Hunting: Could this be the last season under a ban?

At 10am tomorrow morning about 40 foxhounds and 20 foxhunters will be gathering in the autumn mists near Blencathra.

And a smaller, equally dedicated band of their opponents will also be there.

Although hunting with dogs has been banned for almost five years now, it hasn’t stopped the hunting fraternity in Cumbria – or the hunt saboteurs.

Since the ban, introduced in February 2005, huntsmen are supposed to engage in drag hunting, in which they follow a specially laid fox scent rather than pursuing and killing a real fox.

But the saboteurs believe many hunts are breaking the law by carrying on killing foxes regardless.

And the huntsmen are hoping that by this time next year they will be able to do so legally again.

David Cameron has promised that if the Conservatives win the next election he will make parliamentary time for a free vote among MPs to reverse the Hunting Act. So if Mr Cameron – a huntsman himself – moves into Downing Street next year, then this could be the last hunting season under the ban.

It will not necessarily be an easy issue for an incoming Cameron government to get through, any more than it was easy for Tony Blair’s government.

The ban was highly controversial when it was introduced – and reversing it will inevitably prove equally controversial.

ANTI-HUNTING: Elaine Milbourn has lived all her life in the Cumbrian countryside and has been an ardent anti-hunting campaigner for the past 25 years.Hunt saboteurs have been keeping tabs on the huntsmen at Blencathra for many years. For they are convinced foxes are still being killed there.

So she rejects the argument that the ban is an attack by the city on the countryside.

“I was born and brought up in the Eden valley and I now live in Torpenhow, so to say it is anti-countryside is nonsense,” Elaine says. “Most people in the countryside are opposed to hunting.”

Elaine is a local volunteer with animal welfare group Protect Our Wild Animals (POWA) and sees the 2005 hunting ban as only one measure needed to prevent the killing of animals for sport.

She accepts that it has led to few convictions but believes that is no reason to scrap it.

“There are laws against theft, murder and rape but these crimes still go on,” she says. “You don’t repeal a law just because people are getting away with it.

“It’s not that it’s not working. It’s that people are not allowing it to work.”

However Elaine does believes the law would be more effective if it was stricter, and wants to see it strengthened by adding a “recklessness clause”.

“The clause should be added to prevent hunts searching in areas where they know they will find foxes, such as hedges, woods and bracken.

“If a trail has been laid for drag hunting, then they don’t have to go near these places.”

And she adds: “Major landowners should also be taking a firmer stance. It is no good having rules that say hunts are only allowed to drag hunt if they do nothing about it when reports of illegal hunting are made.”

Some farmers argue that foxes kill poultry and lambs and so need to be controlled, but Elaine rejects this.

“Fewer than five per cent of the lambs who die are killed by foxes. Far more are killed by dogs.

“I had poultry for many years and none of them were ever killed by foxes.”

Moreover foxes are natural pest controllers themselves.

“They kill rats and rabbits and mice that farmers don’t want.”

And she says that, for her, the social class of foxhunters doesn’t enter the argument.

“I don’t care whether they are princes or paupers.

“If they can’t see anything wrong with ripping a wild animal to shreds with a pack of dogs for fun, then there is something wrong with them.”

“I saw one killed the day after the ban,” said one sab, who asked not to be named. “When they see us they often move on.

“If they had laid a trail for drag hunting they wouldn’t move, would they?”

Techniques the sabs use include calling out to the foxhounds, so that they believe they are being alerted to a fox, and disguising fox scents with sprays.

“A high-pitched yell often attracts them,” he says. “We always use non-harmful sprays. Garlic works a treat.”

Now the bullshit

PRO HUNTING: The Countryside Alliance was set up in 1997 to fight the proposals for a hunting ban. Since the introduction of the ban it has been focusing its efforts on getting it reversed.

According to Steve Clark, its director in the north of England, many people living in rural areas did not see the ban as an animal welfare issue.

Foxhunting is a traditional activity that has gone on for centuries – so country dwellers regarded it more as an assault on the countryside by the city.

“One of the problems is that we have a very urban parliament – most Labour MPs represent urban constituencies,” he says.

“People in the countryside, whether they were pro-hunting or indifferent to it, felt their whole way of life was under attack.”

The depth of feeling was something that took Steve by surprise.

“I know of one landowner who never used to want the huntsmen on his land.

“But after the ban he said: ‘You can come any time you want. These people aren’t going to tell me what I can or can’t do on my property.’”

The ban on hunting, he adds, has not just opened up divisions between town and country, but has created suspicion and division within the countryside itself.

“All of a sudden the village copper may not be your friend any more.

“A decisive move by an incoming Tory government to repeal the Hunting Act would go a long way to healing those divisions.”

The Hunting Act allows drag hunting and also allows hounds to flush out a fox so it can be shot, and so for many the precise legal position can be highly confusing.

“Before the ban a lot of people were thinking: ‘How on earth are we going to carry on under a ban? But it is a very badly drafted and very confusing piece of legislation.”

And though it has brought many people before the courts, it has led to very few successful prosecutions.

“The stress of having a court case hanging over your head is a horrifying experience for a right-thinking individual.

“But there have only been three successful prosecutions under the Hunting Act, and they were all among people who pleaded guilty.

“The legislation has been so confusing that it gives the hunting community a sense of hope that it will one day be repealed. It is inevitable.”

Foxhunting is seen, whether rightly or not, as an upper-class pursuit and Steve says this was at the root of much Labour opposition to it.

“Parliament spent 780 hours on banning hunting. It only spent seven hours debating whether we should go to war with Iraq.

“For a lot of Labour MPs it was a class issue. One of them even admitted: ‘This is going to get you back for the miners.’”

And if the Conservatives do win next year’s general election – and David Cameron keeps his promise – then Steve is hopeful that the ban could be reversed within the first six months.

“We hope any incoming Tory government will provide parliamentary time to get rid of a bad law. We hope this will be the last season of the ban.”


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