RURAL POLICE forces have been told not to attempt to stop illegal fox hunts when the hunting season begins because of health and safety regulations.
Guidelines drawn up by police chiefs instruct officers to take the "most cautious approach" when investigating reports of illegal hunts for fear that individual officers may be injured. They have been told not to go near hounds or horses and not to confiscate dead animals as evidence in case of injury or infection.
Officers are also told to carry out risk assessments before embarking on an investigation; to ask farmers for permission to go on their land; and not to use police helicopters in case they "cause alarm to horses".
Pro-hunt campaigners said that the guidance showed that the Hunting Act of 2004 was completely unenforceable.
The new police guidance, released under the Freedom of Information Act, is intended to prepare officers for the start of the first full hunting season since the ban, which begins this autumn. In the 30-page document, released by two constabularies - Gloucestershire and Devon and Cornwall - police chiefs clearly state: "Police officers will not routinely be deployed to hunt meetings." The guidance adds: If officers are deployed it will only be after a detailed "risk assessment completed on the deployment of that officer or team by a responsible person. Appropriate support must be considered. In addition, all police officers deployed must be adequately briefed on their role, legal constraints and on their health and safety."
Far from chasing across fields, any officer sent to investigate a hunt should "record all available evidence (visual or verbal) in the most appropriate manner, by pocket notebook".
The document makes clear that officers should not try to catch an illegal hunt taking place but wait until it has run its course before investigating. When they do so, they should ask for permission from farmers. "The Act does not give any power of entry on to land to allow a police officer to gather evidence. Therefore all police officers must make sure they have the landowner's express permission to be on that land." It advises officers to use the new Countryside and Rights of Way Act to see whether they have access to a particular piece of land.
On gathering evidence, it says: "It is not recommended that any police officer investigating an alleged breach of the Act takes possession of the carcass of any dead fox, deer or other animal."
The guidance goes on to instruct officers never to try to seize horses and to seize hounds only in exceptional circumstances. Courts should always be made aware of the "limited ability of the constabulary to handle any dogs". In conclusion, it says that it might be "more appropriate" for an individual or organisation to take a civil or private action against an illegal hunt rather than have police embark on a criminal investigation.
The Guidance is sure to provoke a stream of criticism form anti-hunting campaigners, groups and MPs, many of whom have already accused the police of "going soft" on enforcing the Hunting Act.
Commenting on the guidance, Tim Bonner of the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance said: "The Government has to answer for putting police forces across the country in a ludicrous situation where they have to waste time and resources on checking that foxes are culled by approved methods when they should be tackling real crimes."