For a people who have seen more than their share of fighting, the anti-hunting lobby is drawing up new battle lines.
In 2021, the Northern Ireland Assembly rejected John Blair’s private member’s bill which sought to ban hunting wild animals with dogs.
The Stormont Assembly has been unable to sit since the May election. It stalled as the DUP as refused to re-enter power sharing institutions over issues around the Northern Ireland protocol.
Once the executive is functioning again, which everybody expects it will, Alliance Party MLA John Blair says he will return to the battle and put up his bill again.
Speaking at the Irish Game Fair earlier in the summer, the Countryside Alliance says the bill may be the start of a vendetta against the country way of life. The CA’s Gary McCartney adds that the fieldsports community cannot afford to be complacent, as the bill is a pledge in the Alliance Party’s manifesto
Gary says Blair is causing a divide between country folk and people in towns.
He says: “We live and work in the countryside. We understand how nature works.”
Gary is surprised that Blair, with his background in sport fishing, doesn’t have a better understanding of how the countryside works. He believes Blair would defend angling if it were attacked. Gary says: “He hasn’t engaged with the hunting community find out the facts for himself.
“So why would you attack on somebody if you don’t know the facts yourself? So, it’s very disappointing.”
Gary says the hunting community continues to pull together on the issue. He says: “We continue to strive to ensure that there’s a future for huntsmen and for hunting going on, for many years to come.”
Gary says that if Blair wants to bring back the bill it will be challenged head on.
The bill was defeated by 45 votes to 38 last December.
Jonathan Buckley, DUP MLA, voted against the bill. He says it’s still dangerous for Northern Ireland, Ireland, and the rest of the UK. He says that countrysports supporters must realise that there’s a bigger fight here ahead and it’s not just about hunting.
He says: “It’s where this bill could eventually lead to. Today it’s the huntsmen and the hound. Tomorrow it could be the gunman and the gun dog. The day after that, it could be the angler and the rod.”
He says countrysports enthusiasts right across the United Kingdom and Ireland have to come together, stand together and work together for what is achievable. He fears if that doesn’t happen there will be more difficult days ahead.
Kieran Young runs the dog show at the Irish Game Fair and is a member of the Irish Working Terrier Federation.
He says the bill could make criminals of all dog owners. If their animals chase rabbits, hares, foxes or even a grey squirrel whilst they are walking, shooting, checking their livestock or engaged in any other activity they will be committing an offence.
He says: “It makes things we’ve done all our lives and using the natural instincts of animals to control other predators’ criminal.”
He says Blair may disagree with the hunters but there’s a huge number of people who don’t.
Jim Shannon, DUP MP for Strangford, believes the rural community needs to unite behind defeating the bill.
The new bill is a battle that will need to be fought. He says: ”I think it’s one that we all have to be united to oppose. So, if you love shooting and I love shooting, I will protect hunting and I’ll protect fishing.”
He says shooters and hunters will need to look out for each other.
He says: “I’m always encouraged when the pressure’s on. I find that that makes us all a bit keener.”
Jonathan says country sports is apolitical and classless. He says: “There are people that enjoy countrysports in Northern Ireland and further afield that have political views and no political views. So, for me, that’s not an issue. It’s about pulling together like-minded people to ensure that we can preserve a noble profession and actually recognise man’s part within nature.”
Jonathan is a keen conservationist. He says “For those that try to whitewash that from the history books and say man has no part to play in the animals under their jurisdiction, they’re wrong. They simply don’t understand the countryside.”
Sinn Féin helped defeat the bill at Stormont, though the party has no formal position on foxhunting. Ronan Gorman, who runs Country Sports Ireland, says the assembly doesn’t want the bill as it failed at its second reading without a full debate.
Ronan says country groups will be more cohesive in fighting the bill. He says: “We will address things like talking at the right times and not the wrong times. And it means that we will be speaking to the people who make the decisions politically.”
He is confident that, as Blair’s bill was defeated last time it will be again. He says: “It was rejected at the first opportunity, which actually is the first time, a bill to restrict any kind of country sport was defeated at such an early stage.”
In Northern Ireland, there are 12 registered packs of hounds and around another 30 unregistered.
Patrick Headdon is a professional huntsman with the Killultagh Old Rock & Chichester Hunt, the oldest hunt on the island of Ireland.
He says there is sufficient support to defeat the bill if people stand up and are counted. He says: “If people sit back and wait, it will be too late. You have to you have to put yourself out and let people know that you’re not wrecking and ruining the countryside. Across the water in England when the ban came in there we were too late to stand up and be counted.”
He fears the same could happen in Northern Ireland if they don’t make voices heard.
There are voices of dissent within fieldsports. Angler Trevor Greene is unusual: he is a fly fisherman who is against hunting with hounds.
He is a member of the Association of Professional Game Angling Instructors. He says: “I think it’s unnecessary. I know that culling the fox population is the reason given for killing the animals. But I do think it could be done more humanely than with dogs.”
You will see from our film with John Blair that anglers are generally against the proposed ban.
Despite Trevor’s views, foxhunting is a northern and southern Irish cross-community triumph. John Blair, like Tony Blair before him, is trying to drive a wedge into rural communities.
Gary says country sports are non-political. He says: “Everybody from all walks and background just gets on with it. It’s one of the few opportunities in Northern Ireland where you can just set it to one side, leave your politics at the door and let’s go out and enjoy a day’s hunting or a day’s shooting or a day’s fishing.”
He says that, after the fun, people go back to their political divides. He says: “But while you’re carrying out that activity, one of the few that we have, we just get on with it.”
He says that Blair seeks to divide communities, which will stir up unwanted tensions.
Ronan says Blair is driven by extremists who see countrysports as pastimes for toffs to do at weekends. He says that this is a misconception.
He says: “John Blair is driven by that kind of prejudice from the outset
“He doesn’t understand what he’s trying to do. And if you don’t understand it, it’s always going to look silly. It’s not going to make sense. The community isn’t going to buy into it. And the politicians and Stormont seen through it at the first stage and rejected it because it was didn’t make sense to them either.”
The battle lines are drawn. The fieldsports community is preparing for the fight when it comes. They are determined not to allow John Blair’s bill to rob them of their way of life.