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So much for the hunt ban!

SO MUCH for the hunting ban! That was the message from the 250 hunts that rode out on a wintry Saturday last weekend and killed no fewer than 91 foxes – possibly even more. In fact, it looked very much like hunting business as usual, apart from some huntsmen dragging effigies of Tony Blair for their hounds to pursue.

Among those who threw down the gauntlet to the government was Otis Ferry, huntsman son of the rock singer Bryan Ferry, whose hunt, the South Shropshire, also shot a fox after it was dug from a hole.

None of the hunts, of course, was deliberately hunting foxes with packs of hounds. They insisted they were simply exercising their hounds – and thanks to the loopholes in the badly drafted Hunting Act, they were perfectly within their rights to do so and hunting continued as before.

Members of the South Durham hunt legally killed a fox by shooting it three times in the heart of Blair’s Sedgefield constituency before gathering with horses and hounds. Police in three vans using CCTV equipment monitored what was happening, but there were no arrests or even warnings.

Elsewhere the police were simply bogged down in confusion.

Some police complained that they had been given no specific instructions on what to do and said that the overriding priority was to maintain public order by defusing confrontations between hunt supporters and anti-hunting demonstrators.

The Countryside Alliance, which said that the tally of dead animals was 91, also claimed that the law had not been broken. Last Saturday’s tally was roughly the same as on any Saturday before the ban was introduced. Tim Bonner, for the Alliance, said that the day of protest, which was supported by thousands of huntsmen and women, had been a great success and had demonstrated the countryside's opposition to the legislation.

There was further defiance from Kate Hoey, the Labour MP for Vauxhall, who described her party colleagues as "bigoted and prejudiced" when she addressed the Duke of Beaufort's hunt in Gloucestershire to which the Prince of Wales belongs.

The first arrests under the new law occurred when police found four men at 4am between Hullavington and Sherston, Wilts, with four dogs and the carcass of a hare. However, they were suspected of poaching rather than hare coursing – as claimed by anti-hunters - and released on bail.

More than 700 riders and 3,500 pedestrians congregated in Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire to protest at the ban.

The supporters blocked roads and held up traffic, and applauded riders with Quorn, Cottesmore and Belvoir hunts as they paraded from the Cattle Market to the Hunting Museum.

Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs Minister, called on huntspeople to obey the new law and appealed to them not to waste police time by testing it. He said: "I think many people will be shocked by the triumphalism depicted by some, but again the question is whether they are obeying the law and whether their behaviour is wise. If some foxes were killed illegally, it will become obvious over time."

It is clear, however, that anti-hunt campaigners are dismayed by the lack of interest in the new laws by police. Adrian Whiting, the Assistant Chief Constable for the Dorset force, said yesterday that illegal hunting was much less important than letting off a firework after 11pm. The low priority given to hunting by police has also alarmed the Alliance. Simon Hart, its chief executive, fears that police will rely on "vigilante groups" and has written to Nigel Yeo, Assistant Chief Constable in Sussex, who heads the public order working group for the Association of Chief Police Officers.

The Chairman of the Countryside Alliance John Jackson gave a stirring speech at the meet of the Bicester with Whaddon Chase Foxhounds at the Red Lion pub in Stratton Audley, Oxfordshire on Saturday 19th February, in which he attacked the Government’s Act as not being based on "principle or evidence."

Horn sounds for last legal hunt

THOUSANDS OF hunters and supporters turned out to take part in the last day of legal hunting last Thursday before the Hunting Act came into force at midnight. At the same time, the Crown Prosecution Service issued guidance on the way the Hunting Act should be enforced.

Members of some hunts, however, made it clear that they would go out hunting foxes, hoping to prove the law unenforceable. Others said they planned to be arrested in the near future for hunting mice, which they believed was one of the most absurd clauses in the Hunting Act. (Mice cannot be hunted, but rats can).

The CPS added that dog owners who let their pets chase squirrels, mice or one of some 4,000 other wild mammals could face prosecution under the Act.

Enforcing the ban will be difficult – even skilled riders find it hard to keep track of the hounds in full flight. There was one police officer visible at the hunt and he would have been hard pushed to keep track of all the hounds and riders.

Anti-bloodsports campaigners are enthusiastically planning to "help the police" by filming hunt proceedings with camcorders, but the police acknowledge that, with hundreds of meets planned, it will be down to the hunts to observe the change in the law. Most say they will, but some say they won't.

The last horn may have sounded for hunting… but the Hunt continues and shows no signs of stopping yet.

Guidance published by the CPS points out that the Hunting Act does not give the police an express power to enter land for the purpose of making an arrest. However, if the police suspect that an offence under the Act has been committed, they may search land and vehicles - but not people's homes - for evidence.

The Act says "a person commits an offence if he hunts a wild mammal with a dog, unless his hunting is exempt". Attempting to hunt is not an offence.

Anyone suspected of having broken the law - or being about to do so - can be arrested

Photo by W Moores
Mike Nicholson, master of the Coniston Hounds,
gathers in before moving off last Saturday.
Supporters mustered at the Sun Hotel before exercising the hounds
from the Walna Scar Road up into the coppermines area