Although insurance does not cover illegal activities, such as fox hunting, verifying potential trail hunting-related claims could fall into a protection grey area

Whisper it, but the fact that the majority of hunts still actually pursue foxes is one of the UK countryside’s worst kept secrets.

Since the hunting of wild mammals with dogs was banned in England and Wales by the Hunting Act 2004, the hunting fraternity has purported to restrict its activities to trail hunting.

This effectively replicates a traditional hunt, with participants on foot or horseback using hounds or beagles to follow a scent along a pre-determined route – foxes are not chased, injured or killed.

But Kate Goldstone, a 59-year-old writer who lives near Bideford in rural Devon, begs to differ.

She told Insurance Times: “It’s absolutely beyond any doubt that most hunts in the UK break the law because they involve real foxes. I’ve phoned the police many times on this as fox hunters’ foxhounds have invaded our garden and frightened people’s pets and livestock.

“The countryside is a battleground and if you go onto any kind of social media or do a Google search, you will come across masses of evidence of hunts killing foxes.”

Many hundreds of successful prosecutions under the Hunting Act have also proved Goldstone’s point beyond any reasonable doubt.

The best known of these incidents saw a senior fox hunter found guilty at Westminster Magistrates’ Court in October 2021 for intentionally encouraging or assisting others to use trail hunting as a cover for real fox hunting.

The court saw clips of the fox hunter speaking to over 100 hunt masters in private webinars in 2020. The videos came to light when they were leaked to anti-hunting groups and then posted online.

However, while there has been plenty of publicity surrounding illegal hunting, the implications for related insurance products have gone largely under the radar.

Goldstone, who previously worked as an underwriter at Sun Alliance in the late 1980s and early 1990s, pointed out that insurance terms and conditions exclude illegal activity - she questioned how hunters are therefore able to obtain cover.

She continued: “I would say most claims made by those participating in hunts in this country should not be paid out and that the claimants shouldn’t have been given the policies in the first place.

“As a former underwriter, I find it astonishing that insurers have been too lazy to go online and establish exactly what they were insuring.”

On the trail of the truth

Shedding any light on the issue raised by Goldstone is not helped by the fact that the insurance world relating to trail hunting is decidedly murky - just identifying which companies underwrite the business is hard enough in itself.

Of the half a dozen insurers Insurance Times understands is involved with equine or other relevant insurance, one is adamant that it plays no part in this market at all, while most of the remainder – with the commendable exceptions of NFU Mutual and Animal Friends Insurance – either declined to comment or were not available to comment for this piece.

A leading insurance intermediary that Insurance Times understands deals with potentially the most relevant affinity scheme cited confidentiality agreements that prevented it from revealing details of the scheme’s cover or the identity of the underwriter.

Then, during subsequent contact, the intermediary even denied acting as a broker to the association concerned. (It should be made clear that this is not one of the intermediaries mentioned elsewhere in this article.)

The available covers

Many riders who participate in hunts are likely to have either an individual equine policy or cover via an affinity scheme relevant to horse riding.

Insurance Times understands that it is the individual policies that are most relevant for trail hunting, however, because they will be the ones to pay out if policyholders have duplicated cover via an affinity scheme.

In addition to basic cover for the horse against events like death, theft and straying, individual insurance normally also offers policyholders the chance to pick and mix from other options. These may or may not include the ability to insure the horse or rider against injury.

These policies will, however, normally include public liability (PL) cover, typically between £1m and £5m. National specialist broker Equesure Insurance Services told Insurance Times that more than half of policyholders agree to this option.

Some equine insurance wordings exclude trail hunting, but others - if the rider has declared a likely participation - will include it.

Are fox hunters covered?

So, what would happen if someone covered for trail hunting made a claim, but it transpired that their hunt had in fact involved a fox?

Of Insurance Times’ two respondents, Animal Friends Insurance does not cover hunting and NFU Mutual’s stance on the issue couldn’t be clearer.

An NFU Mutual spokesperson said: “We assess all risks before accepting them and do not condone or seek to insure any illegal activity.

“We will not pay your claim unless you have throughout the period of insurance complied with all legal requirements and regulations imposed by any authority. All claims are investigated to ensure the policy terms and conditions are met.”

Assuming that other insurers that do not exclude trail hunting take the same approach, anyone who deliberately goes fox hunting would not be covered if they or their horse suffered harm. But what would happen if a PL claim resulted from them injuring an innocent third party or damaging their property?

Matthew Connell, director of policy and public affairs at the Chartered Insurance Institute, said: “With other forms of liability insurance, if the policyholder is in the wrong it doesn’t mean the insurer won’t pay out. It is not inconceivable that the insurer might say the person claiming is an innocent party and pay out.

“I don’t think there are any pure black and white principles involved, but I guess where the hard line is drawn is that insurers won’t cover anything obviously illegal.”

The Financial Ombudsman Service has not ruled on a trail hunting insurance case since its decisions started being published in 2013 and the issue does not appear to have been tested in the courts either.

Barry Fehler, deputy chairman of national specialist broker SEIB Insurance Brokers, added: “Much would depend on the policy wording, but if the person didn’t know they were going to catch a fox, I would be looking to the insurer to pay the claim. If it was clearly intentional, however, I would expect it to be declined.

“It could end up being a court decision if a lot of money was at stake. Once more than £200,000 is involved, everyone starts to wriggle.

“But a lot depends on the insurer. The more established ones are more likely to pay out without an argument.”

Unsatisfactory situation

PL claims are few and far between but, when they do occur, they tend to be very large. So, a legal precedent covering this part of the market may emerge at some point - hopefully it will indicate that PL cover will cover innocent third parties against the impact of illegal activity.

Nevertheless, a lack of clarity on this issue is very concerning.