Draconian rules govern trail-hunting across all the National Trust’s property
Measures appeared on charity’s website on Tuesday this week without warning
According to the country sports lobby, they will render almost all trail hunting — a perfectly legal pursuit — impossible on Trust land
For more than a century, Roger Westmoreland and his ancestors have carved a living from the Troutbeck Valley, where drystone walls criss-cross the purple fells in a breathtaking part of the Lake District.
The 78-year-old hill farmer’s wife, Doreen, grew up raising sheep and cattle on a farm leased from Beatrix Potter, who lived near by and once employed her uncle Bill as a shepherd.
When the author died in 1943, she left much of the valley to the National Trust. Today, the charity leases roughly 300 acres of Troutbeck to Roger’s daughter, Helen.
Upland life is tough, with three generations, including Helen’s children, working side by side 365 days a year to keep the farm going. But while the financial returns are modest, their existence has its own rewards.
One has traditionally come every weekend from September until April, when they join dozens of neighbours following the Coniston Foxhounds, who have hunted the land since the early 1800s.
After the Blair government banned hunting in 2005, the pack continued to operate legally, pursuing an artificial trail created by dragging a rag soaked in fox’s urine. Like all members, the Westmorelands followed on foot.
But this year, the Coniston Foxhounds are unlikely to be visiting Troutbeck Valley. In fact, they may struggle to operate at all.
To blame are a set of draconian new rules governing trail-hunting across all the National Trust’s roughly 2,500 square miles of England and Wales, including almost all the Coniston’s territory.
The measures appeared on the charity’s website on Tuesday this week without warning, to the unbridled delight of animal rights activists.
According to the country sports lobby, they will render almost all trail hunting — a perfectly legal pursuit — impossible on Trust land.
‘These rules represent a betrayal, simple as that,’ is how Roger Westmoreland puts it. ‘They are a betrayal of everything the National Trust is supposed to stand for.
‘They show it doesn’t understand the countryside, doesn’t understand farming and couldn’t care less about rural people and their traditions. They are trying to impose their petty urban values. It’s an outrage.’
Mr Westmoreland also believes the new rules represent an affront to Beatrix Potter.
For the creator of Mr Tod the fox was a keen follower of the Coniston (and a supporter of foxhunting) who stipulated in her will that the National Trust must always allow hunting to continue on her estates.
‘My family and my wife’s family, the Hudsons, have been in this valley for over 100 years. So has the hunt,’ says Mr Westmoreland.
‘It’s a community thing which binds people together. Beatrix Potter knew that, and that’s why she protected it in her will. She would be horrified at what has happened this week.’
And the Westmorelands are not the only National Trust tenants outraged by what they see as its attack on their heritage.
A group of their Cumbrian peers this week sent a forthright letter to the Trust expressing shock and concern at the ‘completely inappropriate’ new policy.
The angry document accuses the charity of having shown ‘no duty of care whatsoever’ to its tenants and their families.
It argues that one particular new rule, according to which the Trust will publish online details of all farming tenants who allow trail-hunting on their land, will expose them to serious threats from animal rights extremists.
Written on Tuesday, just hours after the new hunting regulations were quietly added to the Trust’s website, the letter complains: ‘No one from the NT at a local or national level has been in contact with us to discuss such changes and the possible impact on us, our families and the local community.’
The letter originally attracted 36 signatories but by last night scores more Lake District tenants were understood to have pledged support for it.
Each of the farmers (who between them lease tens of thousands of acres) has threatened that, if the Trust does not reverse its new measures, they will deliberately flout them.
‘As far as we are concerned, as long as they continue to operate within the law, our local hunts will continue to be welcome on our farms,’ they say.
All of which leaves one of Britain’s largest charities on the brink of open warfare — against the very people who manage its most precious asset.
It is an extraordinary state of affairs that raises serious questions about the competence, judgment and integrity of the lofty collection of quangocrats and careerists who run the charity.
Yet at this once-loved bastion of British heritage — which, with five million members, is Britain’s biggest membership organisation after the AA — the latest self-inflicted crisis follows a depressingly familiar pattern.
