Dodging the ban: hunts flush foxes for owls to kill

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Campaigners say that hunts have been openly flouting the law in the pre-season period using hounds to chase and kill stags and foxes in open acts of defiance. Dozens of hunts are exploiting a loophole in the new law by continuing to hunt using birds of prey - outraging animal rights campaigners and professional falconers alike.

The League Against Cruel Sports said that it would quadruple its number of hunt monitors this season, equipping them with state-of-the-art recording equipment, in a bid to secure a conviction.

Despite more than 50 allegations of illegal hunting made to the police since the Hunting Act became law in February, not a single person has been charged.

Both the pro- and anti-bloodsports campaigners are arguing over what is and is not against the new law, and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says it is now up to the courts to decide.

Many believe the result will be chaos this season. Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance said he was "delighted" that so many hunts were testing the legislation. "No one has any problem with people breaking the spirit of the law which came about because of the hatred of the Labour Party backbenchers. The problem is that it is unworkable. We will push it to the limits in every way that we can," he said.

The League Against Cruel Sports says the hunting ban is being flouted in two ways. The main way is in the use of hounds to "flush out" stags and foxes that have taken refuge in a wood or thicket. A pack of dogs can lawfully follow an animal's trail, and two are allowed to flush it out to a waiting gun.

But the law gives no time limit on how long the period of the chase after the flushing out and before the animal is shot should be. This loophole has resulted in extended periods of "relay hunting" using pairs of hounds to give chase. The act also draws no distinction between deer and foxes during the flushing out.

Campaigners say that stags are clearly visible to the hunters in all but the thickest of cover and therefore should be shot without resorting to hounds to flush them out.

The second way of bypassing the law is by exploiting a loophole allowing an unlimited number of hounds to flush foxes to a bird of prey. The growing number of hunts using eagle owls or golden eagles has prompted criticism from the Hawk Board, which organises falconry in Britain. Its chairman Jim Chick has complained to Defra that the birds are not natural predators of such large mammals and would be unable to dispatch their quarry without suffering. He has accused the Countryside Alliance of "betraying" falconers who marched with hunters to oppose the ban.

Up to 30 hunts are said to have purchased birds of prey at a cost of up to £10,000 each. Some hunts have admitted the birds have never been unleashed.

Douglas Batchelor, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said many hunts had converted to the "cruelty-free sports" of drag and trail hunting.

"However, it is clear that the Countryside Alliance's tactic of testing the law is going too far in some areas and a significant number of hunts are breaking the law." He added: "This season we shall be the eyes and ears of the countryside, monitoring hunts and passing on evidence to the police. Make no mistake - those who break the law will be prosecuted."

The Countryside Alliance, which has published a 44-page booklet for this season entitled How to Keep Hunting, is unabashed. "It might not be the same as it was but to those on the outside it looks, sounds and smells just like hunting before the Hunting Act," said Mr Bonner.