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Nature: Trust vote keeps ban on stag hunting ban in place

Stag hunting with hounds will stay banned on National Trust land. The trust's decision last night will boost the campaign to ban fox hunting over its next few crucial months, explains Nicholas Schoon, Environment Correspondent.

When the National Trust decided that stag hunting was cruel and unjustifiable earlier this year, those who had long fought all hunting with hounds sensed victory was near. A huge conservative and countryside- loving organisation with more than 2 million mostly middle-class members had finally seen the light.

The trust's decision in April followed research commissioned from a leading animal behaviour expert at Cambridge University. After a two-year study, Professor Patrick Bateson concluded that pursuit by dogs and people on horseback was grossly stressful, exhausting and agonising for the red deer of Devon and Somerset.

The council swiftly agreed and banned stag hunting - but not fox hunting - on all of its land. The move came as Labour was sweeping to victory during the election campaign with a manifesto pledge to allow a free vote in Parliament on banning all hunting with hounds.

So the tide seemed to be running strongly in favour of the abolitionists. But then six people representing the stag hunters and National Trust tenants mounted a legal challenge, seeking a judicial review against the trust's decision.

Meanwhile, Labour's commitment to providing enough parliamentary time for a Private Member's Bill banning hunting to be passed came into question. And in the summer the pro-blood sports lobby mounted a huge rally against that Bill in Hyde Park in central London.

The High Court judge at the judicial review hearing in August said the trust's original decision had been "rushed to say the least". Mr Justice Robert Walker refused the pro-hunters an injunction which would allow hunting to resume on trust land, but said the trust's council should think again.

All through yesterday afternoon the trust did - and then stuck with the ban, unanimously. In a statement afterwards, the trust said it had carefully considered criticisms of its earlier decision and gone over all the factors involved. It accepted that deer have to be culled in the absence of natural predators, but believes shooting them is far more humane.

Yesterday, the animal welfare groups backing the anti-hunting Bill welcomed the reaffirmation of the ban. "The hunters have been desperate to criticise Professor Bateson's report," said Graham Sirl, of the League Against Cruel Sports.

The report will be used to support MP Michael Foster's anti-hunting Bill, which receives its crucial second reading in the House of Commons at the end of November. But the professor himself has said that just because stags suffer agonies in being hunted, it does not prove foxes do, too.