THE HUNTING ban is threatening to descend into confusion and farce as hunt members devise a series of ruses and false trails to continue their sport while remaining within the law.
One possible tactic considered seriously by several hunts involves shooting a fox before the hunt sets out and dragging its corpse round the countryside for hounds to follow the scent. Another loophole would permit hounds to drive hares into the talons of birds of prey. Flushing out animals to be caught by birds such as falcons will not be an offence.
Senior Police officers have already admitted that the ban will be hard to enforce and say they will not be able to devote large numbers of officers to checking up on whether hunts are acting illegally, having neither the manpower nor the financial resources to police the hunts.
The low-key police approach comes amid fears by some senior officers that the hunt ban could make them look ridiculous. Their worst fear is of cameras capturing a procession of fox, hounds, hunt members and hunt saboteurs with the police on off-road motorbikes or quad-bikes bringing up the rear. Chasing hunts on horseback has also been ruled out as police horses are not trained to jump.
One officer said: "It could look like something out of Monty Python."
Alastair McWhirter, rural affairs spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers and chief constable of Suffolk, said he believed most hunts would adapt to the new law.
He believes "trail hunting" will be a popular option: "The idea is to follow a scent across country, using it as a lure for the hounds to follow. This would not be illegal."
He added that most police most forces were unlikely to follow hunts on off-road bikes and he also discounted the idea of officers using covert tactics such as hidden cameras to catch hunt members breaking the law – a move allegedly seriously considered by former Home Secretary David Blunkett.
"We will rely on gathering evidence from the places where hunts have been and by collecting witness statements," he said. "There will be no CCTV cameras. If officers use video cameras they will do so overtly, not covertly."
The ban will take effect from February 18, unless the Countryside Alliance’s attempt to win an injunction through the High court is successful. Almost all the 250 hunts of England and Wales are planning to meet the following day, a Saturday, in a show of defiance.
Mr McWhirter said that police would enforce the law from that day using "all reasonable methods". He emphasised, however, that hunting with hounds was a minor offence and the police approach would be low-key.
Many forces balk at the thought of making mass arrests immediately after the ban comes into force. This would land constables with responsibility for packs of foxhounds and hundreds of riderless horses.
The police hope that hunts will remain law-abiding because many members are pillars of the Establishment such as judges, lawyers, accountants, financiers and others who cannot risk a criminal record – although a number of high-profile judges have resigned from the bench on a point of principle and have vowed to carry on hunting.
Hunts are making elaborate plans to ensure that they do not fall foul of the law. Some of the tactics are outlined in the Hunting Handbook 2005 published by the Countryside Alliance.
Simon Hart, the alliance’s chief executive, has said hunting after the ban "will look, sound and smell like real hunting, but will be within the law".
Brian Palmer, joint master of the Quantock Staghounds, said: "Deer control will take place but it will be within the law if the ban takes effect. It could involve the flushing out of deer to guns using hounds. The animals would then be shot."
Other ideas include using a maximum of two hounds to flush out foxes for shooting — a legal activity. Other hunts may claim that hounds are chasing rabbits or rats, both of which are legal quarry (hares and mice are protected).
It will be difficult for the police to arrest hunt members, even when they are in full hunting gear and riding to hounds, if a fox is killed "by accident". There is confusion over the degree to which "intent" to kill a fox has to be proved.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that if hounds used in a legal drag hunt — in which an artificial scent is followed — "were to run off after a fox, the drag hunters would not be guilty of illegal hunting".
The end result is complete confusion.
Full-time "hunt monitors" employed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the League Against Cruel Sports intend to scrutinise every hunt for misdemeanours.
Equipped with video cameras and co-ordinating with hunt saboteurs, they intend to follow hunts and submit evidence of breaches to local police. They believe that advising hunts to pursue the scent of a dead fox will inevitably lead to hounds chasing live animals.
The difficulties of enforcing a ban were proved in Scotland last month when Trevor Adams, 46, huntsman of the Duke of Buccleuch’s Foxhounds, was cleared at Jedburgh sheriff’s court of hunting when he claimed he was using 20 hounds for permitted "pest control" for a local farmer.