Huntsmen amazed by Trust claims that hounded deer suffer

Masters of staghounds are braced for bans which will hit their sport, writes Nicholas Schoon
As masters of stag hounds met last night to discuss the National Trust's shattering report on their sport, one said that his hunt might have to give up pursuing deer because of its conclusions.

Peter Barfoot, master of the New Forest Buckhounds, said: ''If this report is well founded and backed up then no one is going to knock it.

"Yes, we'd have to review what we're doing.''

There are four staghound packs in Britain, one in the New Forest hunting fallow deer and the remainder taking red deer in the West Country. Some, like the New Forest, hardly use any National Trust land while others like the Quantocks are heavily reliant on it.

Yesterday, the master of the Devon and Somerset Stag-hounds, Diana Scott, was in tears as she rang the British Field Sports Society to seek information on the report. She did not want to talk to the press.

The Trust's ruling council is today expected to agree not to grant any of its hunting licences when they come up for renewal later this month. The New Forest's licence has already just expired.

Some of the land involved had covenants or ''memoranda of wishes'' attached to it when it was donated to the Trust, in which the owners insist that staghunting continue in perpetuity.

However, the trust, the nation's wealthiest and best-supported conservation charity, has already squared Sir John Acland, son of Sir Richard Acland who gave a huge tract of Exmoor land with just such a wish attached.

Trust chairman Charles Nunneley said that Sir John had told him if his father had known about the suffering of the deer exposed by the scientists' report, he would never have made such a wish.

Janet George of the British Field Sports Society, which campaigns for huntsmen, shooters and fishermen, said: ''The report is seriously bad news - the degree of these findings has astonished us.''

The report's author, Professor Bateson, said comparisons should not be made between hunting red deer and foxes - but they will.

While it might be supposed that the fox also suffers enormous stress in the chase, they are naturally less sedentary animals than the deer, with more stamina and roam greater distances.

Furthermore, while only 5 per cent of shot red deer are left wounded rather than dead, the culling of foxes with guns probably causes proportionately higher suffering. They are smaller targets and shotguns are usually used, so a higher proportion of shot foxes are probably left suffering the agony of wounds.

There is no real dispute about the need to control red deer. They have no natural predators and would destroy their habitat if numbers were not kept down.

The Trust has been debating the cruelty involved in using hunting with hounds as a control for nearly 10 years without any decisive action - until yesterday. Its top management has been startled and persuaded by Professor Bateson's unequivocal report.

Will the ruling, 52-member council feel the same when it meets today? ''It'll be a bit of a disaster for us if it doesn't,'' said one Trust insider.

The fieldwork was done by biologist Elizabeth Bradshaw, who spent 18 months in West Somerset following the hunts and taking blood samples.

She and Professor Bateson paid tribute to the huntsmen for their full co-operation, but said that if they now continued it was "in the full knowledge that they are causing suffering".

Professor Bateson quoted one ardent, lifelong stag-hunting farmer from the area, who told the scientists: "If your report goes against us, perhaps we shouldn't be doing what we're doing."