FOX HUNTS have been warned that using birds of prey for falconry is unlikely to provide legal cover for hunters to resume what amounts to traditional fox hunting chases. The warning comes after around 40 hunts have bought golden eagles, eagle owls and other birds of prey in an attempt to take advantage of the fact that falconry remains legal.
Animal welfare organisation Protect Our Animals wrote to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), to clarify the legality of the loophole that many hunts have chosen to exploit. DEFRA wrote back to Protect Our Wild Animals, saying: “Employing (whether or not released to hunt) a bird of prey which does not ordinarily hunt that particular wild mammal [would be illegal], because, in our view, it suggests that the flushing was not for the purpose of enabling the bird of prey to hunt the mammal.”
DEFRA said that the falconry exemption allowed dogs to flush out wild mammals for the birds to hunt but not to “run after, chase or pursue the wild mammal after it has been flushed out. Nor does the exemption allow the dog(s) to kill the wild mammal.”
Britain's biggest bird of prey, the golden eagle, only takes small fox cubs in the wild and this has been cited as an example of the way the Hunts are using the birds and abusing the law.
Penny Little, a council member of Protect Our Wild Animals, said: “The way hunts are behaving is guaranteed to lead to a tightening of the law. Their intention is to subvert and exploit every loophole."“
George Bowyer, joint master of the Cambridgeshire-based Fitzwilliam Hunt, would not say whether the hunt had bought a bird of prey but added that hunts across the country were determined to defeat the law.
He said: “Yes, we are looking into using falcons. Most hunts are looking into possibilities and there are lots of different exemptions. We are going to do whatever we can to keep going.”
Thurlow Hunt, which operates in the Newmarket area, said it may use birds of prey in the future.
Joint hunt master Robin Vestey said: “We are not using falcons at this stage although we never rule anything out.”
The governing body of the birds of prey hunting fraternity, the Hawk Board said using a falcon could be cruel because the kill may not be clean.
A spokesman said: “The Hawk Board and falconry clubs throughout the UK are fundamentally opposed to the use of birds of prey in conjunction with packs of hounds.
"Falconers and those involved in hunting should note that the governing bodies of both sports strongly advise against this practice as it could lead to both sports being bought into disrepute and have significant welfare risks.”
In a separate development, the use of more than two dogs to flush out foxes is being encouraged by the Countryside Alliance. In a pamphlet titled How to Keep Hunting, the alliance and the Council of Hunting Associations acknowledge that “we are swimming in uncharted waters and it is for the courts to decide whether people have broken the law“.
But their advice challenges the presumption that the Hunting Act limits the number of dogs to two hounds per hunt. “It remains legal for there to be separate groups of people, each with two dogs and for them to flush foxes to a gun,” the advice states.
Mike Hobday, of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “The advice the Countryside Alliance is giving is dangerous. They are in danger of breaking the law to make a political point.”
But the Alliance hit back, saying: “Hunts, which are acting within the law, are ridiculing what is a pretty absurd piece of legislation.”
The Countryside Alliance vowed to continue to fight to overturn the law.
Simon Hart, alliance chief executive, said: “The hunting community has resolved to work to remove this confusing and unworkable law from the statute book and to replace it with a sensible legislation.”