THE GOVERNMENTS plan to ban or restrict hunting with hounds would cause chaos in rural areas and put an unacceptable strain on the police, senior officers have warned ministers.
Kevin Morris, the president of the Police Superintendents' Association, said that small rural police forces would find it impossible to cope with the illegal hunts, and protests, that would result from the legislation. He added that the police's priority should be to tackle serious crimes such as robbery and burglary, not "preventing people from fox hunting".
The police warning was issued as several of the country's biggest landowners disclosed that they would defy any legislation to ban hunting by allowing illegal hunts to take place on their land. Such a campaign of civil disobedience would be impossible to police effectively in rural areas, which are traditionally undermanned in the police force.
Edmund Vestey, who has 17,000 acres in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex, and Henry Berkeley, the owner of the vast Berkeley estate in Gloucestershire, were among those who said that they would carry on hunting. The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire have already vowed to risk imprisonment by promoting a campaign of civil disobedience against a foxhunting ban.
Mr Morris, who will meet David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, at the Police Superintendents' Association's annual conference in Chester last week, said that any legal restrictions on hunting could cause serious problems. As well as illegal hunts, there were also likely to be potentially violent protests by anti-hunting campaigners. Both scenarios would lead to small rural forces being overwhelmed.
"Most people would acknowledge that our priority should not be policing fox hunting or preventing people from fox hunting but getting on with tackling the sorts of crimes that do have a massive impact on the general public," said Mr Morris.
Licensed hunts would, he said, cause "chaos" if protesters targeted them.
"In a small force, who would actually police it? It might be they would have to complain to somebody else for help, maybe the RSPCA or another force. The force concerned and its chief constable will have to say what is the priority? Is it foxhunting? We have to follow our priorities."
He added that policing fox hunts already imposed strains on forces. "I commanded two forces where fox hunting took place and we had to put up more officers on a Saturday afternoon than I could spare to put into an initiative dealing with burglary." Other senior officers have also warned about the consequences of a ban on fox hunting. Among them was Tim Hollis, the former Assistant Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, who has been seconded to the Home Office as an assistant HM Inspector of Constabulary, and is also the public order spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers. He said that the Government should consider how a ban could be balanced with the increasing demands on police time.
"There is no doubt it would be a particular challenge. We always do our best to meet the requirements of legislation but it falls to us to meet the totality of demands on the police, which is increasing."
Ron Hogg, the Assistant Chief Constable of Durham, has also warned of major problems. He said: "Durham Constabulary has won national recognition for its work with the farming community. There is little doubt that laws banning hunting would put a strain on our relationship in those rural areas."
In a memo to the Home Office, the Association of Chief Police Officers, said that it had "significant concerns" about "the practical difficulties in enforcing a total ban".
The police's reaction will add weight to pro-hunting supporters who are due to gather in London for the March for Livelihood and Liberty this Sunday. Scotland has already outlawed hunting with hounds and the so-called "rural rebels" there have vowed to defy the ban.
A Government Bill offering the options of outlawing or restricting hunting in England and Wales will be published shortly. MPs are expected to back a total ban or a system of licensing, which will strictly limit the amount of hunting that takes place. The Home Office claim that a ban or restriction would actually save officers time and money because there would be fewer hunts to control.
However, police chiefs and their officers remain unconvinced, as their warnings have indicated.