Barely a month seems to go by without the Trust’s metropolitan rulers managing to engineer another PR disaster.
Yesterday it was reported in The Times that the NT stands accused of profiteering after hundreds of leasehold tenants were told they face ground rent increases of up to 10,000 per cent.
And only a few weeks ago, dozens of unpaid guides at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk staged a revolt after being ordered to wear rainbow-coloured lanyards and badges to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of homosexuality.
Their objection was compounded by a decision to ‘out’ Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, an intensely private poet and historian who donated the 17th-century property to the Trust after his death in 1969.
His alleged homosexuality was detailed in a five-minute film played to visitors and narrated by Stephen Fry.
Mutiny was averted only after Dame Helen Ghosh, the Trust’s Left-wing chief executive, agreed to make the wearing of lanyards (introduced as part of a trendy nationwide campaign called ‘Prejudice and Pride’) voluntary.
Ghosh, who earns around £185,000 a year, was also responsible for the decision this year to remove the word ‘Easter’ from egg hunts at several National Trust properties, rebranding them ‘Cadbury’s Egg Hunts’ as part of a lucrative sponsorship deal.
That sparked criticism not just from religious leaders but from Theresa May, who declared: ‘What the National Trust is doing is, frankly, ridiculous.’
A former civil servant whose career blossomed under New Labour, Dame Helen was appointed to replace Dame Fiona Reynolds (who previously ran the Cabinet Office’s women’s unit) in 2012.
Since then, she has managed to upset the Trust’s traditionalists regularly, presiding over a culture of endless modernisation in which Blairite values are sacrosanct.
Under her stewardship, opponents say, properties have simultaneously dumbed down and commercialised.
Believing that there is ‘so much stuff’ in old houses, Dame Helen once chose to replace antique furniture with bean-bags at Ickworth House in Suffolk.
On another occasion she declared wind farms beautiful and described global warming as ‘the single largest threat to our conservation work’. Lately, her Trust has been making stark pronouncements about Brexit.
This approach has over the years met with short shrift from many of the Trust’s 60,000 volunteers, who manage its 350 properties. But it delights the liberal Establishment and has done wonders for Dame Helen’s career prospects.
Next year, she will duly move to a new job as Master of Balliol College in Oxford, the city where she lives with husband Peter, an academic.
The search for a suitably PC replacement is under way. Meanwhile, her legacy was artfully summed up at the weekend by Sir Roy Strong, former director of the V&A museum, who called the Trust’s leadership ‘the Blair government in exile’ — a ‘Left-leaning’ cabal obsessed with ‘ticking the boxes of the disabled, the aged, LGBT and ethnic communities and the rest of it’.
This culture, now prevalent in so many of our institutions, is, of course, at the centre of this week’s events in Cumbria.
For years, tenant farmers have been growing weary of National Trust directives on everything from carbon emissions and the planting of trees to ‘sustainability’.
They complain that Trust employees, traditionally drawn from local farming families, are increasingly urban careerists with little understanding of their lives and heritage.
‘They are politically correct idiots and Dame Helen, in particular, is a disaster,’ says Robin Page, a former member of the Trust’s governing council who now runs the Countryside Restoration Trust.
‘The Trust has lost touch with its tenants. It has completely lost their confidence,’ says Lake District farmer Peter Allen, who can trace his family’s history in the Lowther Valley back 17 generations and sits on the National Park’s board. ‘But that’s what will happen when urban people try to dictate what happens in the countryside.’
So this week’s kerfuffle over trail-hunting hit a raw nerve. It began in early February, when the Trust’s 12-member board met to discuss criticism it was receiving from the animal rights lobby via social media.
Not one hunt has been successfully prosecuted for illegal activity on Trust land since the 2005 ban. However, anti-field sports activists believe hounds following artificial trails sometimes divert to real ones, killing wild animals in the process.
No laws are broken during such incidents (the deaths are regarded as accidental), so the wealthy charity’s Board of Trustees would traditionally have shrugged its shoulders.
For generations the powerful body was. after all, dominated by aristocrats, architectural historians and museum curators. Indeed, a decade ago its ranks contained no fewer than four Eton-educated landowners, along with a farmer.
