to streamline previous legislation concerning the enclosure of land. They led to the division of open fields and common lands—previously breeding grounds for many deer—into smaller, fenced-off plots to accommodate the growing demand for agricultural land.

Fox Hunting, Devon, England
Master of foxhounds leads the field from Powderham Castle in Devon, England – Owain Davies

Industrial Revolution

Simultaneously, the dawn of the Industrial Revolution introduced new roads, railways, and canals, which further diminished the extent of rural land in the United Kingdom. However, these improvements in transportation also made fox hunting more accessible and popular those residing in towns and cities who sought the lifestyle of the country gentleman.

Fox Hunting oldest hunt
England’s oldest hunt, Bilsdale Hunt, 1907.

With the reduction of available open land necessary for deer hunting, foxes and hares emerged as the new preferred quarry for hunters by the seventeenth century. Packs of hounds were specifically trained for this purpose. Among the oldest fox hunts in England, still active today, is the Bilsdale Hunt in Yorkshire, which was established by George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, in 1668.

History of Fox Hunting

Hunting has been an integral part of human activity in Britain since prehistoric times. Initially crucial for survival, it was central to hunter-gatherer societies before the advent of animal domestication and the establishment of agriculture.

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Evidence from the last ice age indicates that both humans and Neanderthals engaged in hunting large mammals like mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses. Techniques included driving these giant creatures over cliffs to their deaths, a practice for which archeological evidence has been unearthed at La Cotte de St Brelade on the island of Jersey.

La Cotte de St Brelade

The tradition of hunting with dogs dates back to Celtic Britain before the Roman conquest. The Celts utilised the Agassaei breed, known for its prowess in tracking and capturing game. The Romans, upon their arrival, introduced further sophistication to hunting practices.

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They brought with them their own breeds of hounds—Castorian and Fulpine—and introduced new species into the British ecosystem, enriching the variety of quarry available.

Organised Fox Hunts

By the 16th century, specific techniques to hunt foxes with hounds began to emerge, notably in Norfolk in 1534. Here, farmers used their dogs as a method of pest control, a practice that laid the groundwork for the organised fox hunts that would follow in subsequent centuries.

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The sport of fox hunting continued to gain popularity throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1753, the 18-year-old Hugo Meynell, often referred to as the father of modern foxhunting, began to breed hunting dogs for their speed and stamina as well as their keen scent at Quorndon Hall, his estate in North Leicestershire.

Fox Hunting Hounds
South Wold Hunt English foxhounds on morning exercise in Belchford, Lincolnshire.

The swiftness of his pack not only allowed for a more thrilling and prolonged hunt but also enabled the hunt to start later in the morning. This was immensely popular with the young gentlemen in his social circle, for whom late nights were a customary practice.

Significant Advancements

The 18th and 19th centuries saw significant advancements in hunting technology with the improvement of shotguns, making game shooting increasingly popular. This era also marked a shift towards more regulated hunting practices, with the introduction of game laws.

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In 1831, Parliament relaxed these laws, allowing more people to obtain permits to hunt rabbits, hares, and gamebirds. However, the removal of game without landowner permission remained classified as poaching—a serious offence that is still enforced today.

Foxhunting’s popularity surged further throughout the nineteenth century, particularly with the expansion of the Great British Railway, which facilitated rural access for a broader segment of the population.

Fox Hunting Hounds
A photograph of the old hunt meet at the Shepherd and Dog pub in 1946

Despite the sport being banned in Germany and other European countries from 1934 onwards, it remained a favoured pursuit in the United Kingdom well into the twentieth century. Indeed, a shortage of foxes in England led to the need for imports from France, Germany, Holland, and Sweden.

Impact of the Inclosure (Consolidation) Act of 1801

The Inclosure (Consolidation) Act of 1801, crucial in shaping modern agricultural practices in Britain, also had a profound impact on wildlife, particularly on the populations of foxes and deer. This act facilitated the widespread enclosure of common lands, fundamentally altering the landscape and the ecosystems within it.

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Impact on Deer: Deer, which thrived in the expansive, open environments provided by common lands, faced significant challenges as these areas were enclosed. Historically, deer benefited from the vast stretches of forest and open fields, which allowed them ample space to roam, graze, and escape predators, including humans.

The enclosure of these lands meant that large, continuous habitats were fragmented into smaller, isolated plots, predominantly focused on agricultural productivity.

Hunters Stalking a Deer,
circa 1857

This fragmentation reduced the availability of natural food sources and shelter, making deer more vulnerable to predators and harsh weather conditions. Additionally, the reduction in available habitat forced deer into closer proximity with human populations and agricultural activities, leading to increased human-wildlife conflict.

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Enclosed lands often led to deer venturing into cultivated areas in search of food, where they could damage crops, prompting landowners to hunt them more aggressively to protect their investments. This, combined with the loss of their natural habitat, contributed to a decline in deer populations over time.

Fox Hunting Popularity

Impact on Foxes: Conversely, the impact of the Inclosure Act on foxes was somewhat different. While the act also affected their natural habitats, foxes are more adaptable than deer and were able to exploit the changing landscape more effectively.

As traditional open hunting grounds turned into enclosed fields, foxes found new opportunities in terms of available food sources and shelter within the human-altered environments.

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However, this adaptability also led to increased conflicts with humans, particularly with the agricultural community. Foxes, known for their opportunistic feeding habits, began preying more frequently on poultry and other small farm animals, leading to their perception as pests.

Consequently, this heightened the farmers’ antipathy towards them and intensified efforts to control their numbers through hunting.

Fox Hunting Hounds
Fox Hunt between 1604 and 1679 by Paul de Vos

The changing landscape facilitated by the enclosure acts also influenced hunting practices. With the decline in deer populations, and as foxes became more visible within the enclosed landscapes, fox hunting gained popularity.

