Cavalry hunt foxes on public funds

Household Cavalry officers are being subsidised by the taxpayer to hunt foxes, apparently to help them to keep up their riding skills. ''Hidden'' subsidies were worth more than pounds 40,000 in the 1992-93 season.

During the season, the Quorn hunt, based in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, received 91 visits by members of the Household Cavalry. The Belvoir, in Grantham, Lincolnshire, received 79 and the Cottesmore in Oakham, Leicestershire, 15, according to research by the League Against Cruel Sports.

Officers are allowed to hunt while on duty with support staff and facilities provided free by the regiment. A typical day's hunting for an officer would require a horse, transport and tack. A lance-corporal would be required at a cost of pounds 107.30 for the day and a trooper costing another pounds 91.29. Officers can also ''hire'' horses to hunt during their spare time at a reduced rate.

A Household Cavalry spokesman said hunting was necessary to hone riding skills. ''Even if you're involved in ceremonial duties you've got to be a good rider - you've got to be able to control horses.''

But the league, whose research was largely based on parliamentary written answers, disputed the argument. Jim Barrington, its director said: ''I do not really think that the use of horses has been absolutely vital in conflict at any time during the last century or so. I do not think that the Falklands or the Gulf war were really dependent on our horsemanship.

''So one does have to question whether this is just a symptom of a rather unhealthy link between the military and hunting.''

Alan Meale, Labour MP for Mansfield, who uncovered the information used by the league, said: ''I am appalled and disgusted that the Ministry of Defence should allow officers to hunt at taxpayers' expense. This is compounded by allowing support staff to assist the officers - with the taxpayer footing the bill again.

''At a time when the Government are seeking to make cuts in defence spending this should be a prime target.''

The league said the Household Cavalry was also involved in cub-hunting prior to the start of the main season. Cub-hunting is used to train young hounds and involves little equestrian activity. During a cub hunt a wood known to contain a fox earth is surrounded, mainly on foot, to drive fleeing cubs back towards a pursuing pack of hounds to be torn apart.

Sir Teddy Taylor, Tory MP for Southend East, described the practice as ''almost an insult to our armed forces''. He said: ''The alleged justification that participation in cub-hunting improves equestrian skills is little more than a sick joke.''

The Ministry of Defence rejected the moral criticism of hunting. A spokesman said: ''Why should a soldier be persecuted for doing something that is perfectly acceptable within his unit and is legal?''