HUNTS WOULD be made subject to national laws on animal cruelty, effectively allowing some forms of the sport to survive, under proposals being considered by ministers for a Bill to be published within a matter of weeks, Alun Michael, the rural affairs minister, said this week.
Proposals were outlined at the end of three days of hearings at Westminster on the future of hunting with dogs. Hunting is currently exempt from animal welfare legislation, which bans unnecessary cruelty. Under proposals being considered by ministers that would end.
Principles of what constitutes cruelty would be set out in national legislation but left to local tribunals to enforce. This would take hunting outside the criminal law, meaning those who broke the rules would not have a criminal record.
Local tribunals would also decide where hunting performed a useful purpose, to farmers or the landscape, which outweighed any suffering it might cause to animals.
Mr Michael conceded at the end of the hearings at Westminster on the future of hunting with dogs that he was considering these two issues as the possible basis of a Government Bill this autumn.
The need - or "utility" - for hunting would also be defined by local tribunals, similar to VAT, employment or land tribunals.
Mr Michael said: "There is an increasing recognition that animal welfare and the eradication of cruelty are important considerations against which any activity has to be judged.
"It is difficult to move forward from that to legislation. But there is an increasing intellectual common ground and that is important." He said the idea of tribunals, advanced by Michael Patchett-Joyce, a barrister nominated by the Countryside Alliance, was "worth looking at".
Mr Patchett-Joyce said that local circumstances needed to be considered in areas like the Lake District, where using high-powered rifles in an undulating landscape filled with dry stone walls would be dangerous.
The only other legal option for regulating hunting according to the principles of "utility" and "cruelty" that Mr Michael set out for the Government in March would follow the lines of the ban, with exemptions for flushing quarry to guns, which has been applied in Scotland.
This was advanced by Gordon Nardell, a barrister called by the Campaign for the Protection of the Hunted Animal. Mr Michael said that local circumstances could be taken into consideration but under an overall national legislative framework.
He conceded that he would have to persuade his colleagues in the Labour Party, most of whom voted to ban hunting altogether, of the value of the proposals on the evidence of the hearings.
There has been an increasing suspicion that MPs will vote for a total ban on all hound sports, whatever proposals Mr Michael and Downing Street come up with, as the Bill will be the subject of a free vote.
Mr Michael said both Houses of Parliament had voted for change in the last session - the Commons voted for a ban and the Lords for hunting to continue subject to regulation. Even the Countryside Alliance had proposed reforms.
The proposal for local tribunals was opposed by many in the Countryside Alliance, who said that Mr Patchett-Joyce had not consulted them. Douglas Batchelor, chief of the League Against Cruel Sports, described local tribunals as "enormously burdensome and bureaucratic.
Two huntsmen argued that new restrictions would lead to an increase in suffering. Patrick Martin, of the Bicester Hunt, said he had attended a fox hunt this season in Scotland conducted under the new rules, which require a gun to be carried by mounted hunts.
He said: "They shot the fox. It was hit hard, fell over and ran off. The hounds chased the injured fox. They spent several hours looking for it. They never found it. The idea that that wounded fox got away distresses me. There is the possibility that it is not a clean kill."
Mr Martin said the present system, under which the sport regulates itself under an independent supervisory body, was open and publicly accountable, unlike the old days.
David Jones, huntsman of the David Davies hunt in Montgomeryshire, said he favoured hunting to be subject to a licensing system, monitored by wardens, as in the United States.
About one million hunt supporters are expected to attend a Liberty and Livelihood march through London this Sunday, September 22nd.