ALL OF the Hunts in the UK have declared it to be “Business As Usual” as this weekend sees the start of their first full season since fox-hunting was banned in England and Wales and the third year since it was banned in Scotland.
Nine months after the Hunting Bill came into effect in England and Wales, the feared mass cull of foxhounds has not taken place, meets are still taking place and there has not been a single prosecution for illegal hunting - despite 50 police investigations undertaken at the behest of anti-hunt activists.
The hunts are learning ways around the law, which they say is so badly drafted and full of loopholes that it is easy to exploit. Hunting with birds of prey is the most popular innovation. The other is the ‘accident’, when, for example, hounds attack foxes during a perfectly legal rabbit or drag chase, despite the hunt's best efforts to call them off.
Around 40 hunts are poised to start the new season armed with a newly purchased feathered predator - everything from eagle owl to mighty golden eagle, costing up to £10,000 each. The hunts argue that an exemption in the legislation allows them to use two hounds to flush a fox out into the open, as long a bird of prey makes the actual kill. That is assuming that the kill is actually observed.
The Countryside Alliance said it was legitimate for hunts to use the exemption, but Jim Chick, chairman of the Hawk Board, which represents falconers, warned that hunts are risking injury to birds, hounds, horses and even human beings and cites the hunts’ use of birds of prey as a betrayal of trust.
“We marched with the hunts against the fox-hunting ban but this is an abject betrayal of everything we have done for them,” said Mr Chick, who is calling for the legal loophole to be closed.
The ‘accident‘, like the bird loophole, has yet to be tested in court. But who is to blame if the hounds make a kill before the hunt's bird of prey gets there? And who is to blame if hounds in legal pursuit of a rag soaked in fox scent during a drag hunt make a kill after picking up the trail of a real one?
Wanda Wyporska, of the League Against Cruel Sports dismissed a BBC poll in which more than 100 hunts reported meet attendance either unchanged or actually up on pre-ban levels. “Hunt masters would say that, wouldn't they?” she said, adding that the league's own monitors had reported that meets were less frequent and attendance was down.
It has also emerged that the Home Office has instructed rural police forces to concentrate more on everyday crime than commit resources to policing hunts, and even then to concentrate on public order offences - which would obviously include any violence at demonstrations against hunts.
However, there is certainly clear evidence that many hunts are receiving more applications for membership, whilst shoots are reporting increased applications for pickers-up. It could simply be that many people are striving to retain their rural pursuits, whilst others may simply want to ‘cock a snook’ at the Government.
Pro-Hunting Labour MP and former Sports Minister Kate Hoey, who is Chairwoman of the Countryside Alliance, said that although all the possible legal challenges against the Hunting Act had been exhausted in the UK - although there is a fresh challenge pending in the European Courts - the “nonsense” that was the Hunting Act would not stop anyone from hunting.
“The law is so badly drafted it’s unworkable,” said Ms Hoey. “Things will carry on as normal. The Act does not ban red coats. It does not ban hounds, it does not ban killing foxes. It will look, sound and smell like before. There have been no successful prosecutions and it is unlikely there will be.
“We will be keeping within the law. If protesters thought they would never see people out riding in red coats again that is not the case.”