Fox-hunters jubilant at confusion over ban

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The Independent Online

Ministers have been caught up in a fresh row over the legality of fox-hunting, as packs around the country prepare for the biggest hunting event of the season tomorrow.

Ministers have been caught up in a fresh row over the legality of fox-hunting, as packs around the country prepare for the biggest hunting event of the season tomorrow.

Tens of thousands of fox- and stag-hunters and hunt supporters are expected to turn out for the traditional Boxing Day meets, an event which has been delayed to avoid hunting on a Sunday.

Fox-hunters will celebrate last week's surprise deal between the Government and the Countryside Alliance which will delay the start of the ban, which was due to take effect on 18 February, until well after the next election.

In a compromise orchestrated by Tony Blair's staff at Downing Street, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, has indicated that he will not object if the Alliance seeks an injunction to suspend implementation of the Act while judges decide whether the new law is legal.

Pro-hunt campaigners have now claimed that the Government's stance on hunting is in even greater disarray after it emerged that an official leaflet on the Hunting Act had effectively invented a new form of legal hunting, with packs of muzzled dogs.

The Countryside Alliance claims that ministers have had to cancel plans to release the leaflet, which was due to be published on 15 December, because of the error.

The Alliance accuses ministers of trying quietly to soften the impact of the Act in the run-up to the election - a suspicion which hardened after Downing Street's deal over the introduction of the ban emerged last week.

A draft of the leaflet, seen by The Independent on Sunday, suggested wrongly that it would still be legal to use dogs to chase a fox or deer so long as the hounds did not catch or kill the animal.

It also suggests that dog-owners cannot be prosecuted if their dogs chase after foxes or deer without their owners in control. That contradicts the Act's ban on using dogs to chase wild mammals.

The apparent concession follows an earlier row after civil servants wrongly told one man he could legally use his dogs to "chase away" deer in his garden. Ministersback-tracked from that claim, and said people can only "shoo" deer away without using dogs.

The draft leaflet was circulated two weeks ago to "rural affairs forums" set up by the Government, and it confirmed the final leaflet was due to be released on 15 December. That timetable was confirmed by Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, in newspaper articles last week.

Tim Bonner, of the Countryside Alliance, said: "The draft leaflet suggests you could muzzle 20 hounds and go off and hunt as normal, so long as they didn't catch the fox. That's why they've backed off from publishing it. They've got themselves into this mess."