UP TO 50,000 people have planned to defy the ban on hunting, which comes into force this week under the terms of the Government’s Hunting Act, by taking part in choreographed trail hunts at the weekend using foxes that were killed earlier.
Up to 250 hunts will demonstrate their intention to survive by congregating at pubs, village greens and town centres across England and Wales this Saturday, February 19th in one of the biggest mass meets in history.
With such large numbers of people engaged in the hunts, the expectation is that the police will find it almost impossible to identify the perpetrators of any law breaking that does take place. In addition to this, Charles Clark the Home Secretary has backed recent pronouncements from Chief Constables that policing hunts is not a major priority.
Preparations for the trail hunts have been under way for weeks and special guidance has been issued by the Council of Hunting Associations. It instructs hunts to use scent from foxes killed legally, fox droppings or even road kill to prepare for the trail hunts.
Although the Council of Hunting Associations insists that trail hunting is only a temporary measure, some hunting devotees are horrified by the plans. They say that a sport noted for its aesthetic qualities will become a joke with the "here's one I prepared earlier" strategy.
Hunts are co-operating with the police by briefing officers on their plans. Cleveland Police have told huntsmen that at least one officer will attend every meet. Dorset Police have told hunts they must inform them immediately if they kill a fox.
However, in its guidance to assistant chief constables, the Association of Chief Police Officers makes clear that the priority is to protect people, not animals. It states: "The primary responsibility is the prevention of harm to all people involved... The investigation of offences and the apprehension of offenders is a lower priority than the maintenance of order and safety."
The ban on hunting with hounds was due to come into force as expected, a second legal challenge fails. The Court of Appeal was due to rule earlier this week on whether the challenge to the 1949 Parliament Act, used to force through the ban, has succeeded.
The Countryside Alliance has also lodged papers with the High Court seeking a judicial review on human rights grounds. Although this could lead to a suspension of the ban whilst the legal arguments are heard, it may not come in time for this Saturday’s deadline.
Our Dogs Opinion
HUNT BAN ‘LOW PRIORITY’ FOR POLICE
THE HOME Secretary stated that arresting drug dealers will be a higher priority than foxhunters who break the law when the ban comes into force this weekend.
Charles Clarke, who recently took over as Home Secretary from David Blunkett took a somewhat softer line than his predecessor who spoke of concealing CCTV cameras in hedges and trees to film illegal hunters, and sought to play down fears of a showdown in the countryside by saying that he did not expect widespread lawlessness.
"If you look at the priorities police have to deal with — drugs, people-trafficking, all kinds of issues — I do not expect foxhunting is due to be very high on the priorities of any . . . police force," he said. Speaking on Sky’s Sunday with Adam Boulton, Mr Clarke added: "Most people involved in hunting are law-abiding individuals and I think they will respect the law."
His comments came as the Countryside Alliance said that it expected "well over" 250 hunts to go out next weekend.
John Jackson, chairman of the Alliance, said: "You can flush with two dogs. You must then shoot, or attempt to shoot, the animal. The hunts are determined to keep themselves intact until this Act is repealed."
Mr Clarke was speaking after the publication at the weekend of internal documents from the Association of Chief Police Officers which said that policing the ban "has not been afforded high priority in the National Policing Plan".
Mr Clarke said that policing of the ban was a matter for chief constables, but added: "If you look at the priorities police have to deal with – dealing with drugs, people trafficking, crime, all kinds of issues – I don't expect foxhunting to be very high on the priorities of any particular police force. What I do believe is that the police will be very sensitive in the way they address it."
Prime Minister Tony Blair is desperate to avoid a showdown with the pro-hunting lobby, which has threatened a campaign of direct action in the run-up to the General Election, now expected to take place on May 5th.
Mr Clarke's words, however, risk provoking an angry reaction from Labour backbenchers who forced through the ban.
A senior member of one Hunt said: "I don't think there will be civil disobedience, with people offering themselves up for arrest, on the scale some envisaged. We are going to test out the new law and show where its pitfalls are."
Hunts believe that trail hunting and hound exercise is a legitimate way of keeping their followers paying their subscriptions and maintaining Hunt strength while they campaign for the ban to be overturned.
Hunts say the Act will allow them to carry out fox control for farmers, either by using two dogs to flush to guns or under the exemption on terrier work for gamekeepers.
The 158th Waterloo Cup, the main event of the hare coursing calendar in Britain and Ireland, started on Monday this week, a week earlier than usual, to avoid the hunting ban. There is talk of the event moving to France from next year, if hare coursing remains banned.
Meanwhile, landowners have been seeking to ensure that they will be immune from prosecution if they allow hunts on their land. The Hunting Act makes it an offence for a person knowingly to permit land which belongs to him to be entered or used, or to permit a dog which belongs to him to be used, in the commission of an offence of unlawful hunting.
The Countryside Alliance and the Council of Hunting Associations have prepared a standard letter for masters of hunts to enter into new agreements to continue legal activities for their hounds and followers.