‘While they might have been a stuffy lot who didn’t tick many diversity boxes, they knew about land management and understood about stately homes and estates, and protecting their heritage,’ is how one former member puts it.
Today, however, the Board has a very different flavour.
Its chairman is Tim Parker, a private equity tycoon dubbed ‘the prince of darkness’ in the City for his willingness to preside over mass redundancies.
His deputy, Orna Ni Chionna, is the wife of Adair Turner, the crossbench peer and former CBI chief who campaigns against a ‘hard Brexit’. Other prominent members are Gus Casely-Hayford, a TV historian, and Sandy Nairne, former director of the National Portrait Gallery.
The remaining members are largely academics and business people. Most live in London. The only old-school landowner in their ranks — David Fursdon — turns out to be a university friend and former flatmate of Tony Blair.
Little wonder, perhaps, that this metropolitan group decided in February to order a ‘review’ of the rules by which the NT allows legal trail-hunts on its land.
And maybe it’s no surprise that although their work spanned a six-month period, the authors did not once speak with tenant farmers or their representatives, or consult with anyone in the hunting community.
The only interested organisation the Trust did allow through its doors during the review was the League Against Cruel Sports. Its chief executive, Eduardo Goncalves, was invited to the Trust’s London office on March 1.
According to a PR statement issued by the League, he used the meeting to ‘share grave concerns’ about the manner in which the Trust ‘currently issues licences to a number of hunts to conduct trail hunts on its estates’.
The Trust, which ‘refutes in the strongest terms any accusation of bias’ on the issue of hunting, claims otherwise, however, insisting that its March 1 discussion with Britain’s most prominent anti-hunting activist was ‘nothing to do’ with the review of trail-hunting.
We must take them at their word. But Mr Goncalves will nonetheless be delighted at the six new rules the Trust announced this week. For these not only impose bureaucracy on trail-hunts but are likely to render them unsustainable.
One reason for this is that in future the charity will only permit hounds to follow an artificial scent, such as aniseed, rather than the animal-based products that are used at present.
The Trust claims this will ‘reduce the risk of foxes or other wild animals being accidentally chased’.
However, it is unable to cite a single piece of scientific research to support this hypothesis (and many tenants believe the exact opposite will be true).
Moreover, as all existing hunts operating on Trust land have bred hounds to follow animal-based scent, they will need to completely re-breed and re-train whole packs, a process that may take years.
Another new Trust rule will require hunts to post details of the times and exact locations of forthcoming meetings in advance, on the National Trust’s website.
The charity says this will provide ‘transparency’. But tenants take a different view, fearing it will lead to violent hunt saboteurs holding regular demonstrations on their land, and allow animal rights extremists from across the world to target their homes.
‘In the past we’ve had the odd incident where people have turned up wearing balaclavas and holding clubs and claw hammers,’ says Isaac Benson, a third-generation Trust tenant who allows hunts to meet at his hill farm in the Langdale Valley.
‘This website will give them a green light to do it every week. It will end in violence. And for farmers who host the hunts, you are opening yourself up to serious abuse on a non-stop basis, from some very nasty people. It will place tenants and their families in serious danger.’
The Trust, which traditionally conducts ‘risk assessments’ over everything from felling trees to walking on footpaths, didn’t consult with police forces about the wisdom of this policy though a spokesman says: ‘The safety of our tenants, our staff and those who take part in this activity is hugely important to us and this is why we have responded to the letter from our Lake District tenants to explore their safety concerns.
‘We’ll be listening carefully and, if necessary, seeking further advice from the police.’
The Countryside Alliance, which lobbies on behalf of field sports, says the new policy will end hunting on almost all Trust land, as ‘it will be too great a risk to farmers, staff and members to have meets advertised’.
Perhaps that is what the rules are ultimately intended to achieve.
Lake District farmer Roger Westmoreland certainly thinks as much. ‘The National Trust either doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care, what it’s doing away with,’ he says.
‘They are intolerant people with values that seem totally at odds with Beatrix Potter’s. For an organisation devoted to heritage, it’s all just so wrong.’