Searching for the fox and hounds…


huntsab5SEVENTY-SIX people have been prosecuted in England and Wales since the ban on hunting with hounds came into force in February 2005.

Masked man: Main picture and left, hunt monitors patrol parts of the lake district; right, a hunting party and their beagles

Not one of those prosecutions was in Cumbria.

The situation is increasingly frustrating to animal rights’ activists who believe illegal hunting here is rife.

They invited a News & Star reporter and photographer to join two volunteer “hunt monitors” on Saturday to see for themselves.

Neither of the monitors wanted to be identified. They said they feared reprisals from hunt supporters.

One, a Carlisle man known as Andrew, claimed to have received reports of four foxes being killed by a Cumbrian hunt in a single day.

He said: “Sometimes we think we’re fighting a losing battle. They are carrying on as if nothing has changed.

“Nobody takes any notice. It’s nigh on impossible to get a conviction. We have to show they are encouraging the hounds to kill foxes.

“The police say they are short staffed and this isn’t a priority.”

Post ban, hunts are allowed to exercise hounds and to practise drag or trail hunting where the hounds follow a scent rather than a live fox.

On Saturday we encountered the Cumbria Beagles at Derwentfolds, near Threlkeld.

Before the ban, they hunted hare. Now the dogs follow a rabbit scent instead.

At one point the beagles were chasing a hare but the huntsman called them off, just as the law says he should.

Later, at Faulds Brow near Caldbeck, the territory of the Cumberland Foxhounds, we saw a group with terriers and a soil-covered shovel.

The monitors argued this was proof of illegal hunting as terriers are used to flush out a fox that has gone to ground.

However, Tim Brockbank, joint master of the Cumberland, denied any knowledge of the terrier men.

He said: “We were out trail hunting on Saturday but we didn’t use any terriers.

“We are allowed to use a terrier for the protection of game birds but there wasn’t any of that on Saturday.

“We do everything within the law and inform the police of where we are. That’s all there is to say. The accusations are not founded.”

The vast majority of people convicted under the Hunting Act 2004 are poachers and not attached to organised hunts.

Of the 48 found guilty last year, for example, only three were members of hunts.

The antis claim this is because the hunts are organised to avoid detection, using CB radios to send warnings if suspicious outsiders turn up.

Our appearance prompted a flurry of radio activity and a cheery “you’ve been spotted” wave from a woman in a 4×4 on Faulds Brow.

The antis ask why, if the hunts have nothing to hide, so few publicise details of when are where they meet.

The Blencathra Foxhounds, based at Threlkeld, no longer lists meets on its website.

Secretary Bob Fell admitted this was to avoid the attention of hunt monitors.

“It was a committee decision,” he said. “We get the monitors every week.

“They do cause a few problems. They wander around in hoods waving cameras. We are getting more police interest because of them.”

Like Mr Brockbank at the Cumberland Foxhounds, Mr Fell was adamant that the Blencathra operates legally.

He said: “There are occasions when foxes are killed.

“They come up in front of the hounds and the huntsman can’t stop them but we set off to hunt within the law.”

The antis say the collapse in employment and closure of kennels predicted before the ban has failed to materialise.

And the fact that the number of hunt followers has held up post ban suggests fox hunting is still going on.

Mr Fell rebutted both claims. He said the Blencathra had cut one member of staff and nearly 20 hounds.

But hunting retained its appeal, he argued, even without a kill as the climax.

“True hunting people go to watch the hounds work,” he said. “Whether a fox is killed or not is irrelevant.”

Mr Fell agrees with the antis on one point, however, that the new law is flawed.

He added: “There are so many loopholes in it, it’s silly really. We are able to carry on more or less as we are.”

Elaine Milbourn, a Torpenhow-based activist with the group Protect Our Wild Animals, wants the Hunting Act to be strengthened.

She said: “The hunts are exploiting all the loopholes.

“There needs to be a recklessness clause.

“At the moment huntsmen send their hounds into bracken, woodland and reed beds, where they know there are likely to be foxes.”

Carlisle Labour MP Eric Martlew was a strong advocate of the hunting ban.

But he says the law needs to be enforced, rather than strengthened.

“The Act is there and it’s a good Act,” he said. “We need to be vigilant and enforce it.”

The hunt monitors are encouraging members of the public who see anything suspicious to record it on a camera or mobile phone and hand the evidence to police.

A spokesperson for Cumbria Constabulary said: “We understand that fox hunting is an emotive issue for many local communities and we take all allegations of illegal activity seriously.

“Cumbria Constabulary continues to work with organisers and other interested parties to ensure that any activity takes place within the boundaries of the law. As in other matters, we take an intelligence-led approach that ensures our response is fair, proportionate and taken in the context of other competing policing demands.

“We will continue to investigate allegations of illegal activity, but we also put a great emphasis upon prevention and expect that people will act within the law at all times.”

JWhittle@cngroup.co.uk

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