SHEEPDOG TRIALS in England and Wales could be banned as a result of the Government's Hunting Bill, a leading farming organisation has claimed.
The legal conundrum arises because dogs undergoing trials risk putting up hares or foxes and are in danger of failing the Government's test of "utility" because they are unnecessary.
"The strict definition of the proposed new law could mean that since the sole purpose of sheepdog trials is competition it could be construed in some quarters as failing the Bill's utility test," said Rhian Nowell-Phillips, the senior policy officer of the Farmers' Union of Wales.
"Some welfare groups may claim that a wild animal such as a hare or a fox could be flushed out during the trials and argue that those involved should therefore apply for a licence under the Government's Hunting Bill."
To be legally registered under the Bill, anyone who uses dogs to flush mammals must convince a national tribunal that their sport has a necessary purpose, such as pest control, and that it is less cruel than alternative options.
The Farmers' Union of Wales is insistent that its interpretation is not far-fetched.
Miss Nowell-Phillips said: "Alun Michael, the rural affairs minister, has already indicated that handlers competing in field trails - in which gun dogs are judged on their performance and ability under shooting conditions - will have to be registered under the new law if the animals flush out hares during the competitions. But any application for a licence would probably be unsuccessful as the purpose of field trials is competition, immediately failing the 'utility' and 'cruelty' tests which are the cornerstone of the Hunting Bill."
Miss Nowell-Phillips added: "The same argument can also be made in respect of other competition involving dogs, such as sheepdog trials, in which the sole purpose of the activity is again competition."
She said the Bill still contained many anomalies which would have a negative impact on a wide range of country pursuits unless it was changed before it became law.
A spokesman for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs denied that this was a valid interpretation of the Bill as drafted. "Sheepdogs are for running round sheep," the spokesman said. "It is not part of a trial to chase hares. There has to be an intention to hunt and this is no clear intention to hunt."
Farmers remain un-convinced and say that it is up to the interpretation of the Bill by the courts when it becomes an Act. They also suspect that DEFRA does not know that some Welsh farmers use sheepdogs to kill foxes.
Simon Hart, of the Countryside Alliance, said: "This is another example of the unintended consequences of this Bill. Because it reverses the burden of proof, anybody who uses a dog in the countryside would have to prove that they are not engaged in hunting, whether or not they were, and this could take a great deal of time and money."
It is clear that the Labour Government have not learned the lessons of the Dangerous Dogs Act, in which the burden of proof is reversed, and thereby criminalizing dog owners as a matter of course. Despite clear warnings given at both Drafting and Committee stages of this and previous hunting Bills, the burden of proof in the Hunting Bill remains reversed.