The Country Land and Business Association, however, has warned its members that these letters may not be enough for landowners to escape prosecution if a hunt decides to engage in illegal forms of hunting.
The CLA is offering its members specific legal advice tailored to their circumstances.
The National Trust, which currently licences 198 hunts across England and Wales to hunt on NT land, is revoking all its licences from Feb 18, the date the ban is due to come into effect.
Although the Trust, like many private landowners, has said it will accommodate legal hunt-related activities this season, the same cannot be said of state landowners, such as the Forestry Commission.
A commission spokesman said that in both England and Wales: "Hunting permissions will terminate on February 18. Hunts will not be allowed to hunt live animals."
Farming unions have already expressed concern about the effect of a ban on legal hunting with two dogs and a gun if it is enforced rigidly during the lambing season in the uplands in England and Wales. Many farmers are expecting to lose more lambs than usual as a result of an increased fox population.
Government responsible for confusion and police concerns
The Government is responsible for enacting unjust law which has led to the confusion and police concerns reported in The Observer and elsewhere, according to the Countryside Alliance.
The Hunting Act is due to come into force on Friday if the Court of Appeal does not find the 1949 Parliament Act, which was used to force the Hunting Act into law, invalid in a judgement due this week.
Simon Hart, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance said; "This is bad law because it is based on prejudice, not principle. It's got nothing to do with animal welfare - the Hunting Act is an attack on a group of people Labour MPs have decided they don't like. That's why it is illogical and unworkable, and that's why people will resist it in every way that they can.
"From today's reports it is quite clear that the police, at both the local and national level, are seriously concerned about the implications of implementing the Hunting Act on their relationships with local communities. The Act threatens to destroy the trust and mutual respect which allows small numbers of policemen to police huge areas of rural Britain. Without co-operation rural policing cannot work.
"The definitions of legal and illegal hunting are so blurred that the police are being asked to make impossible judgements. You can hunt a rat, but not a mouse; a rabbit, but not a hare; an artificial scent , but not a real one.
"This is not just an issue for rural communities - everyone in the country should be asking why the Government is asking local constabularies to police how foxes are killed. No-one will blame the police for prioritising crimes which have a real impact on peoples lives”
ENGLISH HUNTERS RELOCATE TO PYRENEES
AS HUNTING enthusiasts in Britain prepare for the outlawing of hunting on Friday, members of the Pau Hunt in the foothills of the French Pyrenees in South West France are about to welcome refugees from across the Channel.
"We owe our existence to the English," said the hunt master, Georges Moutet, 56, a textile merchant. "We maintain their traditions and feel sadness at what is being done to their sport. We will do what we can to help."
From October this year that pledge will translate into a twice-weekly hunt with British riders encouraged to join in by taking advantage of cheap flights from Stansted and other regional UK airports. Many British hunters feel that this will be the only way to indulge in ‘real’ hunting once the Hunting Act comes into force. Despite loopholes that will allow a form of hunting to continue, this will not satisfy many hunting traditionalists – and the Pau hunt can offer them what they want.
The Pau Hunt is negotiating with the Puckeridge Hunt in Hertfordshire and the Essex and Suffolk Foxhounds about the possibility of providing kennels for their packs. And word is spreading.
Locals are excited, too, that the return of "real" foxhunting to Pau, 165 years after a Napoleonic War veteran, Sir Henry Oxenden founded the hunt and became its first master, will revive a long dormant activity.
Many British hunters are applying to join French hunts, although there are intrinsic differences in hunting styles between the two countries, with deer and wild boar being the main quarry in France rather than foxes.
However, only in Pau did horses and hounds hunt the fox. And at the spacious clubhouse the plaque listing 19th century masters tells its own story: Capt Alcock, Major Cairnes, the Earl of Howth, Sir Victor Brooke. Later, Sir Winston Churchill paid a visit and American expatriates also took part in the hunt.
The sport died out with the departure of the Anglo-American community at the outbreak of the Second World War.
Since then, Pau huntsmen have been reduced to drag hunting, chasing a scent rather than live prey. Membership has drained and now stands at 21. But Britons determined to save their rural heritage have already started showing up, joining the hunt while staying at the 200-year-old chateau of Jeffrey Quirk, a cigar-smoking former Army physical training instructor and lifelong huntsman.
They quickly learn that real foxes do, after all, have a role in the proceedings. At the end of most meets, a fox is released and, more often than not, cornered and killed, reflecting a French belief that the hounds need "une récompense" to maintain their interest in an otherwise artificial chase.
"It is part of the theatre of the occasion," said René Creff, 62, a physics professor who fell in love with foxhunting after an English girlfriend introduced him to it in Dorset decades ago.
"But what I appreciate most is the romance of riding, plus the beauty of the countryside and being close to nature. A good hunt for me is when the fox escapes. I accept that there are kills, but don't like it."
When the next season opens, Pau will be able to double the turnout for the drag hunts to 30 each weekend, while offering up to 50 places for each "live" foxhunt.