SEVENTY PER CENT of the public believe that the police should not enforce the ban on hunting when the hunting Act legislation comes into effect in February.
An opinion poll, conducted last week by ICM for The Sunday Telegraph, found that seven out of 10 of those questioned believed that police officers should concentrate on other, more important areas of crime once hunting with hounds becomes illegal.
Only 20 per cent questioned said that they thought the police should be used to enforce the ban. Seven per cent said that officers should give equal emphasis to tackling hunting and other crimes.
The poll also found that half the public supports the ban, while 35 per cent oppose it. More surprisingly, 23 per cent of Labour supporters were against it. Opposition to the ban was strongest among lower earners, bearing out claims by the pro-hunting lobby that the sport is not the preserve of "toffs". A clear majority of those questioned opposed extending a ban to other country sports such as shooting or fishing.
ICM interviewed a random sample of 1,000 adults aged 18 and over by telephone between November 24 and 25, just days after the Act was steamrollered onto the statute books by use of the Parliament Act.
Hunts from around the country planned to meet this week to decide how to co-ordinate civil disobedience when the ban comes into force on February 19 next year.
Many hunts are planning to restyle themselves as ‘hound exercise clubs’, while others will become drag hunts. Almost all intend to continue to hunt and challenge police to catch them in the act of killing a fox.
Steven Clark, a joint master of the Barlow hounds in Derbyshire, said: "Our unofficial plan will be to continue as normal."
George Bowyer, a joint master of the Fitzwilliam Hunt, said: "I think the most likely thing is for people and farmers to go drag hunting or out as hound exercise clubs and have the odd 'accident'." The underlying meaning was clear – if a fox was accidentally hunted down by the hounds, the police would need to prove that it was not an accident in order to seek a prosecution – assuming they bothered to police the hunt in the first place.
Alistair McWhirter, the chief constable of Suffolk and the spokesman on hunting for the Association of Chief Police Officers, has stated that police will have difficulties enforcing the law.
He told Horse and Hound magazine: "If people want to exercise hounds that's lawful. There isn't an offence until they actually hunt a mammal. But we wouldn't always know what constitutes hunting - and the police wouldn't want to get involved in that. This law will affect our relationship with rural communities . . . many people who hunt are the police's greatest supporters."
Civil disobedience plans taking shape are aimed at clogging up the judicial system and paralysing the police.
Pro-hunt supporters are threatening to report people who let their dogs off the lead in an open space and claim that the pet has killed a squirrel, which under the new law is technically illegal.
Landowners also plan to refuse permission for power cables, and police and ambulance masts on their property.
A spokesman for the Countryside Alliance said: "In the light of this poll the Government should consider very carefully its advice to the police and Crown Prosecution Service after February 18."