Judge opens way for return to hunting on council land

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HUNTING BANS on council land in 35 counties in England and Wales may be illegal. A High Court judge decided yesterday that Somerset County Council acted unlawfully last August in banning stag hunting across a 140-acre strip of land it owns on the Quantocks.

The case, brought by William Fewings, Master of the Quantock Staghounds, was the first in a series of legal challenges to council hunting bans.

The League Against Cruel Sports, which has about 30,000 members, said the judgment will mean that 'bans on hunting implemented by 154 local councils will be invalid and that wild animals living on hundreds of thousands of hunt-free acres of land will now be hounded to death against the wishes of the owners of that land'.

The British Field Sports Society, with 80,000 members, said the judge's ruling would be widely applauded on the Quantocks where the hunt played a 'vital role' as part of the Quantock Deer Management and Conservation Group.

Mr Justice Laws ruled that Somerset county councillors exceeded their powers when they voted by 26-22 to ban hunting by the Quantock Staghounds, one of Britain's most famous hunts, on Over Stowey Customs Common because the councillors considered the sport to be 'morally repugnant'. Hunting on the common can resume immediately, lawyers said last night.

The judge said that under the 1972 Local Government Act the council is obliged to manage its estates in a way that is conducive to 'the benefit, improvement or development' of the land.

The law, the judge said, 'confers no entitlement on a local authority to impose its opinions about the morals of hunting on the neighbourhood'. Sincerely held moral objections to hunting were a matter for individual conscience and whether hunting should be banned was a matter for Parliament.

The Liberal Democrat controlled county council was ordered to pay the legal costs of the case, estimated at pounds 50,000. The authority was given leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal but the council has yet to decide whether to do so.

Michael Clayton, editor of Horse and Hound, says there is more hunting - of fox, hare and deer - in Britain and Ireland than in any other countries in the world: 440 hunts. There are just under 200 foxhound packs in England, Wales and Scotland. There are five mounted packs hunting deer in the West County and the New Forest, 27 packs of mounted harriers, 80 packs of foot beagles, 12 packs of Basset hounds and 15 packs of bloodhounds and draghounds.

The British Field Sports Society, which promotes all field sports, has already been given leave to seek judicial reviews of bans in Hampshire and Leicestershire and is preparing challenges to bans in Avon, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Hertfordshire, Surrey, Shropshire, Devon and probably Norfolk.

Since the May 1993 county council elections, in which the Conservatives lost control of all but one county council, the number of counties in England and Wales that have banned hunting on council land has risen to 35.