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It evolved from a necessity for pest control into a structured sport with its own set of cultural practices. This shift was significant in the rise of the fox as the principal quarry of organised hunts, a status that foxes still hold in the culture of hunting in Britain.

Pest control

In some countries, the fox is classified as vermin. Some farmers are concerned about the loss of their smaller livestock, while others view foxes as beneficial in controlling pests such as rabbits, voles, and other rodents that damage crops.

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A significant reason for the animosity towards foxes by pastoral farmers is their propensity for surplus killing, particularly of chickens; they may kill many but typically consume only one. Some opponents of fox hunting argue that if undisturbed, a fox will transport all the chickens it kills to a safer location for storage.

Fox catching fowl, 1874 by Adolf Mackeprang

Critics of fox hunting assert that it is unnecessary for controlling fox populations, arguing that the fox is not genuinely a pest species and that hunting has negligible impact on overall fox numbers.

They highlight that the number of foxes killed in hunts is dwarfed by those killed in traffic incidents and suggest that wildlife management objectives can be more effectively achieved through alternative methods such as lamping—using a bright light to stun the fox before shooting it with an appropriate firearm.

Foot and Mouth Disease

Scientific studies suggest that fox hunting does not significantly affect fox populations in Britain. This was illustrated during a one-year nationwide ban on fox hunting in 2001, instituted due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which showed no measurable impact on fox numbers in the studied areas. Before the UK’s hunting ban, hounds were responsible for around 6.3% of the annual deaths of 400,000 foxes.

Ascending from Fylingthorpe, North Yorkshire during the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease period.

Hunting groups claim to contribute to creating and maintaining good habitats for foxes and other wildlife. In the US, they have supported conservation legislation and placed land under conservation easements. However, anti-hunting campaigners point to the creation of artificial earths and the historical introduction of foxes by hunts as evidence that hunters do not genuinely consider foxes pests.

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It is also argued that hunting with dogs naturally targets the old, sick, and weak animals, as healthier and stronger foxes are more likely to escape, akin to natural selection. Conversely, it is contended that hunting cannot effectively target older foxes, given the natural annual mortality rate of foxes is around 65%.

The Ratcatcher

The term “Ratcatcher” refers to the informal attire worn during the early part of the fox hunting season, typically in autumn. It primarily consists of a tweed jacket paired with tan breeches. Individual hunting clubs may also specify additional items of clothing as part of this “uniform.”

John Wheeldon The Rat Catcher. Better known as John Gaunt, circa late 1800s. What’s interesting is that he trained foxes to help him catch rats, and he believed they were better at it than dogs because they could hold more rats in their mouths at once.

The origin of the term is thought to be linked to the attire worn by the “ratcatcher” or “terrier man”, who was likely a crofter and followed the hunt across his land. When a fox took refuge underground, the terrier man would deploy his terrier into the covert to dispatch the fox.

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In Victorian England, the Rat Catcher was a professional engaged in catching rats as a form of pest control, employing terrier dogs to assist in this task. This functional use of terriers likely led to the “terrier man” involved in hunts being commonly referred to as a “ratcatcher.”

Fox Hunting Hounds
The Rat-Catcher and his Dogs
exhibited 1824, Thomas Woodward

The Tate Museum houses a painting titled The Rat-Catcher and his Dogs, exhibited in 1824, which depicts the typical dress of a village ratcatcher during the first half of the 19th century. This painting underscores the resemblance between the traditional ratcatcher’s outfit and the attire adopted for fox hunting.

Fox Hunting Today

Today, foxhunting in the UK is perhaps better known for the contentious views held by both its proponents and opponents. The debate between hunters and anti-hunting campaigners, who consider the sport to be cruel and unnecessary, eventually prompted a Government inquiry in December 1999 into hunting with dogs, named the Burns Inquiry after the retired civil servant Lord Burns, who chaired the investigation.

Anti Fox Hunting Protest
Anti-hunt demonstrators outside the Bull Hotel, Bridport, England at the traditional Boxing-day hunt in 1975.

The turning point came in November 2004 when the Hunting Act was passed by Parliament, coming into effect in February 2005. This legislation banned the hunting of foxes with dogs in England and Wales, a similar ban having been implemented in Scotland in 2002 under the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act.

The law was introduced in response to ethical concerns about animal welfare and the belief that hunting with hounds was a cruel and unnecessary practice.

Issue of Fox Hunting Remains

Despite these prohibitions, fox hunting has not disappeared entirely from the British landscape. Instead, it has adapted to comply with the new legal framework. Traditional hunts have transformed into “trail” or “drag” hunting, where hounds follow an artificially laid scent rather than a live fox. This method is designed to preserve the cultural heritage and the ceremonial aspects of the hunt without involving the pursuit and killing of a fox.

Fox Hunting Hounds
Buccleuch Foxhounds – Walter Baxter. The hunt was founded in 1827 by the 5th Duke of Buccleuch. Following the hunting ban in 2002, foxes have to be flushed to guns in accordance with a protocol recognised by the police and landowners.

Moreover, the Hunting Act allows for the flushing out of foxes using no more than two dogs to enable the shooting of foxes for pest control purposes, under strict conditions. This provision is often scrutinised and continues to be a topic of legal and ethical debate.

The issue of fox hunting remains a polarising one in the UK, with ongoing debates between those who see it as an important rural tradition and those who advocate for animal rights. Significant public interest and media attention continue to surround the hunts, especially on Boxing Day, which traditionally sees one of the largest turnouts of both participants and protesters.

Anti Fox Hunting Activist
Animal rights activist with a hand reared fox cub.

Public opinion on fox hunting tends to be divided, with many people in rural communities supporting the practice, while urban populations are generally more opposed.