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Fox-hunting resumes after Foot and Mouth

Hunting resumed on Monday of last week when the Government formally lifted a ban imposed earlier this year to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. A handful of hunts, including those in north Wales and Northamptonshire, rode for the first time in 10 months.

All forms of hunting with dogs - apart from stag hunting - will be allowed in disease-free areas, although hunts will avoid areas bordering any infected county or region. 'Buffer Zones' have been set up as a further safeguard where the disease is prevalent in an adjacent county or region.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has stated that only three counties are still affected by the disease; Durham, Northumberland and Cumbria.

Hunting was initially suspended voluntarily by all hunts when the disease broke out in February, some time before the Government acted to ban it as part of the belated safety precautions to prevent the spread of the disease.

The ban had been expected to be lifted on December 3rd, but was delayed by two weeks. However, most hunts will now be able to take part in their annual Boxing Day meets.

The Countryside Alliance's Simon Hart said the move was "a huge boost both economically and in terms of morale in rural communities".

Farmers have complained that the fox population is growing unchecked and causing further predations on livestock. They were keen for the temporary ban to be lifted to allow foxes to be hunted and their numbers controlled before next year's lambing season.

'Back door ban'

However, pro-hunting critics have derided the conditions outlined last month in the s the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' guidelines on the resumption of hunting, accusing Labour of initiating a 'back door ban' to 'nobble' hunting as an alternative to a legislative outright ban.

Licences are issued as long as hunt masters can prove they have steps in place to ensure the disease will not flare up again.

Measures include ensuring hunts do not stray into areas classed as "infected" and submitting paperwork afterwards indicating the route the hunt took.

If vets have any concerns about the risks a hunt might pose, the application will be unsuccessful, said a Defra spokesman.

Up to 30 of Britain's 300 hunts have been granted licences. Hunts are still outlawed in "infected" or "at-risk" areas, including Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Northumberland.

Plans to make hunts responsible for the activities of hunt saboteurs who often try to disrupt hunting meets have been met with an outcry from hunts.

"We have reservations about some of the conditions laid down by the Government, especially the scheme to hold hunts responsible for the activities of those dedicated to disrupting them," said Campaign for Hunting chairman Sam Butler.

Alistair Jackson, director of the Masters' of Foxhounds Association, said he was delighted the sport would resume, but added that the new licensing scheme could become a virtual 'saboteurs' charter' as permits could be refused if hunt organisers failed to control the activities of anyone following on foot.

Hunt secretaries will also have to keep a record for up to six months after a permit lapses of any disputes and confrontations that arise at a meet.

Over 200 MPs opposed to the sport MPs from all parties recently signed a motion calling on Prime Minister Tony Blair to honour his manifesto pledge to find time for a vote on banning hunting with hounds.

However, the Government remains steadfast in its assertion that other Bills have priority, including the current raft of anti-terrorist legislation currently being debated within the House of Commons.