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Blair urged not to rush hunt ban

PRIME MINISTER Tony Blair should delay attempts to devise a quick compromise Bill on hunting because it would not attract broad public support, the chairman of the Government's hunting inquiry said on Monday. Lord Burns, who chaired a six-month investigation into hunting two years ago, was addressing the first of three days of televised hearings on the future of the sport.

Referring to No 10s attempt to come up with a compromise that could be turned into a Bill this autumn, he said that "a meeting of minds" between those for and against hunting was possible only "over a period of time".

It is understood that a Bill being drawn up proposes bans on stag hunting, hare coursing and lowland hunting and that hunting should be allowed to continue under licence in the uplands where there are fewer alternatives.

Lord Burns implied that such a Bill would only antagonise supporters of hunting and convince them that their sports would be next. It would also be too far short of a total ban to satisfy opponents of hunting with dogs.

Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, told the hearing that his job was to identify as much common ground as possible between opponents and supporters "to develop law which will be robust". He appeared to agree with Lord Burns, saying that when an issue was so polarised, legislators should "cool off".

Lord Burns stuck to his inquiry's remit to avoid the moral issues of whether hunting was cruel or whether its supporters enjoyed important freedoms. He said he "saw problems" if the Government decided, as has been suggested, to ban hunting in lowland areas, where shooting with a rifle at night is possible, and allowing hunting under licence in the uplands, where shooting with rifles is too dangerous.

"Objective measures" defining activities that should be banned would be preferable to licences that applied only to certain geographical areas.

Laughter

"It may be that you go to areas you did not intend to when the day started," Lord Burns said.

He favoured instead a removal of the exemption hunting enjoyed in animal welfare legislation. There was "a case for a more level playing field" and he felt that hunting "should make its case along with other activities covered by the legislation".

Lord Burns, a former permanent secretary at the Treasury, provoked laughter at the hearing with a reply that he admitted "sounded slightly Sir Humphreyish" in response to John Rolls, of the RSPCA.

Mr Rolls, asking about the true extent of fox predation on lambs, which he claimed farmers tended to exaggerate, said: "Should your starting point be facts or perception?"

"It depends whose starting point and which question you are asking," Lord Burns replied.

Supporters and opponents of hunting crossed swords over the role played by hunting in fostering conservation.

Dr Stephen Tapper, of the Game Conservancy Trust, said that hunts spent an estimated £1.4 million a year on conservation, including maintaining rides and walls. Hunting opened up rides and small glades that were of value to flora and butterflies.

But Stephen Harris, professor of environmental sciences at Bristol University, said: "I find it hard to find any evidence that hunting makes any contribution to habitat or wildlife. I would even say that it had a negative impact."

Asked who was winning after the first day, John Jackson, of the Countryside Alliance, said: "No evidence was produced that would justify a ban. Not much would justify regulation."

At Tuesday’s hearing expert witnesses were set to try to define cruelty and decide the method of killing that causes least suffering when controlling fox, deer, hare and mink.

The hearing will also attempt to relate these methods to ratting, falconry, rabbiting and deer stalking.