THE NATIONAL Trust is considering reversing its ban on the hunting of deer with dogs on its land once again.
The Trust says the hunts will be allowed to use the dogs only to flush out deer so they can be shot, in keeping with the terms of the Hunting Act passed two years. The Trust had banned all hunting on its own land in 1997 in the face of great opposition from pro-hunters, but was widely applauded for doing so by the anti-hunting lobby.
But anti-hunting groups say that if deer hunting were to be permitted again, hunts could not be trusted to stay within the law because hundreds of them across the country are already repeatedly breaching the act every week and are continuing to chase foxes and deer as they always did.
Under the 2004 Hunting Act, hunts are allowed to use two dogs to drive their quarry out from shelter. The quarry should then be shot "as soon as possible", but the act does not specify how long this should be.
Anti-hunt campaigners say that in reality deer are chased for hours over many miles by the hunts before coming to an exhausted halt and then being shot - a claim denied by the hunts.
The National Trust banned all hunting with dogs on its land nine years ago in what was a milestone in the campaign to persuade the government to make hunting with hounds illegal in 2004. It followed a two-year study that found deer pursued by packs of hounds suffered extreme stress before they were killed.
But the trust is now reconsidering its ban, as it believes that a legal form of hunting, without long chases, could be another effective technique of culling an increasing number of deer. At the moment the trust employs stalkers to shoot deer with high-powered rifles. Deer need to be culled as they damage crops and forests.
The trust has set up a committee to investigate the issue, and a decision is expected before the hunting season starts in the autumn. If the ban were rescinded deer hunts would resume on National Trust land on Exmoor and the Quantock Hills in the West Country. They currently go out twice a week to hunt deer on surrounding land not owned by the trust.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the League Against Cruel Sports are planning to fight any National Trust decision to reverse the ban.
Robbie Marsland, UK director of IFAW, said: "Knowing how the deer hunts are behaving we're amazed this is being considered. We have been monitoring deer hunting since the ban and we fear that the hunts are interpreting the law far too widely - deer are being chased long distances, which we believe to be in contravention of the law."
IFAW also claim that, rather than restricting themselves to two dogs, as the law requires, hunts use several pairs of dogs in relays to sustain the chase over long distances. The hunts say the law does not restrict them to using the same two dogs throughout a hunt.
Peter Nixon, the National Trust's director of conservation, said: "We are looking at this with an open mind. We should not be deterred just because it is a controversial issue. We should do what is in the best interests of the welfare and management of deer."
He added that hunts would have to comply with the law otherwise the trust would re-impose the ban.