TENS OF thousands of hunters gathered across Britain last Saturday to gallop through fields and forests a year to the day after the government imposed a ban on foxhunting with dogs in the form of the Hunting Act 2004.
In the past year, hunts across the country have come up with a series of ways of avoiding the ban and organisers say the sport is now more popular than ever. Supporters have called on the Government to scrap the law, saying it does not work and never will.
Under the new rules that came into force on February 18, 2005, hunts are exempt from the ban if they drag hunt by following an artificial scent rather than a fox. They are also exempt if they flush mammals to guns with no more than two hounds or chase rabbits or mice.
‘Accidental’ kills are also exempt as is flushing an animal to a bird of prey.
Police have not brought any prosecutions since the ban was introduced although one private case has been brought by the League Against Cruel Sports.
The Government has said it is happy with the ban but anti-hunt campaigners have expressed concerns that some hunters openly flout the law.
The anti-bloodsports pressure group the League Against Cruel Sports has sent the names of 33 hunts accused of repeatedly breaching the Hunting Act to the police in England and Wales.
"We are delighted that many hunts have changed their practices in order to obey the law and that, one year on, the much anticipated collapse of the rural economy, along with the mass slaughter of horses and hounds, has not occurred," said a spokesman for LACS. "Unfortunately there are extremists who believe they are above the law. They must be investigated and, where the evidence is clear, prosecuted."
LACS has brought one private prosecution for allegedly defying the ban. Huntsman Tony Wright denies breaking the ban in Devon and a court hearing is expected in March.
All 194 fox hunts in England, Scotland and Wales, and all 98 harrier, beagle, basset and staghound hunts turned out on Saturday for "an ordinary day's hunting", according to the Countryside Alliance.
Many unregistered hunts also rode out, despite fears expressed last year that hunting might not survive a ban.
"The sport today will not be the same, but our spirit is probably even stronger than last year," said Peter Morritt, of the Quorn Hunt in Leicestershire.
On the same weekend last year - the first full weekend of the ban - at least 91 foxes were killed as hundreds of thousands demonstrated their opposition to the law.
But newly styled hunt ‘monitors’, as the antis are now known, say they will be out in increased numbers. The League Against Cruel Sports says its hunt watchers have "quadrupled" since the ban - last year about 100 were reported to be out.
It also claims to receive 30 to 50 calls a week on its ‘crimewatch hotline’ and says it has sent dossiers of evidence against 33 hunts to 21 chief constables in England and Wales.
Huntsmen, many of whom have seen cuts to staff, horses and hounds over the year, played down the significance of the anniversary.
Graeme Worsley, the joint master of the Old Surrey, Burstow and West Kent Hunt, which is to meet today at the same spot as last year in Woldingham, Surrey, said: "We are certainly not going to be celebrating but we do feel proud that we are still here despite feeling fragile, and because we have actually increased in number."
Patrick Webster, chairman of the Albrighton Hunt in central England, said that they had received strong support.
"On Boxing Day we have our traditional meet in Newport which is a market town and when the hounds trotted into the main street a cheer went up that would have embarrassed Manchester United," he said.
"It was unbelievable. This Government has got it so very wrong."