RSPCA backs move towards bloodless hunts

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THE RSPCA is to help fox and stag hunts abandon their quarry and convert to "blood-free" drag hunts, in which no animals are killed.

Britain's largest animal welfare organisation is advising huntsmen on how to train their hounds to follow artificial scents and stop chasing deer and foxes. The dogs, rescued from fox hunts around the country, will receive biscuits at the end of the hunt instead of a kill. Without drag hunting to employ them the dogs may end up being shot.

Today, the RSPCA is launching its first "endorsed" drag hunt in the New Forest. The initiative is backed by MPs and a clutch of celebrities - including the model Laura Bailey; Meg Matthews, wife of Oasis star Noel Gallagher; and Chris Perry, the Tottenham footballer.

But it has outraged the field sports community, which regards drag hunting as a threat to the future of blood sports.

The new drag hunt's chairman, Michael Thomas, a senior trade adviser to the Government, has been summoned before the Masters of Draghounds & Bloodhounds Association, to "explain his actions and to answer charges associated with behaviour ... prejudicial to the well-being of the sport". Mr Thomas, the former chairman of the New Forest Buckhounds, decided to set up the drag hunt when he found that the hunt he used to chair had shot its hounds - even though he and the RSPCA had offered to home them.

The RSPCA insists that the new drag hunts will abandon the practice of shooting hounds that are no longer able to hunt. But like traditional hunts, they will also offer to pick up dead animals found on roads and will employ professionals to manage the kennels.

The Prime Minister has committed the Government to a fox hunting ban, although he is expected to put off its introduction with an inquiry into how it should be implemented.

The pro-hunting lobby has organised a huge protest over the ban at this week's Labour party conference, claiming that it will cost jobs. But Peter Davies, director general of the RSPCA, said: "We believe that the rural economy could flourish through the growth of blood-free sports, because those who oppose the killing of wild mammals will feel able to take part."