HUNDREDS OF hunts rode out last Saturday to mark the start of the foxhunting season in England and Wales, in spite of the ban on hunting with dogs. About 200 out of the 317 hunts in England and Wales exploited loopholes in the Government's Hunting Act, which came into force in February, to remain within the law. Thousands of foxhunting supporters gathered for opening meets up and down the country, defiantly pledging to continue their traditions.
Some hunts took a hawk or other hunting bird of prey with to exploit a loophole in the law which still lets hounds chase and flush out foxes as long as they do not kill them.
The riders of the South Durham Hunt took an eagle to their meet in Prime Minister Tony Blair's constituency of Sedgefield in County Durham.
"According to the regulations you are allowed to put a pack of hounds into a wood, so that the bird can hunt the vermin that comes out the other side, be it fox, grey squirrel or whatever," said Mark Shotton, the South Durham Hunt's master.
Shotton added that the hunt had been practising with the bird for a month.
The pro-hunting Countryside Alliance said public support for the ban had fallen to 45 percent, compared with 63 percent in 1999, citing a specially commissioned survey.
"Hunts are determined to keep going until this pointless and prejudiced legislation is repealed or replaced," said Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Simon Hart.
But the League Against Cruel Sports says up to 40% of hunts appear to be breaking the law. It said it had found 157 different allegations of illegal hunting against 79 different hunts since the ban started.
"A significant hard-core of pro-hunting extremists appear to be determined to carry on hunting illegally," said League chief executive Douglas Batchelor. Many of the hunts were filmed by anti-hunt campaigners gathering evidence of any hunts flouting the law. Some of the antis were in turn themselves filmed by hunt members.
Last month, the Countryside Alliance lost a key round in its legal battle against the ban when nine Law Lords unanimously ruled against a claim that the Hunting Act was invalid. However, a new legal challenge against the Act is being made through the European Courts.