THE GOVERNMENT is backing a new form of ‘legal hunting’ that allows people and dogs to chase foxes, deer or any other wild mammal away from crops or any other animals.
The revelation was described by pro-hunt MPs as raising a serious anomaly in the new law banning hunting with hounds.
The all-party Middle Way group, which backs licensed hunts, was astonished to learn that lawyers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had invented this new form of hunting.
The group immediately accused DEFRA of "backtracking" on the Hunting Act and causing confusion in the countryside.
The loophole emerged as ministers made clear they were still willing to back a "snap" Bill to delay a hunting ban for 18 months and avoid clashes with countryside rebels in the run up to the general election.
Peter Hain, Leader of the Commons, said that such a Bill could be pushed through Parliament in a day if peers instigated the Bill and guaranteed there would be no wrecking tactics.
The Countryside Alliance indicated that pro-hunt peers might now be prepared to accept such a delay. The reason it had been opposed originally is that it was linked to a vote for a hunt ban. Now that the benefits of the loophole are clear to see, most pro-hunting peers might be persuaded to back it.
An Alliance spokesman said: "I am sure that peers would consider the animal welfare and wildlife management benefits of a delay."
DEFRA’s interpretation of hunting was learnt when Giles Bradshaw, a Devon landowner, contacted his local DEFRA office for advice about the dos and don'ts of the new laws.
Mr Bradshaw uses his four dogs to frighten but not kill foxes and deer off his land because they attack his livestock and woodland. He has been practising this non-lethal and effective form of pest control for six years and was anxious to find out if he could continue.
On November 24 he was told by DEFRA officials that the Hunting Act makes it an offence for anyone to hunt a wild mammal with a dog unless it is "exempt hunting" which permits the flushing to guns of an animals by two dogs only.
Mr Bradshaw then complained to DEFRA that the new law would only allow him to use two of his four dogs at any one time. According to the Middle Way Group it also put him in the ridiculous position of being legally obliged to buy a high-powered rifle and to shoot any animal "flushed" by dogs.
Mr Bradshaw then made more telephone conversations and, amid much apparent confusion in the department, officials said on November 26 that their lawyer advised his actions were merely "chasing away unwanted animals (deer and foxes) from your land and that you are not in fact hunting as described in the Hunting Act 2004. Therefore you would not be committing an offence."
Lembit Opik, Liberal Democrat co-chair of the Middle Way group, said: "Hunting with dogs and flushing are not defined in the Hunting Act. Now DEFRA has also invented a completely new category of hunting - 'chasing away' which isn't even covered by the Act. However, all these activities involve the use of dogs to chase wild mammals."
"How is the village bobby who sees a group of people with dogs supposed to distinguish between illegal hunting, exempt hunting, drag hunting, unintentional hunting, a hunt exercising hounds or simply chasing away?"
Peter Luff, the Conservative co-chair, said it was clear the Hunting Act had only been brought into law for class war reasons and said: "As such, it is so poorly drafted that nobody appears to be able to properly define the offence. It is no wonder the Government desperately wants to move on from this disastrous law. However, I seriously doubt the countryside will be that accommodating."
Alun Michael, Rural Affairs Minister, denied there is any confusion about how the law will work in practice and was quick to defend ‘his’ law.
Mr Michael said: " We have made it clear from the beginning that despite some propaganda from pro-hunting quarters, the legislation is clear. Enforcement is a matter for the police in the normal way and the police have made clear that is they way they regard it too."
A DEFRA spokesman suggested Mr Bradshaw had misinterpreted advice from officials.
In a statement he said: "Hunting requires an intention on the part of a person rather than a dog to chase the quarry. So there can be no accidental hunting. In practice, hunting will include a range of activities from chasing an animal over many miles with the intention of killing it to deliberately setting one's dog on to a wild mammal with the intention of catching it or frightening it away.
"It will be for police and prosecutors to decide whether to pursue individual cases and for the courts to decide whether an offence has been committed. As with many pieces of new legislation inventive individuals concoct a large number of theoretical scenarios whereas in practice the courts apply commonsense to clear legislation."
Mr Bradshaw summed matters up pithily and succinctly, saying: "I voted for this Government the first time. Now I hate them and until this situation is resolved I will hate them more each day. My choice is: get a gun or break the law."