ANTI-HUNTING campaigners have been using an animal sanctuary owned by Sir Paul McCartney to release into the wild dozens of foxes which have been blamed for attacks on local livestock and pheasants.
The animals were released by the League Against Cruel Sports after being found abandoned as cubs by the RSPCA. They were reared by hand before being taken to Sir Paul's land on Exmoor, Somerset, and set free.
Farmers near Sir Paul's estate - which he bought as a deer sanctuary to be run by the League - say that the foxes have now overrun their farmyards, killing animals and spreading disease.
Robert Govier, a sheep farmer whose property is near to the sanctuary, at St John's Wood near Skilgate, said that fox numbers had increased noticeably in recent years. "These new foxes are quite obviously town foxes because they are not afraid of people. Normally, when a fox sees you it is gone in an instant but these are not frightened. I had one come in the house and another take our ducklings from inside the porch. A normal fox would never dare get that close to the house.
"What the LACS and the RSPCA did on McCartney's land was very hush-hush. But they must have been stupid to think that three dozen foxes were all going to stay on that piece of land. Because the foxes come from elsewhere, often towns, they don't know where they are or how to find food. They raid dustbins, become a pest to us and are a danger to themselves. It is cruel, really. The best thing you can do is shoot them."
Rod Brammer, another local landowner, said: "These urban foxes are more likely to kill lambs because they don't know how to live in the country.
"They also have mange which can easily spread to other foxes and dogs. My gundog caught mange from one of them and I had to shoot him. What the League has done is born of arrogance and ignorance."
Sir Paul, a staunch anti-hunt campaigner, gave the League the use of the the 100-acre Somerset property in 1991 as a deer sanctuary. The fact that it was near land used by the Devon and Somerset Staghounds was also thought to be a motivation in the acquisition of the land as it helped disrupt the hunt's activities. There was no suggestion, however, that the land would be used for releasing foxes.
A former member of the League told The Telegraph: "I know of several occasions when we released foxes on to McCartney's land, with five or six being released each time. Once we set 15 or 16 free in one go.
"The problem was that the land consists of just a dense coniferous wood, which means it is not an area which has a lot of rabbits roaming around. The result is that the foxes have dispersed to the neighbouring land on which farmers keep sheep. Foxes are territorial and need their own space so they keep moving on until they find a vacant area. If the farmers around there had known what we were doing they would have been rather displeased to say the least."
A spokesman for the RSPCA last night admitted having released foxes but not recently. She said: "It is true that we have released groups of fox cubs - which were orphaned and reared by us - into this area but not for the last couple of years. They are released in such small numbers and it is not all on one site. It is unlikely that this has contributed to a fox problem."
A gamekeeper for a local estate, who asked not to be named, said: "In the last few years we have had a lot of trouble with pheasants being killed. There is no mistaking the difference between a country fox and a town fox because the latter freeze in the light of a torch beam instead of running away.
"There is no natural food for them on McCartney's land so it's no surprise they have to go elsewhere."
LAGS and Sir Paul declined to comment on the matter.