Hunts flout ban as 'dirty tricks' campaigns gather momentum

Activists claim the police do too little to enforce the law

It is a war relatively few care about, over a law almost no one obeys. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in more than 300 Boxing Day hunts in a clear show of defiance of the law. But the long battle over hunting is getting uglier.

Animal welfare campaigners claim their cars have been vandalised. They have been hit, kicked, whipped even, they claim. Hunters say they have been provoked. The Government, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police appear unable, or unwilling, to enforce the 2004 Hunting Act.

Hunt supporters and animal activists film each other in what is fast becoming a dirty tricks campaign on both sides. "Our hunt monitors are suffering from an increasing number of assaults from hunt supporters," said Barry Hugill from the League Against Cruel Sports. "We're investing in hi-tech surveillance equipment for better filmed evidence."

"There undoubtedly have been incidents, but of course people are under enormous provocation," said Alastair Jackson, director of the Masters of Foxhounds Association. "We are asking hunts to video the meet, to protect themselves against unfounded allegations."

Anti-hunt campaigners estimate that at least 40 per cent of hunts have breached the Hunting Act. But the Home Office admits just 20 people have been convicted under its provisions. The latest available police statistics, from 2005, show that under a quarter of police forces in England and Wales initiated prosecutions in 2005. Of 19 prosecutions that were started, just two ended up going to court.

"All crime is difficult to enforce but that doesn't mean the law is wrong... or that it is impossible to punish those who break it," Mr Hugill said. "There are some areas where police forces don't seem to have done as much as they could."

The Association of Chief Police Officers is currently reviewing how the ban is policed.