Foxhunters scent victory as ban recedes

Foxhunting looks certain to survive in spite of the launch yesterday of a national campaign to secure more support for a ban on all hunting with hounds.

Campaigners for the ban on hunting face an uphill struggle in Parliament after the Government adopted an ambivalent attitude to the Private Member's Bill by Michael Foster, the Labour MP for Worcester. The anti-hunt campaigners believe that they will win an overwhelming majority in the Commons for the Bill's second reading, but they expect it to be ambushed in the Lords and last night were privately talking about the scope for a compromise.

Mr Foster announced that he is to launch a consultation exercise before introducing the Bill, which will include the views of the British Field Sports' Association, which helped to organise a recent rally of 100,000 hunt supporters against his Bill, in Hyde Park, London.

Some in the pro-hunt lobby said last night that they would settle for legislation to regulate their sports, but would oppose a total ban. The anti-hunt campaigners conceded that they may be forced to ditch parts of the Bill banning fox hunting outright, but may secure measures to limit "digging out" and the use of terriers to go after foxes when they have gone to earth.

Ministers have privately hinted that if the Bill is stopped in the House of Lords, they could allow it to be revived in its amended form in the next session of Parliament.

They are privately considering following the precedent of the Act to protect mammals from cruelty successfully introduced by Alan Meale, Labour MP for Mansfield, after an earlier Bill by John McFall, Labour MP for Dumbarton, was blocked in the Lords because it included a clause to ban foxhunting, which had to be dropped. The anti-hunt campaigners are to tour Britain by bus to drum up support for the Bill. They feel the pro-hunt lobby scored a public relations coup with the Hyde Park rally, which sowed doubts in the Government's mind, about its pledge to provide a free vote on banning hunting. "There was a bit of a panic that things were getting out of control. It came at the same time as the headlines about reducing the age of consent for gays, and raising the age for smoking. There was a fear that it was it was getting like Clinton's first term," said a Labour source.

The Prime Minister's office last night denied performing a U-turn over foxhunting and said it had not ditched an election manifesto commitment to allow a free vote on the anti-hunting bill. Peter Mandelson, the minister without portfolio, also denied he was opposing the Bill.

The Government is worried that the Bill will block legislation in the House of Lords next Spring when it is pressing ahead with its two major Bills on devolution to Scotland and Wales.

The Wildlife Network is campaigning for a compromise to regulate the use of terriers which it claims cause the most cruelty to the fox.

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